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Mt. Everest and Rousseau

November 3, 2010

Recently I read and article about a man who died on Mt. Everest. Sounds familar right? We hear many stories each year about those who lose their lives because of the extreme mountain conditions of Mt. Everest. But, something was different about this particular story. The article wasn’t about just the mans death; it was about the 40 people who passed by the man lying there in a caved in snow cave and did not even stop to attempt to help him, except for one man who gave him and oxygen tank. When I read this, I found it so disturbing that out of forty people, only one person stopped. But I guess in the high altitude of mountain life, civil society doesn’t exist anymore, and the state of nature takes control. (If you are interested in reading the whole article here is the link

In J.J. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and Social Contract, Rousseau presents his idea of what a state of nature is and what it is to have a civil society, and to an extent I agree with him. When describing a state of nature, Rousseau suggests that there are two major characteristics that are present: self-love and compassion. Then he goes on to say that in order to reach a civil society there must be an establishment of property, and once you hit this civil society you can never go back to a state of nature. This is where Rousseau and I disagree. I think that in certain circumstances, like the climber who was left for dead on Mt. Everest, the nature of humans can resort back to that in a state of nature where self-love and compassion reign. Using the Mt. Everest article as an example, one can see that in that situation the 40 climbers who passed by the man who was in trouble and did nothing were obviously interested in one thing: self love and preservation. This shows that in high stake situations, such as climbing Mt. Everest, one can resort back to their original state of nature and do what they see fit to survive. Like Rousseau’s predecessor Darwin suggested, it is survival of the fittest and I think that in certain situations, one can resort back to a state of nature.

  1. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    November 3, 2010 3:49 PM

    I agree with the article in that in certain extreme environments one can abandon civil society and go back to the state of nature, but it is important to notice that the described state of nature in the example of the article, Mt Everest, can in fact reflect the all of the state of natures that we have studied. But there are certain similarities between these states of natures, such as each person is independent and “equal” (to a certain degree).

  2. Jameson McRae permalink
    November 3, 2010 5:00 PM

    I think this is a very interesting article and really got me thinking. When no one is around to watch the choices you make, how will that affect the choices you make? This piece clearly shows that 40 people who would probably call themselves upstanding citizens passed a dying man and offered no help when most of them probably had enough supplies too. They became savages and only looked out for their own good, regressed into the state of nature. I would like to a Rousseau reality show depicting scenes like this and seeing if people resort back to the state of nature, it would be a hit for sure.

  3. blanchc permalink
    November 3, 2010 7:06 PM

    Rousseau might argue that these 40 people passed by because they were civil men who used reason, instead of natural men who have pity and compassion. After all, according to Rousseau, civilized men would probably be considered more savage than natural men.

  4. neilrab permalink
    November 3, 2010 8:25 PM

    I agree with you that one can go back to a state of nature. In times of scarcity, economic depression, and disasters, people tend to go back to worrying about themselves and no one else. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, many people did in fact help others get to safety, but when it came to ultimate survival, it was every man for himself. Also, in the story that you told about Mt. Everest, how do you know that the 40 people that didn’t help the man actually saw him? I feel it’s improbable that 40 people SAW this man trapped and didn’t even bother to at least call for help. I disagree with you when you say that these people are in a state of nature just because they live in the mountains. Even indigenous tribes that live in the middle of the Amazon aren’t in the state of nature, considering they are, in the most part, living as a community.

  5. yequan permalink
    November 4, 2010 12:23 AM

    It is an very interesting story that it questions us: IS that situation a kind of state of nature? If it is, it seems that we can go back towards state of nature under certain circumstances. Forty people may leave that poor man to death because of their self-love or self-preservation. But it also may be due to their reasons as previous posts argues. For example, they may think like this: Helping this man is an option, but helping him may also lead me to danger; I have to take risks which I give some of my supplies to him, and I might be short of supplies then. If they do think like that, are they in state of nature or not? I can not figure it out then.

  6. xiaoyzhang permalink
    November 4, 2010 12:36 AM

    I disagree that the people who didnt help the man acted the way they did based off of self-love and preservation. When I think of self-love, I usually think of a person acting because he or she receives some kind of benefit. I think that most of these people are cold-hearted.

    I agree with the person that commented above. I find it impossible that 40 people just walked past the person and didn’t do anything to help. In general, people are nice and helpful. It’s just that when other people’s interests interfere with our own, we will most definitely put our own interests above others. But this wasnt the case here.

  7. Katelyn Salowitz permalink
    November 4, 2010 8:38 AM

    I agree that man can return to the state of nature in times of extreme circumstances. It seems that when man is put in dangerous or trying situations the ideals of fight or flight come back into play strongly. Perhaps it was easier for those 40 people (if they saw him or not) to continue their trek up the mountain (flight), but where was the self-love and compassion of a man in the state of nature? Regardless, I think most people would agree that there is often a tipping point of when one’s ideals change from the good of all people to for the good of myself and my family. However, if a civil man lacks self-love and compassion, it would explain why no one but one person bothered to stop. This leads me to question whether the tipping point varies from person to person for entering back into the ways of the state of nature. I think the point does vary. At the very least, it seemed to be different for at least one man on that mountain.

  8. ejerwin permalink
    November 4, 2010 1:39 PM

    This situation seems to me to be related to Rousseau’s idea about the strong ruling the weak. Although Rousseau says that the strong ruling the weak through fear is not legitimate and strays from the norm of civil society, I almost see the strong not helping the weak as ruling. Even though though the people who passed the hiker did not do anything to him, if you are strong and knowingly leave the weak in helpless situations, you are, in a sense, showing dominance over them. Showing dominance in this way could still be considered illegitimate and disturbs us because of how out of the norm this behavior truly is.

  9. britneyrupley permalink
    November 4, 2010 3:30 PM

    In the actual article that I have linked above, it discusses various interviews that the journalist conducted with many of the forty people who had passed the man who was in distress. The people who passed stated that they would have helped, and did feel sorry for the man, but did not stop because the danger that might come from that action. With that, you can see that the people who passed did so because they were focusing on their own self preservation/love. So as a few of you has stated, on this mountain without the onlookers of civil society, one can resort back into a state of nature and solely focus on themselves and their safety. I am not suggesting all people who live in the mountains are primitive and are stuck in a state of nature, I am just suggesting that in high risk situations, people can resort back into a state of nature to protect themselves and their livelihood.

  10. November 4, 2010 6:24 PM

    This is a really interesting discussion: there’s a question about whether we can or do revert back to the state of nature in some circumstances, and there’s the question of whether what Britney is describing is actually a state of nature, by Rousseau’s or lights or in some other ways. (For the latter question, I’m thinking of Caitlin’s [blanchc] and Ye Quan’s comments above.)

    Adding some further context to the issue, I wanted to mention critiques about the “commercialization” of Himalayan mountaineering over the last fifteen or so years. One of the most famous critiques is Jon Krakauer’s fabulous book Into Thin Air about the disastrous early 1996 season on the Everest.

    Why does this matter? Well, it makes a difference whether these forty folks walking past a dying man were committed mountaineers and fellow travelers of a small elite community, or weekend warriors who had shelled out $65,000 to be guided to the summit of Everest, come what may. The latter group, at least according to commercialization critics like Krakauer or Ed Visterus, don’t understand the ethical rules that govern mountaineering. In an admittedly provocative interpretation, they are not in the state of nature at all. They are at a mall.

  11. ann900 permalink
    November 9, 2010 10:17 PM

    I think this Mount Everest story kind of splits the state of nature in half. Because on one end the forty people who passed by this man had a lot of self-love. They had a goal in mind and they wanted to achieve it. They did not want to stop or be slowed down. But on the other hand, they lacked the state of nature’s compassion. The desire to help others because it was the right thing to do. I think there is a way to be both, but in this world right now, the state of nature is definitely split.

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