Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality

Rousseau is not a classical liberal in the sense that, say, Locke is recognized to be, as a defender of individual liberties and limited state power.

However, he is a social contract theorist from whom many liberals draw insights. Our concern is with Rousseau’s critique of inequality in connection with dependency. Central to his argument is the claim that human dependency can threaten both freedom and equality.15 Rousseau homes in on the way in which human dependency, in connection with particular social arrangements, can establish the conditions in which persons are subordinated relative to those upon whom they depend.16 Thus, Rousseau develops his critique of inequality, and the social arrangements that sustain such inequality, with the facts of human dependency in a wide sense at the center of the view.

In his Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau presents an account of the ways in which human dependence upon others can lead to systematic inequality, where inequality is defined in terms of relationships of domination and subordination (1997a).17 Rousseau understands subordination as submission to another’s will. Among other things, such subordination is a denial of autonomy and a failure of respect for the equal worth and standing of those in the subordinated position. As we move to our view, we will rely on broader notions of domination and subordination that we think are congenial with Rousseau’s views even if he specified the concepts in a more narrow fashion as concerning the exercising of one’s will over another or being under the power of another’s will. For now, what is of importance is the connection between human dependency and inequality (understood as hierarchy). Rousseau’s critique remains a forceful statement of that connection.

There is important disagreement among Rousseau scholars about how to understand Rousseau’s genealogy of human inequality. Some claim that he aimed to reconstruct an accurate historical picture of the origins of inequality, and others claim he offers a conceptual analysis of features of human relations that must be present for inequality to emerge (Neu- houser 2014, 33).18 This dispute is important because depending upon how one reads Rousseau on this point, the assumption of human independence carries different normative weight and impacts the plausibility of the view.

We agree with Frederick Neuhouser’s reading of the text on this: Rousseau is not committed to the claim that as a matter of historical fact human beings were at some point fully independent such that they did not require the cooperation of others to satisfy their needs. Rather, Rousseau aims to identify the features of social relations that constitute the kinds of dependency that give rise to inequality and appeals to the idea of independence for conceptual contrast with the idea of dependence. The assumption of independence, then, is not a factual claim about how humans are or might have been. Rather, it serves as an analytical device to identify the features of social relations that give rise to inequalities that follow from dependence. Further, the assumption of independence serves to underscore the fact that the shape and structure inequalities take is contingent upon the ways in which social relations are organized (Neuhouser 2014, 52-55).

An important feature of Rousseau’s account, as concerns our project here, is the way in which, as a social species, humans develop needs as a product of social arrangements. The kinds of needs Rousseau examines for their role in creating both dependence and inequality are (1) needs for resources and property that require others’ support and labor, and (2) the need for esteem and recognition of status from others. Neither of these needs can be met without the assistance and cooperation of others. Thus, such needs instantiate dependency relations among persons that can give rise to moral concerns, particularly concerns of inequality.

Rousseau insists that we cannot escape our sociable nature and the needs it creates, nor can we escape the fact that dependency relations follow. However, we can come to understand those potential threats to equality. The emergence of particular forms of vice, such as knavishness and deception as a means to status and power, are a central focus of Rousseau’s critique (Rousseau 1997a, 171). In articulating these dangers, Rousseau offers a critique of social arrangements that produce certain forms of dependency. There are two aspects to this critique. The first is the just mentioned emergence of the conditions for vice, such as deception and dishonesty, that damage an individual’s moral character. The second concerns the establishment of hierarchical relations among persons, or classes of persons, such that the powerful are able to dominate and subordinate the less powerful.

A key feature of human sociability, according to Rousseau, is the passion he calls “amour propre” (self-love).19 This passion is the source of an important human need: recognition respect.20 Given Rousseau’s purpose of tracing and explaining inequality, he attends to many of the negative features of amour propre. In particular, he critiques the ways in which amour propre can lead to social practices of domination and subordination. Under certain conditions human self-love can become inflamed, drive humans to want more and more, and make them to seek to “raise one’s relative fortune less out of genuine need than in order to place oneself above others” (Rousseau 1997a, 171). Hierarchy and inequality derive from our sociable natures, producing “competition and rivalry,” “conflict of interest,” “and always the hidden desire to profit at another’s expense” (171). Rousseau aims to reconcile this feature of human relations with our full moral and political equality in On the Social Contract (1997b). Thus, he does think that, in the right social conditions, the moral equality of persons can be affirmed. Amour propre underwrites the need for equal recognition - equal moral standing. One cannot provide recognition respect for oneself. It must come from others, and securing it is vital to securing the moral equality of persons. Thus, the fundamental human need for recognition respect places persons in dependency relations with others.

We are also dependent upon others for material needs. Rousseau’s critique of inequality in the context of economic arrangements and the organization of private property provides key insights regarding the ways in which reliance upon others for material needs and resources can establish and constitute social hierarchies in which some are able to dominate others by taking advantage of their dependency. Rousseau emphasizes the emergence of metallurgy and agriculture, from which the division of labor followed, as creating the social conditions for dependence upon others for having basic needs met - needs for food and basic goods. In conjunction with these innovations, private property, as an institution, emerged.21 As he reflects on the social institution of property, he argues that the division of resources, wealth, and exclusive rights to use of property, as a social practice, institutionalized inequality when the “rich” were able to trick the “poor” into a fraudulent (illegitimate) social contract (Rousseau 1997a, 180). The key insight we wish to draw from this argument concerns the way in which institutional arrangements can produce and cement relationships of inequality in which some persons are able to dominate others given their dependency. In effect, the lesson is that through dependency relations in the wide sense - including, importantly, relying on others for resources - some persons, or classes of persons, are made vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and unjust exercises of power.

As noted, the passion of amour propre is what Rousseau thinks underwrites the human need for esteem and recognition respect from others. Neuhouser explains that

Amour propre . . . because it seeks standing in the eyes of others, provides humans with a permanent motivation - an urge sufficiently strong to be considered a need - to enter into relations with others.... Since its needs cannot be satisfied in isolation, the passion to count for something for others is a direct and permanent source of human dependence and sociality.

(2014, 69)

Our need to be recognized and treated as an equal by others is a relational need. Whether it is met depends on the social norms and beliefs that structure value judgments as well as the institutional norms and structures that facilitate and define our relations with others. When persons are refused recognition respect, and with it acknowledgment of their equal standing as moral persons, they are subordinated. Such subordination takes the form of ranking them as lower than those who are given recognition respect as equal moral persons. Often persons are denied such recognition respect as members of groups, and this is subordination on the basis of group membership. Material inequalities between groups are often justified by the lower ranking of some groups to others, and narratives are offered to explain, or naturalize, such rankings among groups. Material inequalities, then, both cause and are caused by rankings among groups.22 Again, Rousseau thought that whether the need for recognition respect is fulfilled depends on the social arrangements, norms, and institutions within which humans relate to one another. Institutional design, in conjunction with legal norms, can lead to the systematic denial of recognition respect for some persons and that failure constitutes a form of unjust subordination.

In addition to Rousseau’s account of how dependency can lead to subordination, we also want to highlight some other features of Rousseau’s critique of inequality for our later discussion. First, he rejects the idea that moral and political inequality among persons is a “natural” condition of humanity.2’ Thus, he offers a proto-account of what we would now call “the social construction” of inequality. A central point of interest here is his claim that natural differences (which he sometimes refers to as “inequalities”) do not ground moral inequality. Rousseau dismisses the idea that “differences” per se can ground moral/political inequality, as he says that whether “natural inequalities” could ground inequalities of power and wealth is a question “which it may perhaps be good for Slaves to debate within the hearing of their Masters, but not befitting rational and free Men who seek the truth” (1997a, 131). Thus, on Rousseau’s account, physical differences, even ones that provide persons “better” relative abilities or “lessen” some abilities, are not themselves injustices or “any other kind of moral deficiency” (Neuhouser 2014, 23). He is concerned with the way in which natural differences are transformed into moral and political inequalities through social practices and institutions.

Thus, Rousseau shifts the ground of the significance of differences - including differences in bodily abilities - away from the supposed “natural” consequences of differences to the way in which social organization transforms difference into moral inequality. That is, Rousseau highlights that relationships of social hierarchy - relationships defined by unequal status, power, and privilege among persons - are not the result of natural differences among persons but are socially constructed. On his view, features of social organization - norms, practices, and institutions - construct and cement hierarchical relations among persons, denying them equal status and esteem. The upshot of this insight is that inequality, understood as hierarchy, is produced by human social organization. Although he largely attends to the ways in which economic patterns and institutions function to instantiate and sustain social hierarchies between persons, the root of his concern is the way in which persons, who stand in a relation of inequality to others, are denied the necessary recognition respect required to affirm their moral equality, their equal moral value. We stress that those who are ranked lower in the relevant social hierarchy are subordinated to those ranked higher, where this means that they have a lower status. Again, material inequality (e.g., differences in income and wealth) can both cause and be the result of social hierarchies.

Certainly, there are important limitations to Rousseau’s own analyses. Among them is his limited focus on what we might call now “class” relations, and with it, a fairly narrow focus on economic inequality as a primary, though not exclusive, form of social hierarchy that constitutes status inequality. The main thread of the argument and some of his key normative claims, however, are insightful for thinking about the relationship between dependency, domination, and inequality.

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