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A Critique of Discourse on Inequality, a Book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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How would Rousseau’s General Will eliminate the tendency of individuals to distinguish themselves from each other which he had identified in the Discourse on Inequality?

In the Discourse on Inequality Rousseau identifies that individuals developed a need to distinguish themselves from others in an unequal manner by the very act of living together. For a society to function this must be controlled, which Rousseau asserts is done by the presence of a General Will. However I argue that Rousseau’s General Will does not eliminate the tendency of individuals to distinguish themselves from each other, but only controls it in certain aspects to allow society to continue.

Rousseau identifies the origin of the tendency of individuals to distinguish themselves from each other at two points. In the Social Contract it occurs when human beings work together to advance concrete common interests (here he gives the example of the deer hunt (Keohane 1980; p440)) and from this they discovered enjoyment of the social. Competition between people then develops in this setting, leading them to distinguish themselves from one another. Yet in Discourse on Inequality Rousseau identifies the invention of agriculture as the cause of this distinguishing, because it meant people wanted two things: property and people to work for them. Rousseau comments that “as soon as one man needs the help of another… equality disappears” (Gourevich 1997: p167). Here he refers to moral or political equality (Gourevich 1997), which is given by human consent, rather than physical (natural) equality. As humans continue to live together these wants (property and people to work for them) turn into needs (Gourevich 1997), meaning it is no longer a desire of humans to distinguish themselves from each other, but a need.

This need to distinguish becomes a problem in society when it is unchecked. The “amour proper” is the term used to describe a non-natural and factious self-love (Gourevich 1997: p218), which leads to the toxic inequality in society, about which Rousseau warns us. The rich then are only happy they have things as long as others do not have them (Gourevich 1997), due to this “amour proper” where they must continually distinguish themselves from other humans. It is also not enough to just own property, they must deprive others of owning it (Gourevich 1997) and this leads to inequality in society, in which people must constantly interact with each other. Furthermore in societies Rousseau identifies that wants become needs (Gourevich 1997), therefore the desire for happiness based on distinguishing selves from other humans by depriving them of property becomes part of each person’s personal interest. Chasing luxury is the ultimate expression of this need according to Rousseau and it leads to despotism, which has the potential to “complete the evil, which societies had begun” (Gourevich 1997: p202), namely that it will completely eradicate the naturalness of people and leave in its place “artificial men and factitious passions” (Gourevich 1997: p186). Therefore, for Rousseau, living in a society creates a process, which could destroy it if unchecked. His solution to this problem is the General Will.

Rousseau assumed that men always act in their own interests as they interpret them (Keohane 1980), so it would be unnatural for them to forfeit their own interests to be part of a society. In the Discourse on Political Economy Rousseau explains that to get people to follow the General Will, it must be in their own interest to do so (Cole 1993). This is the way the magistrate can maintain control and ensure society does not become despotic. The sole use of violence and terror for Rousseau would also lead to the downfall of society, therefore the General Will, with use of violence occasionally, is the solution (Cole 1993). Keohane identifies that “to behave morally is to behave in ways that conform to the common interest” (Keohane 1980: p487). These common interests are not a harmony of all personal interests, but certain goals that people agree to work together to reach. It is the job of the legislator to create these common interests, which aren’t found in nature (Keohane 1980). In this way Rousseau’s argument is slightly Hobbesian in that the authority to legislate lies with one power, but it opposes the Hobbesian track, because it is completely the citizen’s choice to follow the General Will and if they don’t the responsibility lies with the sovereign (Cole 1993).

The General Will therefore is Rousseau’s proposed solution to the political inequality caused by the tendency of humans to distinguish themselves from each other, as identifies in the Discourse on Inequality. However the General Will does not eliminate the tendency of humans to distinguish themselves from each other, rather it allows this tendency to be controlled. I will argue this using Rousseau’s ideas about property and particular wills.

The fact Rousseau does not suggest property be outlawed means that the tendency for humans to distinguish themselves from each other is not eliminates. Keohane (1980) identifies that property is still allowed under the social contract (which permits the General Will to be followed), therefore individuals can still be individuals. The limit set here is that all property is owned by the sovereign to ensure people cannot buy each other (Keohane 1980), as slavery, in the eyes of Rousseau, deprives a person of their humanity. This is a compromise between individual liberty and authoritarian moral equality. If, according to Rousseau, one of the aspects that makes us human is the ability to be a free agent, then the sovereign having control of all property will violate the ability of man to act as a free agent. As Rousseau explained in Discourse on Inequality, it is having property (after developing agriculture) that led to the formation of families and then societies (Gourevich 1997) and it continues to be a key part of how human beings define themselves within society. In the Discourse on Political Economy Rousseau discusses how the rich purchase arts (especially luxury items) to distinguish themselves from the poor (Cole 1993). The General Will could put an end to this, but Rousseau recommends that it does not (instead suggesting the taxation of luxury goods as a solution (Cole 1993)), allowing humans to continue distinguishing themselves from each other in terms of property.

Secondly, Rousseau argues that political society is formed of other smaller societies, which have their own set of interests, manifested as particular wills. People should follow the General Will as a priority but they will often stray and follow the particular, because it is in their own interest (Cole 1993: p133). One of Rousseau’s baseline assumptions is that people will always follow what they understand to be their own interest. But instead of the citizens surrendering their own personal wills to that of the General Will, Rousseau insists it is the job of the legislator to set the General Will so people will want to follow it, because it is in their own interests. However the legislator must also “bring all the particular wills into conformity with it [the General Will]” (Cole 1993: p140), to ensure the General Will is achieved. Therefore Rousseau is not suggesting the legislator eliminates the human tendency to distinguish themselves from one another, but ensure the particular wills of these distinguished groups fit the General Will.

It could be argued that getting smaller societies with particular wills to conform to the General Will of political society does strip them of their tendency to distinguish themselves from each other, because they are now all following the same interests. However Rousseau does not make it a necessary condition of the General Will that it must govern all areas of social life. Rousseau in fact does not specify what the General Will must contain, leaving it open to the legislator to decide. The legislator in turn must set the General Will in accordance with the population, in order to maintain popularity and patriotism, something which Rousseau argues is essential for the success of a political nation (Keohane 1980). It is not true therefore that in all areas of social life the General Will eliminates the human tendency to distinguish themselves from each other, as demonstrated also by the previous example of personal property.

In conclusion, the Discourse on Inequality identifies the need humans feel to distinguish themselves from each other, especially in terms of property, because agriculture requires some men to work for others to succeed and also for men to have their own property. As societies for these wants become needs, until eventually people feel the need to distinguish themselves, especially in the case of the rich and the poor. Rousseau reasons this can lead to harmful despotism in society, so presents the General Will as a solution. The General Will allows members of a society to work together to achieve some common interests, set by a legislator. This prevents rich men and women distinguishing themselves to such an extent they deprive other citizens of their humanity, as they allow themselves to be bought. Therefore the General Will prevents the human tendency to distinguish themselves from one another from getting out of hand, but it does not eliminate it altogether. Individuals are still allowed to have their own property, which distinguishes them from other humans. Moreover smaller societies within larger political society still continue to have their own political interests. Although Rousseau suggests these interests should be aligned with the General Will, he does not suggest these smaller societies be eliminated, meaning there is still capacity for humans to distinguish themselves from each other operating under the General Will.

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GradesFixer. (2018, September, 14) A Critique of Discourse on Inequality, a Book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Retrived April 8, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-critique-of-discourse-on-inequality-a-book-by-jean-jacques-rousseau/
"A Critique of Discourse on Inequality, a Book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau." GradesFixer, 14 Sep. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-critique-of-discourse-on-inequality-a-book-by-jean-jacques-rousseau/. Accessed 8 April 2020.
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