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Rousseau Spans the Disciplines: State of Nature and Ethical Philosophy

March 9, 2011

Part of what makes political science and political theory special is that it relates to innumerable other facets of education, life and society. In this case, through my own courses I have stumbled on a crossroads of political theory, ethical philosophy and psychology. This crossroad lies within Rousseau’s thoughts on the nature of man, his interests, and his subsequent interactions within society.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau stresses in Discourse on the Origins of Inequality that man has strayed from the natural state of isolation in which he once lived. Rousseau argues that this natural state of man has two basic psychological characteristics: the desire for self preservation and the feeling of pity for others. In my philosophy class I have coincidentally stumbled upon the roots and possible contradictions within his argument.

Just today I learned that Rousseau is often seen as the founder of psychological egoism. This theory contends that people only act, and are only capable of acting, in their own self interest. Everything that people do, according to Rousseau, is meant to be for our own benefit and ours alone. So even if we act charitably, we are really doing it for our own purposes, such as to better our reputation.

But this philosophical theory neglects Rousseau’s thoughts on pity. For, if we have pity and we act on it, how can we always be acting in our own self interest? If a man saves an old woman from a thief, he may do it so he doesn’t feel bad about not doing it. but if he would feel bad if he didn’t do it, doesn’t that mean he cares and thus acted at least partially selflessly?

I will not attempt to reconcile Rousseau’s thoughts on psychological egoism and pity here in this post. What I will do is ask us to apply these theories to modern politics, especially elections.

When you participate in politics, do you act out of our self-interest, or do you try and serve a greater purpose that also benefits others. The most obvious example of this choice can be found when we consider economic policy.

Many–generally conservative voters–argue that they must vote for low tax, free enterprise policies and candidates because it benefits their own pocket book. They might say, how can I vote against this candidate if he is going to lower my taxes and I’m going to make more money? These voters might argue that everyone is, or at least should be, an egoist and act out of his or her self interest.

Then there is the example of the rich person who, despite the fact that they may be taxed more, still votes for the economically liberal candidate. This person seems not to be acting in a way that Rousseau would argue aligns with his natural desire for self preservation, but is instead acting out of pity so that his taxes may go to programs which aid the less fortunate.

Certainly, this question is not as simple as the latter two examples. But when you form your own political theories, perhaps take some time and ask yourself which natural psychological instinct are you acting on.


Here’s a website if you would like to learn more on egoism:

One Comment
  1. Caroline Syms permalink
    March 10, 2011 8:05 PM

    I enjoyed reading your post since the question you pose is one that makes us evaluate our own actions, thoughts, behaviors and egotism. The psychological egotism theory holds some merit since humans are quite selfish and much of the time we do only look out for own self interests, but it is very extreme to say that humans are only interested in self-preservation. That’s where Rousseau’s state of nature seems more plausible. It addresses the inevitable degree of selfishness that all humans acquire but addresses our sensitivity as well in how we become inclined to take pity on others. The economic example you use supports how humans can take the higher road as when the wealthy vote in favor of higher taxes knowing their money will be used to aid those less fortunate than they. It’s difficult to decide, however, whether people are strictly self-interested or aim to serve a greater cause. To answer your question, I would say that individuals behave more so out of self-interest simply because it’s human instinct, but hopefully after engaging in a certain number of acts that are purely out of self-interest, they would realize its time to serve the greater good and show compassion for others. Humans certainly possess egotism, but that doesn’t mean we are heartless.

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