Sunday, February 27, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Locke, Rousseau & Liberty

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English doctor and philosopher who was very influential on the American Founding Fathers (Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson), the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. One passage of the Declaration of Independence is almost wholesale lifted from Locke’s political work. He is famous for two works, the classic text of Empiricism, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and the political work, Two Treatises of Government. He was friends with scientists such as Boyle and Newton. Like Hobbes, he witnessed the struggle between the English Monarchy and Parliament, and his political writings are deeply influenced by his times. Jefferson considered him one of the greatest thinker who ever lived.

Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human beings have natural rights that they derive from the state of nature and that government gets its power and rights from this and not divine decree of God, but unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that the power of the sovereign must not infringe on the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to property. Like Hobbes, Locke argued that the state of nature is not sufficient for individuals to live as they want and so they establish the state by natural contract, but unlike Hobbes Locke argued that this must be achieved by establishing a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. While Hobbes argued that the sovereign is transferred the rights of the individual such that the sovereign can take life, restrict liberty and seize property for the good of the people as the people, Locke argues that the people have the right to rebel against the sovereign if the sovereign infringes on these rights. Thus, for Locke, the social contract with the sovereign is not unbreakable and does not fully transfer individual rights to the sovereign. Like Machiavelli and unlike Hobbes, Locke believed in checks and balances to the power of the sovereign to protect the rights of individuals.

As many critics have pointed out, neither Locke nor the American founding fathers believed that these rights extended to all of humanity and there resulted great contradictions between love of individual rights and the brutal practices of slavery and colonialism. Locke was a major investor in the Royal African Company, a secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations and a member of the Board of Trade, all of which were central to the African slave trade that took Africans from Africa to America to benefit the English plantations. While he argued that labor gives the individual a natural right to property, he also argued that the work of servants and slaves rightfully belongs to their master. Marx would later, as could be expected, agree that labor gives a right to ownership but disagree that the master or ruling class have the right to the fruits of the labor of the slaves, servants and lower classes. Like the founding fathers wrote “All men are born equal” but owned slaves themselves, Locke was clearly in agreement with the racism of his times and was writing for the equality of Europeans who owned property, servants and slaves and not of all-inclusive humanity.

Locke argued that money allowed property to be accumulated without injury to anyone. Many, including Marx and Native Americans and Africans, would take exception to this. Locke also writes that government should act such that individuals can accumulate as much wealth as they can but that wealth is distributed to the rest of society. He does not provide many insights as to how to go about this. Locke does argue that one of the major reasons that individuals should seek a social contract in the state of nature is to preserve their property and the fruits of their labor. In this, he is much more like Aristotle than Plato as Aristotle argues the state must draw everyone into a common unity yet preserve the diversity of personal property and ownership. While Hobbes sees preservation of one’s life as the primary reason for the social contract, Locke argues that the preservation of both life and property are the primary reasons and that the sovereign cannot arbitrarily take life or property from the individuals bound together in the social contract.

One last idea of Locke’s that has been very influential on many is the idea of the individual as a blank slate or tabula rasa (“blank slate” in Latin). An Empiricist, Locke believed that there are no innate ideas in the human mind and that all ideas are acquired by experience (unlike Descartes and much like Hume). Locke read a 12th century Arabic novel (translated into Latin) by Ibn Tufail titled Living Son of Wakening which tells the story of a child isolated from human society on a desert island who grows naturally by experience and reason to human adulthood. Another popular novel at the time was Robinson Crusoe which presents a gentleman and native “savage” on an island in the state of nature. Locke believed that education (like Confucius and the Confucians Mencius and Xun Zi) is central to all development and that the mind is an empty cabinet waiting to be filled.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was much influenced by many of the thinkers we have covered including the Confucians. He was particularly concerned with being on the side of individual liberty checking the powers of sovereignty with Locke vs. Hobbes. Unlike Hobbes but somewhat like Locke’s idea of tabula rasa, Rousseau imagined that the state of nature was innocent and pure and that it was society that corrupted the purity of the individual. Like Locke, Rousseau was a major influence on the American as well as French revolution (our topic for next week, after Mill and Thoreau). I gave you selections from his two most famous political works, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract. Rousseau was not only influenced by many of the thinkers we have read so far, but was also an influence on many of the thinkers we have yet to read, including the founding fathers, Hegel, Nietzsche, Paine, Marx, Engels and Bakunin.

Rousseau was born in Geneva which was governed as a democracy involving a minority of the male property owning class having voting power. He wandered Italy and France for a time as a secretary and tutor to aristocrats. In 1749 he saw an advertisement by the Academy of Dijon in a newspaper which asked for essay submissions in response to the question, “Has the rebirth of the sciences and arts contributed to the improvement or the corruption of manners?”. Rousseau had an awakening experience, and decided that the original human nature is innocent and pure and that it must be society that had brought about corruption and ignorance.

This was in complete disagreement with many of his contemporaries including his close friend Diderot, who were champions of the Enlightenment and science and believed that human nature was being freed by the progress of society. Diderot wrote to Rousseau about his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, “never was so much intelligence used to make us stupid…while reading it, one longs to go on all fours”. Voltaire and Diderot were passionate about science freeing the mind of humanity from primitive superstitions. Rousseau argued that humanity was good in the beginning and that society would ultimately destroy all that was good about humanity. Society makes people take up artificial practices and wear masks (much like those worn to aristocratic parties at the time). Remember that Hobbes argued society was an artificial construction, but Hobbes believed that human beings were naturally selfish, not pure, like Xun Zi. Rousseau argues that the artificial nature of society is corruptive and breeds hypocrisy. Nietzsche would later take up this cynical turn against social progress and argue like Rousseau it chains the individual.

Unlike Locke, Rousseau saw property and the excesses of luxury as evil and destructive to our natural being. Rousseau, unlike Locke and Hobbes, praises the “savage” peoples, using his famous phrase, “the noble savage” and saw them as living a more authentic and peaceful existence than modern “civilized” people. Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau believed that human individuals were equal in the state of nature, but he does not see the social contract as helping but rather harming this natural equality. Like Locke, Rousseau believed that humans are a blank slate, but more than Locke he believed that human nature continues to be a free and changeable, determined by the situation in which it lives.

Rousseau avoided arguing about natural laws (key for Hobbes and Locke), preferring human nature as an undefined freedom. While Hobbes believed that the state of nature was brutal, and Locke believed that the state of nature had semi-responsible property retainers who had yet to establish laws for their benefit, Rousseau saw the state of nature as a peaceful and simple time. Society came about through domination and inequality, not natural equality cohering in a social contract of equals (much as Marx and Nietzsche will argue later). Some came to have more than others, and the social contract legitimated these differences (note that Locke would argue the same, but see it as a positive thing). Thus, property is the root cause of social problems because it is an inequality that disrupts the natural equality of humanity such that we have masters and slaves. Later in the class, we will see that Foucault, also influenced by Rousseau (as well as Nietzsche) argues that institutions use binary divisions like knowledge/ignorance and sane/insane to maintain divisions of power and inequality.

While we live in society and enjoy its conveniences, Rousseau argues that we must resist the urge to give up our freedom, our most basic human nature. Because human nature is free and changeable, society can turn us into machines and slaves. To resist this slavery, we must (like Locke argued) be able to overthrow unjust governments and break social contracts (unlike Hobbes who saw the contract as unbreakable). We must also (like Machiavelli and Locke argued) have checks on the power of the sovereign and society such that society preserves the natural freedom of humanity and does not replace it with restrictions and repression. Rousseau turns Hobbes’ sovereign on his head: because the sovereign or government is, in fact, the will and hand of the people, it must be subject to the participation of the people to be authentic. The social contract is founded on mutual agreement, and so it must be maintained by mutual agreement.

Unfortunately, as critics have pointed out, this does not solve all of the problems that many see easily in the theories of Hobbes. Rousseau replaces the sovereign with the general will, which is indeed democratic, but what about the individual or minority group that disagrees with the general will? Both Hobbes and Rousseau argue that those who disagree must be made to agree or they are outside society. Both argue that the individual must be subordinate to the collective for the good of everyone. Rousseau does argue for checks on the power of the state to preserve the liberty of the individual, but the expression of the general will is, for Rousseau, such a check that then overrides the individual who disagrees with the majority. Rousseau does not precisely specify how the general will or government will refrain from dominating the dissenting individual. Rousseau, unlike Marx, was afraid of revolutions because he saw them as domination of the powerless by the powerful and pointed out that they often have terrible consequences. Nevertheless, his ideas were important for both the American and French revolutions. Many have pointed out that Robespierre of the French Revolution referred repeatedly to Rousseau while using the idea of general will to brutally eliminate his opposition. This is very similar to the use of Nietzsche by the Nazis. Others have noted the similarities to the problematic Communist revolutions and their abuses.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau begins famously by writing, “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. He goes on to consider the birth of the social contract and how it can be, if balanced properly, an aid to freedom as much as a restriction on it. The birth of society is in the family. The major difference is that the father dominates the children (and wife, unmentioned) but loves the children while the state dominates the individual but does not love the individual. Thus, the father encourages the freedom and life of the children out of love while the later relation of the social-contract state does not necessarily encourage the freedom of the individual.

If Hobbes is right, we are mere herds of cattle to be controlled by the state. If Aristotle is right, some are born superior to others and they should control the subordinates. Rousseau argues that society, like slavery, is not natural and came about by the force of the stronger. If we obey society because of force, then there is no reason for duty. He uses the example of a robber with a gun and argues that one is not bound by duty to tell the robber about hidden valuables. If the sovereign/state is given power by protecting the people, why should the people stand with the state when it persecutes them or needlessly seeks war? This is the major question one likely asks after reading Hobbes.

To renounce one’s liberty is to renounce one’s humanity. Any social contract which makes one side the absolute authority and the other the absolutely obedient contradicts itself such that it is meaningless. If a slave has rights but no power, then it is as if the master has the slave’s rights and these rights contradict the rights that the master has already. In so far as the master gives the slave no power, the slave has no duty to follow the master and follows the master merely by force. If it is not unjust for the master to chain or kill the slave, then it is not unjust for the slave to escape or kill the master when the gun or whip can be grabbed. Rousseau mentions Balboa taking possession of the Pacific Ocean and South America from the natives for Spain. The words “slavery” and “right” are mutually exclusive. In the case of the dissenting minority, if the state gets its power from the agreement of the majority, in what way is it just for the minority to be included in the social contract if they do not agree? The only just state is thus the state which enables individual liberty and is controlled by the people as equals.

Rousseau, as already discussed, does believe that the minority is subject to the general/majority will, but for Rousseau this is only because the state justly protects individual freedoms. Otherwise, without such protections, there is no injustice when the minority refuses to participate in the state. This is particularly interesting issue when one considers America and Jim Crow laws.