The belief that man, by nature, is good was espoused by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He believed that people in the state of nature were innocent and at their best and that they were corrupted by the unnaturalness of civilization. In the state of nature, people lived entirely for themselves, possessed an absolute independence, and were content.
According to Rousseau, in the state of nature, people tended to be isolated, war was absent, and their desires were minimal and circumscribed (i.e., commensurate with their basic survival needs). People did not have the drive to acquire more possessions. There was plenty to go around, an absence of reliance on others, and no real need for extensive social interaction. However, there did exist an unreflective sympathy and general compassion toward others that was indiscriminate and not based on merits.
In the state of nature egoism was absent and compassion was present. Rousseau saw compassion for the undeserving in particular and for mankind in general to be the greatest of the virtues. He regarded contempt of another, which could lead to hurt feelings, as a vice and as always bad. Rousseau wanted no one's feelings to be hurt. He felt that a proper society had no place for blame, criticism, judgment, comparison with others, and the distinction of worth among men. He said it was wrong to recognize distinctions because this makes people unequal. It was worse to be affronted than to be injured. What mattered to Rousseau was a person's good intentions rather than his achievements or outer appearances.
Rousseau proclaimed the natural goodness of man and believed that one man by nature is just as good as any other. For Rousseau, a man could be just without virtue and good without effort. According to Rousseau, man in the state of nature was free, wise, and good and the laws of nature were benevolent. It follows that it was civilization that enslaved and corrupted man and made him unnatural. Because in the order of nature all men were equal, it also follows that distinction and differentiation among men are the products of culture and civilization. Because man is by nature a saint, it must be the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of the individual.
Corruption by Civilization: The Origin of Inequality
The fundamental problem for Rousseau is not nature or man but instead is social institutions. Rousseau's view is that society corrupts the pure individual. Arguing that men are not inherently constrained by human nature, Rousseau claims that men are limited and corrupted by social arrangements. Conceiving of freedom as an absolute, independent of any natural limitations, Rousseau disavows the world of nature and its inherent laws, constraints, and regulations.
Rousseau held that reason had its opportunity but had failed, claiming that the act of reflection is contrary to nature. Rousseau asserts that man's natural goodness has been depraved by the progress he has made and the knowledge he has acquired. He proceeded to attack the Age of Reason by emphasizing feeling, the opposite of reason, as the key to reality and the future. His thought thereby foreshadowed and gave impetus to the Romantic Movement.
Rousseau assigned primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings, and passion. He believed that these could provide better insights into what is good and real than could reason. Rousseau thus minimized reason and differences in the moral worth of individuals. He failed to realize that freedom is meaningless in the absence of reason. He did not grasp that reason connects the moral subject to the world of values.
Rousseau observed that although life was peaceful in the state of nature, people were unfulfilled. They needed to interact in order to find actualization. Evil, greed, and selfishness emerged as human society began to develop....
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