In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Mankind, Jean-Jacques Rousseau explores the origins of social inequality. Rousseau argues moral inequality is established by convention. In the modern world, human beings come to derive their very sense of self from the opinion of others, a fact which Rousseau sees as corrosive of freedom and destructive of individual authenticity.
Rousseau begins with humanity’s historical transition from its original state of isolated independence to the development of organized communities. According to Rousseau, man’s state of nature was a peaceful and quixotic time. People lived solitary, uncomplicated lives and their needs were easily satisfied by nature. Because of the natural abundance which existed, there was little need for competition. As a result, humans were naturally endowed with the capacity for compassion and were not inclined to harm one another for material gain.
This dynamic gradually changes as man begins to organize into communities. For Rousseau, civil society began as an irrational deception perpetrated upon humanity by individuals seeking to place their own interests above those of the community. Rousseau argues:
“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
Rousseau asserts, the weaker members of society are persuaded that the establishment of laws will provide them greater security by preserving their rights. Meanwhile, laws are created to entrench an artificial social hierarchy which seeks to preserve power and legitimize its exploitation of the more vulnerable members of society. The ensuing competition over property and social status corrupts human nature by extinguishing the compassion towards one another which existed in man’s original state of nature. This creates dangerous and unstable relationships, leading to the constant threat of violence.
Rousseau concludes that social inequality is only acceptable where it relates to differences in individual ability and talent. The moral deficiency of modern civilization, however, is that man’s liberty is undermined through an unnatural social construct which equates material gain with virtue. This creates a perverse incentive for individuals to increase their own privilege and status through the exploitation of their fellow citizens.
Rousseau envisions society as becoming increasingly hostile, eventually requiring despotic rule to maintain the inequality. As wealth becomes more concentrated, the potential for violent conflict increases. Rousseau argues this outcome may be avoided through a more equitable economic arrangement, but is pessimistic that this arrangement can be achieved through voluntary concessions by those in power.
A downloadable PDF version of the book may be found HERE
A version of the Book in digital format may be found HERE