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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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