A Rebuttal of Rousseau’s Theory of Inequality
One of the key tenants of Rousseau’s theory of inequality (expressed in his work Discourse on Inequality) is that man was in a superior state when he was in a state of nature. This particular piece of Rousseau’s philosophy was most intriguing to me, so I decided to analyze Rousseau’s rationale for why this is so, and see if this holds up under my scrutiny. I found that I disagreed with Rousseau on several key points, primarily his arguments as to mankind’s physicality, the role of connections, and the role of technology in fostering inequality.
Rousseau postulates that civil society began when one man “took it into his head to say this (a piece of land) is mine “(Wootton, 395). He goes on further to state that mankind would have avoided “crimes, wars, murders…miseries and horrors” if people would have refused to believe him (Wootton, 395). Rousseau thus believes that mankind was better off in its natural state. Since for Rousseau, mankind’s natural state was essentially that of an animal, Rousseau believes that it is better to live out existence as an animal than as man in a civil society, which he claims naturally fosters inequality by means of property and human connections (Wootton, 410). However, I see many holes in Rousseau’s reasoning for the superiority of the base animalistic state Rousseau describes. First, one advantage that Rousseau shows the natural state to have is the great physical prowess man possesses in this state, as nature “renders strong and robust those who are well constituted”(Wootton 381). However, I would maintain that this advantage is insignificant overall. Considering his thesis is that men were more equal in the state of nature, it would seem to go against this reasoning when you factor in that a significantly larger percentage of humanity would perish before ever leaving childhood, a fact Rousseau actually acknowledges, but then ignores (Wootton, 381). It strikes me that a system which destroys the less physically adept would inherently favor the strong, and thus be prejudiced against the weak. I therefore believe that Rousseau’s arguments about man’s inherent strength in nature actually proves that nature is more in equal than civil society, where if men are not always treated equally, at least they are usually allowed to live.
Rousseau’s other prime rationale for the superiority of equality in his state of nature over civil society is that mankind was better off in isolation because establishing connections and creating leisure through technology “was the first yoke they [man] imposed upon themselves…and the first source of evil they prepared for their descendants” (Wootton, 397). He further elaborates that when people become attached to one another or their things, with this attachment “jealousy awakens with love, discord triumphs, and the sweetest passion receives sacrifices of human blood” (Wootton, 398). Rousseau also believes that increased development in technology leads to further inequality, as governments can use them to subdue the people (Wootton, 402). I disagree adamantly with Rousseau on both of these points. Rousseau upholds the supposed superiority of the state of nature by pointing out that the only violence in such a state was that of self-defense, for “where there is no property, there is no injury” (Wootton, 398). However, I think he is using selective reasoning here. For starters, we can observe in the animal kingdom how often there will be conflict between two animals over the limited resources of food and/or mates. It is hardly an issue limited to humans. In addition, it should be pointed out that the total death toll from humans dying because they were not rugged enough to survive in a pure state of nature was probably very high as well. As for Rousseau’s point about technology breeding inequalities and oppression, this can easily be disproved by observed events. The standard of living for humans in industrialized regions is much higher than it is in pre-industrial (i.e, societies with less technology) societies, even among the poor. This counters his argument that technology leads to inequality. His argument that technology is used primarily as a tool to crush the masses can also be disproved in this way. The majority of industrialized countries are those with the more democratic countries, such as Western Europe, the U.S, Japan, and Australia.
In conclusion, I disagree with Rousseau’s theory in several ways. His arguments about the superior physicality of a naturalized man are flawed, as they ignore the important detail of the percentage of mankind that perishes at birth or in childhood. His thoughts on how possession and dependency produce conflict are off-base, as we witness such conflicts amongst animals as well. Finally, his thoughts on technology’s role in inequality are disproved by existence of “freer” states with high levels of technological advancement.
Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print.