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Earth Day is Rousseau Day, Part 2 April 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Last year I chose to mark Earth Day with a blog about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because he, more than any other philosopher prior to the twentieth  century, pointed attention to the value of wild nature as a remedy for what ails the “modern” human spirit. Not the contemporary, controversial concept of intrinsically valuable nature, because Rousseau thought in fundamental, anthropocentric terms, but still, for the 1700s, a completely new approach to nature as something intellectually and emotionally valuable rather than just a resource. And, as I mentioned a year ago, we can agree or disagree with Rousseau and the entire Earth Day/Environmental movement (and I disagree with plenty of Rousseau’s ideas,) but the fact remains that the focus on the value of nature, for us or in itself, has transformed and expanded the debate about ethics within the past 30 years.

This year I want to pay another visit and tribute to Rousseau, and I may as well do that on Earth Day, for the reasons stated above, and in the original blog piece. But today I want to focus on something other than the environment—although it also has to do with nature: human nature. Since Rousseau introduced the idea that the “State of Nature” ( a pre-social condition which we now recognize as a fictional concept, useful as a Rawlsian thought experiment, but not as a historical theory) was good and beneficial to humans, he was able to conclude that human nature was also fundamentally good; that childhood was a valuable, innocent time that should be cherished and not squandered; and that indigenous peoples living in harmony with nature were morally superior to people living in great civilizations. Nature heals, civilization corrupts…

And most of that has generally been considered a magnificent fantasy by a more cynical, modern time. We know there was never a completely pre-social Rousseau-type state of nature, because we know now that humans have lived in groups, with at least basic rules of behavior, even before we became human. We assume that indigenous peoples are usually not morally better or worse than citified people—we’re all just people. The upgrading of childhood to something intrinsically valuable is truly something Rousseau should get credit for, but without us necessarily adopting his rather peculiar ideas of how to raise children (or his habit of dumping his own at the orphanage…). But what about human nature being essentially good? In most of the twentieth century scholars as well as laypeople leaned toward the assumption that Hobbes was more right than Rousseau—we’re simply pretty rotten: selfish, aggressive, belligerent, and like the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies we will revert to that fundamental selfish aggression if the veneer of civilization wears thin. But now (as you probably will have noticed, from other blog entries here over the past three years) neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists are teaming up with philosophers, and little by little creating a new view of human nature: we appear to be not nearly as selfish as previously assumed. We (or most of us) seem to have a natural capacity for empathy, and a reluctance to harm others. That doesn’t mean we can’t override that empathy and learn to follow orders to harm others (Milgram experiment, Stanford prisoner experiment), or simply look to our own advantage, but according to high-profile researchers such as Antonio Damasio the deeper human nature is one of compassion and empathy rather  than blatant selfishness. And what did Rousseau say, in his 2nd Discourse, On the Origin of Inequality Among Humans (1754)?

 There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes; which, having been bestowed on mankind, to moderate, on certain occasions, the impetuosity of egoism, or, before its birth, the desire of self-preservation, tempers the ardour with which he pursues his own welfare, by an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer. I think I need not fear contradiction in holding man to be possessed of the only natural virtue, which could not be denied him by the most violent detractor of human virtue. I am speaking of compassion, which is a disposition suitable to creatures so weak and subject to so many evils as we certainly are: by so much the more universal and useful to mankind, as it comes before any kind of reflection; and at the same time so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it….

…It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species. It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress: it is this which in a state of nature supplies the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the advantage that none are tempted to disobey its gentle voice: it is this which will always prevent a sturdy savage from robbing a weak child or a feeble old man of the sustenance they may have with pain and difficulty acquired, if he sees a possibility of providing for himself by other means: it is this which, instead of inculcating that sublime maxim of rational justice. Do to others as you would have them do unto you, inspires all men with that other maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect indeed, but perhaps more useful; Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others. In a word, it is rather in this natural feeling than in any subtle arguments that we must look for the cause of that repugnance, which every man would experience in doing evil, even independently of the maxims of education. Although it might belong to Socrates and other minds of the like craft to acquire virtue by reason, the human race would long since have ceased to be, had its preservation depended only on the reasonings of the individuals composing it.

We used to snicker at Rousseau and his romanticism. We used to dismiss these sentimental words as either naiive fantasies, or a shrewd preparation for his later social contract theory which had to be grounded in a concept that humans were fundamentally good. But now? The new alliance of neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and ethicists are presenting evidence that, indeed, a natural empathy predates rational thinking in the human brain. We may agree or disagree, and we (as I often do) may want to point out that even if empathy is primary, it doesn’t take the place of sound logic and common sense  in determining our moral course of action. But we should recognize that the idea itself is not new: Rousseau introduced it to Continental Europe in 1754. (Was he the first one? No, David Hume—a friend of Rousseau’s for a while—had already published similar ideas about human natural empathy in 1740. But that’s another story!)

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Comments»

1. Osten massa - May 5, 2010

I guess my comment is more of a question but, if the definition of “State of Nature” is a pre-social condition with no basic rules of behavior then it makes sense to say that was wrong/doesn’t exist. But then what is the “ideal” State of Nature that was miss-defined? When I imagine evolution, the idea of a pre-social condition with no basic “rules” according to my mind’s interpretation, not only would I think it to exist, but It would seem like a necessary evolutionary step.

Asur - May 5, 2010

I agree that a past pre-social condition is, at some point, a necessary fact. I believe, though, that the object of the ‘State of Nature’ under discussion is humanity — hence, the fact that a pre-social condition must be true of some sufficiently removed ancestor of humanity is not relevant.

Accepting the premise that the human species has been social from its inception, then the human State of Nature is a social state, and if a social state, a state with some manner of behavioral rules.

2. michael j. berry - May 11, 2010

Rousseau is a complete idiot! Nothing more need be said. For one man to be so naive and to have lived as long as he did is a modern miracle. I have never read the writings of a more dillusional individual. Wow! ok, where to begin here, so basically if Rousseau said it, it is safe to assume the opposite is true. His over-sentimentality invokes thoughts of a weepy Al Gore and his ridiculous nonsense of global warming/climate change which DOES NOT EXIST! This whole hippie generation hold-over of loving the environment and protecting mother earth is sickening. We are here know, the resources are here now, use them!!! Rape the land, that’s what it is there for. Let the next generations worry about the problem, cause we won’t be here.

As far as Rousseau claiming that human nature is basically good at its core, HA, that is downright laughable. At their core, in the deepest darkest recesses of the human mind, in the dark parts of us all that we dare not speak about with others, we are ALL inherently evil. The only question is how evil we care to let the outside world see we are. There are no selfless acts, anyone claims that there are, are trying to pull the proverbial wool over your eyes. Each and every action a person does is done so to benefit themselves in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly. For Rousseau to claim that all people’s nature is good is ridiculous. It’s not “do unto other’s as they would do unto you,” but rather it is “do whatever you want to others and do whatever you can to prevent them from doing the same unto you.”

Asur - May 12, 2010

Okay, Glaucon. 😉

3. Andrew Nguyen - May 12, 2010

It is interesting how neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and ethicists are coming together in order to find if humans have natural empathy but is empathy not something that can also be learned. A lot of the religious texts in the world all stress some form of moral high ground in which their followers should act. So for thousands of years people have been following these teaching which stresses empathy, helping one another, following a certain code of ethics. It could even be argued that these ruled of religion might have stemmed from the original social contract, to mutually not kill each other and work together to accomplish more. I’m not saying that there is no biology factor involved in the process of human empathy thought, just that it is a question of how much of it is nature, and how much of it is nurture.

Asur - May 12, 2010

Interesting! I’ve never really thought about whether or to what degree empathy was innate or acquired.

I absolutely think that empathy can be both acquired and dismantled through appropriate experience. Act evil, be evil. Act good, be good. Our actions may stem from our thoughts and beliefs, but it’s not a one-way street; our thoughts and beliefs also gravitate toward our actions.

On the other hand, there’s the fact that basic facial expressions are pretty much universally understandable throughout the globe. Some cultures may behavioural guidelines that alter these, but we’re interested in what’s innate, and fact is that a smile is recognizable across the world to mean you’re happy. Similar recognition for expressions of sadness, anger, shock…all the basic emotional states.

The fact that there is so very little variation in how these things are facially expressed even between otherwise disparate populations is pretty much a case closed argument for them (and hence empathy) being innate as well.


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