In this essay, I will attempt to show how Jean-Jacques Rousseau s view of the state of nature differs from that of his predecessor John Locke. I will then compare certain aspects and themes central to each thinker s views and interpretations of the state of nature. Using the concept of the state of nature , Rousseau illustrates that people are essentially good and the negative aspects of society (i.e. injustice, inequality, deception) are due to external corruption of human nature and are not intrinsically part of human nature. I intend to show how Rousseau s theory of the state of nature differs from that of Locke and how Rousseau s views on the denaturing of human beings explain political and social concepts such as the right to own property and the general will of society .
According to Rousseau, there are two kinds of inequalities among men, natural inequality and political inequality. Natural inequality simply means that there are biological differences in people such as age, strength and health. Political inequality means that there are different rights and privileges given to some people over others. This type of inequality can be seen in terms of power, prestige and wealth. While due to natural inequality some people would have more skill, talent or wisdom than others, the lack of private property and possessions ensures that people are equal.
Rousseau has said that in the state of nature man is truly free and autonomous. The state of nature is the perfect state for man. To understand this, we must first look at what Rousseau truly means by state of nature . In Rousseau s state of nature there is no notion of private property. All people have natural resources available to them for their own sustenance whenever they need it. Natural resources are not depleted due to the fact that people use only the resources that they immediately need and cannot own anything beyond what they immediately need to survive. Beyond that, people don t have a claim to any form of private property in the state of nature.
In the state of nature, individuals have symbolic value. People rely on their own power and ability whereas in civilized society, people rely on external resources such as tools and machines. In the state of nature a person is more complete, having his/her entire self at his/her disposal when needed (page 41). In the state of nature a person is solitary, relying only on him/herself. A person doesn t really have connections to other human beings such as family or close friends. In addition, natural man has sentiments such as self-love and pity. Natural man is different from other animals because he/she has a natural capacity to be free-willed and the will to perfect him/herself. Rousseau explains that because man is naturally solitary then in the state of nature there is no need to form a society . Rousseau does not believe that man has a natural capacity to be ruled by another. In the state of nature, people are truly free and equal.
The state of nature is simplistic in many ways, but Rousseau believes that in it man is truly free and truly happy. Rousseau believes that man is naturally good . He believes that being good is the norm for man. If some people behave badly or improperly, they re acting in a way that deviates from the norm. People are essentially good but can be corrupted by external factors such as financial inequality and scientific innovation. Rousseau s meaning of the state of nature is basically how people would behave without the intervention of political authority and other external factors.
However while people are essentially good in the state of nature, they can not necessarily be considered virtuous. Rousseau basically means are that people are good by being innocent. In Rousseau s state of nature people do not have the capacity for language, therefore they cannot adopt general ideas, or compare themselves to other people. That is why Rousseau does not believe that people can have virtue in the state of nature. Conversely, the innocent nature of people in the state of nature does not allow for the traits of jealousy, cruelty and deception.
Using illness as an example, Rousseau claims that in a state of nature lacking the advances of modern medicine they majority of people were healthier than those in a modern unequal society. He adds that man by nature is healthy; different aspects of society make him/her sick. The inequalities of modern society contribute to the physical illnesses of people in terms of unequal food distribution, hygiene and different stress levels. In the state of nature, medical remedies were seldom needed. Before medical breakthroughs, people were generally healthy and if people did get sick, they all had an equal chance. Even in medicine there were no inequalities.
Rousseau is very critical of the views of his predecessor John Locke. Locke views the state of nature as a society that exists without formal government. Locke believes all people in his view of the state of nature are subject to a moral code and the laws of nature . Locke described natural law as laws that fulfill G-d s will. He adds that G-d s will is primarily for peace and the advancement of humankind.
Locke s view of the state of nature is more complex and limited than that of Rousseau. While Locke s state of nature is based on equality and freedom it differs greatly from Rousseau s conception. In Locke s state of nature society exists albeit it is bound by a universal moral code rather than a civil code. A person is part of the state of nature if that person is not governed by a type of political authority. This differs from Rousseau s view that people are solitary in the state of nature, with no significant ties to one another. In Locke s state of nature people are bound to a moral code which is an extension of G-d s will. To follow this principle as Locke says no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty or Possessions . In Locke s state of nature people have rights and duties. This is in contrast to Rousseau, whose conception of the state of nature is not based on rights and duties but people s behavior in the absence of a political society.
Locke establishes that people have the natural right to own property. Locke argues that in the state of nature, everyone has an equal right to own property. Locke believes that G-d gave the earth to people for them to make use of, but in order for people to use the earth they must first own it. Everything on earth is there for the use of the people. Nothing exists for its own sake. Locke adds that exclusive ownership of property is justified because it is a necessary aspect in fulfilling G-d s will (II 32). Locke believes that a person may claim property in the state of nature, when he/she labours over it. For example, when a person picks an apple from a tree, he/she is adding his/her labour to the apple (which is the property in question) and therefore that person may claim the apple as his/her property. In addition any labour a person adds to an object adds value to that object so therefore it s only fair that the person who devotes his/her labour to increasing the value of an object should have a claim to it. There is also no limit to the amount of labour a person can accomplish in the state of nature. Everyone has the legal right and duty to work.
Locke believes that there is no limit to the amount of property someone can possess, as long as that person has a positive use for the property and does not waste any of it. By wasting property, people are basically limiting the potential of others.
Locke states that the extent of the political power of the state is directly linked to the degree of authority granted to it by the people. While people are granted specific rights in the state of nature, they may choose to give up some of their individual rights in favour of giving more power to the political community in which they are a part of. The people therefore decide what rights they would choose to give up in order for the political community to have the power to perform certain functions that the people decide are necessary. The people only give up the rights the choose to give up for the good of the community and keep all other rights they would have been granted in the state of nature. For Locke, political society is based on property and how its distribution is regulated. Political society is in place to guarantee property to property owners. This applies to physical property such as land and resources as well as other forms of property such as life and liberty.
Rousseau does not believe that people have a natural right to property in the state of nature. He believes that the basis of property ownership is one way in which people are manipulated and divided in a political society. While Locke contends that there is choice individuals make in forgoing certain rights for the good of the community, Rousseau does not agree. Rousseau believes that people are manipulated into agreeing with what the powerful decide, and therefore many people in political society are forced to agree with principles that essentially disadvantage them.
A major aspect in the denaturing of human beings was the establishment of private property because that basically led to inequality among people, which is not present in Rousseau s state of nature. Rousseau states that political society began when one individual decided to claim a piece of property for himself and essentially convinced people that his conduct was legitimate. Essentially, this individual was the first to justify inequality and to convince people that it is legitimate (Part II, page 60). The denaturing of human beings is essential aspect of political society. In political society people lose their natural power and their individuality and instead are given a power in which they re completely reliant on others to exercise. Rousseau claims that in political society, man is given a partial and corporate existence . As I have explained earlier, the denaturing of human beings leads to inequality and facilitates the power of private individuals to control other individuals.
Rousseau s views on the denaturing of human beings can also be applied to the political concept of the general will . Rousseau questions how a handful of powerful people can create and dictate the rights and freedoms of the rest of society. Rousseau illustrates that all people have individual wills. In order for the general will to be established, people do not necessarily have to agree on what constitutes the general will (because people are entitled to have opposing views and different individual wills ), instead members of political society should be in agreement over what principles constitute a violation of the general will. For example members of a political society may agree on the principle that one person may not own another. Rousseau shows us that it is enough for the general will to agree on what is not acceptable in society, because according to Rousseau it is impossible to establish the general will of the people any other way because people are entitled to their own often-conflicting individual wills. Rousseau is also critical of the idea of tacit consent . He believes that it is wrong to think that just because someone is a member of a certain community he/she must agree with all the ideas and decisions of that community. One should have the freedom to be part of the community and share in whatever benefits that provides to individuals that choose to be part of it (Rousseau calls this civil freedom ), but at the same time one should have the freedom to exclude him/herself from the community either partly or fully should they choose ( natural freedom ).