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A Rebuttal of Rousseau’s Theory of Inequality

November 7, 2010

 

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.

 

 

Source:

Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print.

3 Comments
  1. adamhollenberg permalink
    November 7, 2010 8:46 PM

    I very much agree that man is better off as a member of civil society than in the state of nature. While men are essentially equal in a state of nature, and there is no crime or competition, this is part of why life is worth living. Crime and war, while they extract a heavy price, are part of what keeps life interesting and keep humans on their feet. Competition and inequality are also what drive men towards greatness. Without civil society, life might be less dangerous, but I would not be better.

  2. stneff70 permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:17 AM

    Yes of course from our perspectives as civilized men/women, we couldn’t imagine living in the natural state. We would not even be as close as developed, wouldn’t have language. But the point Rousseau was trying to make was that civilization is evil. He had problems with inequality and unnecessary wars. He also thought that is a survival of the fittest, “darwinian sense”, that a natural man would win out. And I agree with that statement because I admit that I could probably not live in the woods for more than a weekend and could not hunt for my own food. I don’t agree with the person above me that crime and war “keep us on our feet”. These things are examples of flaws in our society and exactly why Rousseau is not a fan of civilization.

  3. shan428 permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:37 AM

    Rousseau believed that the marking of territory was the beginning of the end for mankind and overall equality. However, did he really believe that man could go without indicating ownership and possession over property? And even if people refused to believe these accusations, they too would have resulted in crimes, wars, miseries, and horrors over arguing with this first man. I agree with your connection of Rousseau’s natural state essentially that of an animal, and how it is not equal in the state of nature as Rousseau says. He ignores an important part of our evolution where our existence relied on the survival of the fittest, which in turn was not fair because many died off and only those who had adapted physically and mentally survived. And what type of life would we live if everything was equal? While it is privleged that some are born into situations not as fortunate as others, this can help influence them to push harder past the barriers they were born with. Sometimes these inequalities can actually have their advantages, and give people a drive to prosper, appreciate, and survive. The state of nature gives little leeway in terms of survival, while it is true that in civil society, although there may be struggles, one is atleast able to make it past childhood and work through the obstacles of inequality that he or she faces.

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