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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!)


Earth Day is Rousseau-Day April 22, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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On this Earth Day 2009 I’d like to remind everybody of the immense influence Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) has had on our entire attitude toward nature, regardless of whether we think Earth Day is an obnoxious invention, based on bogus reports, and geared toward making our lives more difficult, or a wonderful incentive to appreciate and protect the planet we live on. Prior to Rousseau, the common  attitude among intellectuals as well as those who worked the land was that nature either needed to be subdued—“developed”—or simply ignored. Nature was only worth contemplating if it had become useful to humans, and the (very real) dangers removed. Yes, I know this is a simplified version of a long story, but I need to get to Rousseau! So what did he do to change the minds of an entire culture? He upgraded the Social Contract concept of “the state of nature” from being a dangerous place where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” to a place, and time, of easy living and human compassion. A romantic notion, and wildly inaccurate. But with the upgrade of that concept came a reevaluation of indigenous peoples living close to nature (the “Noble Savage”) and the time of life when we are closest to nature, childhood, as well as the experience of being in nature itself, in the wild:


In his Confessions he writes,

“It is already clear what I mean by fine country. Never does a plain, however beautiful it may be, seem so in my eyes. I need torrents, rocks, firs, dark woods, mountains, steep roads to climb or descend, abysses beside me to make me afraid.”

(If you want to read more about Rousseau’s influence, you can look it up in my paper, “Everyone Needs a Stone.“) Years later, toward the end of his life, in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, he says,

Seeking refuge in mother nature, I sought in her arms to escape the attacks of her children. I have become solitary, or, as they say, unsociable and misanthropic, because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.

So every time we take a walk out in the canyon, the woods or the field just “to get away from it all,” or buy items with “all natural ingredients” and no additives, whenever we allow our kids to be kids without having adult expectations of them, whenever we (of the Western Civilization) feel that it is imperative to respect indigenous peoples, and what is most important for Earth Day, whenever we express the need to take better care of the Planet, we are in effect evoking Rousseau. And while the entire environmental debate is growing in divisiveness, in some cases becoming a contest between expert opinions, the appreciation for Rousseau need not be a point of contention, in this respect (we may disagree with his Social Contract, and the General Will, and a bunch of other troublesome concepts): Rousseau is not necessarily an “environmentalist,” because he sees no need to “preserve” or “save” nature—it’s just there for him, available for human use. And there is enough of him left, from the tradition, to have that little element of anthropocentrism in his appreciation for nature. However, it is the first time in Western history that a thinker thinks enough of wild nature to talk about how important it is for us to have that access—which of course also translates into the need to preserve nature. And for those among us who are more radical in their views, Rousseau has opened up the possibility of conferring intrinsic value on nature, as something that has its own value regardless of its usefulness for humans. So Earth Day is, in many ways, Rousseau-Day.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau