Of Self-interest and Pity
You see them everyday, in every city, including Ann Arbor. They line the streets, day or night, rain or shine. They are the homeless, and each time you walk past them you probably feel sorry for their situation.
In class we have talked about various political thinkers and their thoughts on people’s state of nature. Hobbes believed that in the state of nature people only act in their own self-interest. They are content with success while the people around them suffer through unfortunate situations, such as homelessness. Hobbes believed that people always want wealth and power, saying that people have “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” (Hobbes, 149) He added that there is constant competition between human beings to get this power and wealth. “Competition of riches, honor, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war.” (Hobbes, 149) Man wants to “[preserve] his life against his enemies,” and only looks out for himself so that he can be the most successful. (Hobbes, 160)
On the other hand, Rousseau believed that people have a genuine human kindness or compassion for their fellow man. Rousseau equated compassion with pity, and he believed that people did not relish the problems of less fortunate people, but desired to help them. While Hobbes believed in human selfishness and self-interest, Rousseau believed in a different kind of human self-preservation. In his opinion, people did not look out for individual success all the time, but wanted the human race to be successful. Rousseau says that Hobbes was wrong to think that people act only in self-interest in the state of nature, because people feel pity and will help people in need. He says, pity is “a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any kind of reflection, and so natural that even animals sometimes show noticeable signs of it.” (Rousseau, 391) Rousseau adds that without pity, “men would…[be] monsters,” and goes further to say that “generosity, mercy, and humanity” are “pity applied to the weak….” (Rousseau, 391) If people only acted in self-interest, they would be monsters, but since they do not it shows that they are compassionate and invested in the continuation of the human race.
You see them each day when you walk down the street. “Sir, ma’m, can you spare some change for food?” They wear tattered clothes and despondent expressions, and you feel pity for them. You want to help them, you really do, but you have classes to attend and friends to meet up with later in the day. You want to help them, but you walk right past. You might feel pity, but so what? If you feel pity but do nothing, are you really acting in self-interest?
Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.