In his “ Discourse on Inequality” Rousseau addresses the psychological and political effects of property ownership on human nature and society. He criticizes the inequity of modern institutions and traces their origins back showing how the evolution of humankind established the relationship between property, society and inequality. Originally written in 1754 as an entry for a competition run by the Dijon Academy of Arts and Sciences it established him as an important philosopher. The original question was “ What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” Although his first discourse won the competition in 1750, this second one failed to win the Academy’s prize, but it did win him a place in history .
In a daring move for the time, Rousseau did not accept the churches account of the history of humankind and traced man back to his natural state. Then he brought the process forward examining different forms of government. The scope of the discourse goes beyond political institutions however. It examines the basic human circumstance with questions we are still asking today, who are we, and what do we want? The idea that life is neither perfect nor equal is was not new at the time. However, Rousseau’s approach as to how this inequality came about was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written. His Discourse has been read and considered by every major philosopher and thousands of other thinking people since then.
The aim of the Discourse follows the topic addressed by the competition, “ What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?” and Rousseau argues that this is not in keeping with natural law. Rousseau argues for the necessity of charting how modern society has evolved in order to understand and evaluate the development of this imbalance. Starting at a time before society and the development of reason he dismisses the Biblical account of creation and instead imagines what humankind was in a natural state. In this condition, he conjectures that humans were much like animals, motivated by self-preservation and pity. The characteristic that sets him apart is perfectibility, but that one trait is vitally important. In his natural state, Rousseau conceives of man as happy, basically solitary, with few needs and no concept of good and evil.
As earthquakes, floods and other natural forces push humankind around the world it brings them into contact with each other and fosters the growth of societies. This movement and contact encourages mental evolution and the development of reason. While this improves the likelihood for survival, it has a generally negative effect on individual happiness. The trait of perfectibility drives individuals to seek to dominate in these nascent societies.
Rousseau sees beginning of moral inequity marked by the invention of individual property and the division of labor. He sees private property precipitating the individual’s loss of independence, compassion and freedom that existed in the society of his time. As a basis for this argument, he establishes that when society values one individual’s labor over another’s and rewards them unequally it creates a division between the poor and the rich. As rich individuals acquire more property they are able to further dominate the society and the poorer individuals in it. While this initially created instability, the rich trick the poor into creating stronger political societies, ostentatiously to create greater security for the poorer, often defeated people. However, these political societies have the effect of cementing the establishment of the domination of the rich over the poor by creating laws based upon this initial inequity. This is the point where moral inequity replaces physical inequity .
Because it is founded in inequity, as the society grows and develops it goes through stages as it becomes more and more unequal. These stages go from the natural free individual to greater and greater inequity as the cadre of individuals holding the majority of wealth grows smaller and smaller. The process ends in despotism where one man rules everyone. All societies do not end in such a manner, however this the most likely outcome. The accumulation of wealth makes this possible. When wealth is the standard for judging individual value it becomes possible for the least moral to accumulate the most wealth, then justify the value of their character by the value of their possessions. In Rousseau’s opinion, the worst society is one where money is the only way individual value is established.
In his conclusions, he makes it clear that inequality is natural when it relates to the physical differences between individuals. However, the process of human evolution created our modern societies where individuals are subjected to laws and property creating moral inequality. Although he defines the problem with exactitude, he does not offer a sound solution. However, he dedicates the Discourse to the Republic of Geneva, which, in his opinion represents the best possible combination of natural and artificial inequality.
In the dedication, he examines the relationships between people; and how theologians “ men of letters” interact, and the respect given to women. He also cites the physical aspects the fixed borders and its freedom from war. This helps set the Discourse in the correct context contrasting the stability of the more egalitarian society with the discontent of the sharply divided French monarchy. However, this is an idealized view of Geneva, not in keeping with the facts and most likely inspired in part by his desire to return to the city of his birth, which had expelled him when he traveled to France in the 1730s.
John Locke asserted that a government needed the will of the people and a social contract between the people and the state in order to be functional. Without this, the people had the right to overturn a government they felt was unfair and unjust . This contrasts with Rousseau’s opinion that all governments are more or less morally unjust. Karl Marx is more in line with Locke in the right of people to rebel against an unfair government .
Marx, Rousseau and Locke all agree that the worst form of government is a ruling elite or a despot. Locke however had a far more positive view of government than either Rousseau or Marx. Both Locke and Marx believe that fairness lay at the core of government power; Rousseau saw all government as intrinsically unfair and precipitated by moral inequity. As such, there was no possibility of a fair government without the reality of shared community property. There were only political structures, like those that existed in Geneva that were less unfair than others were.
At first glance, Locke, Rousseau and Locke represent three extremes on the subject of personal property. Locke saw it as fundamental to and an integral part of good government. Marx felt that property should be owned in common. Rousseau saw property ownership and the laws that supported it as the initial steps towards moral inequality and the loss of individual freedom. This all relates to labor, and how it is valued Locke saw property as the reward for labor and thought that it should be distributed more equally based upon how hard an individual worked. He viewed the exploitation of workers as a violation of the social contract necessary to preserve the right of the government to rule . Marx saw it as the means of production and as such should be as fairly distributed as the labor needed to make it productive . Rousseau saw it as the starting point for moral inequality .
Rousseau and Locke are closer in thought regarding freedom. Locke emphasizes the individual benefits given to retain property as a trade off for some of the freedom lost when a person adopts domination by government’s laws. Rousseau is deeply concerned with the formation principals, but feels it is necessary that people do not consider their individual agendas in order to come to a mutual consensus regarding property ownership. Marx on the other hand views property ownership more as the means to the end. He sees it as the necessary means of production, not the fruit of the labor.
One of the important considerations to take into account regarding any comparison between Locke, Rousseau and Marx is the span of time they wrote across and the revolutionary political changes that occurred during that time. Locke wrote in England, his Second Discourse was published over eighty years before the American Revolution established the modern world’s first democratic republic. His works were part of the foundation upon which the American founding fathers built their school of thought. Rousseau experienced the turmoil just prior to the American and French Revolutions. His works were part of the writings of the times that spurred the rebellious populations to action, especially in France. Marx wrote after these two events had taken place and had the benefit of knowing the face of revolution and the results produced by other nations. His concern was to perfect the resultant government and society, not to establish the founding thought. This benefit of hindsight allowed him to see what elements were successful in the post revolution establishment of a system of governance.
It is interesting to note that Marx was able to borrow from both Locke and Rousseau along with others in order to develop his Manifesto. He saw the changes that swept through the world since Locke and the other philosophers blossomed in the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. Locke was able to rely on a stable society to conceive of his founding thoughts on property, individual freedom and the social contract individuals have with their governments. Rousseau experienced the time of social unrest that bridged those times. It would have been impossible for him not to be aware of Locke’s work, just as it was impossible for Marx to fail to be inspired by his.
Locke, John. Second Treatise on Government. 1690. http://libertyonline. hypermall. com/Locke/second/second-frame. html. 30 4 2012.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. http://www. anu. edu. au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto. html. 30 4 2012.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. A Discourse. 1754. http://www. constitution. org/jjr/ineq. htm. 30 4 2012.