Term Paper: Locke and Rousseau

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[. . .] He argued, for instance, that no man had the right to appropriate more than his share, but even in Locke's time (and certainly today) the level of greed and inequality in such a political system can only be matched by the level of exploitation that serves that greed. Locke's arguments advantage those who have wealth. For example, Locke argued that humans are able to own property through their own labor. Labor puts an individual's stamp of ownership on an object. In addition, the individual who picks the apples has ownership of those apples, because his labor combines with the labor of nature. On this point, Rousseau would again disagree with Locke, suggesting that labor is not something that a man owns, in and of himself; labor is something imposed on another, from without. Labor is in fact an important piece of evidence of social inequality in Rousseau's scheme because it illustrates the power that one has to demand that someone be required to labor in the service of someone else. Rousseau might argue, in response to Locke, that those who have little are left to try to obtain property and wealth in a system that works to maintain the status quo for those with wealth and property. Therefore, factory workers who labor long hours, year in and year out, are unlikely to obtain the sort of wealth and property afforded to those who get rich on the backs of those laborers. Meanwhile, the heir to a wealthy industrialist may, on the backs of his family's fortune, never himself need to work a day in his life while still enjoying a great fortune. How would Locke respond to those scenarios as consequences of the civil society he proposed?

Rousseau, in "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," interprets the matter of inequality in the following way:

conceive two species of inequality among men; one which I call natural, or physical inequality, because it is established by nature, and consists in the difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind, or of the soul; the other which may be termed moral, or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorized by the common consent of mankind. This species of inequality consists in the different privileges, which some men enjoy, to the prejudice of others, such as that of being richer, more honored, more powerful, and even that of exacting obedience from them. (Rousseau 175)

Rousseau believed that within modern societies, social relations between, especially, rich and poor were both problematic and unstable and would result in civil war and social disparity. In an attempt to escape from this inevitable war, the rich and powerful would need to somehow manipulate the poor into participating in civil society by making those latter individuals believe that civil society was their best and only option. The poor would then come to assume that society would secure their rights and freedoms; but for Rousseau, such social orders would merely fix in place pre-existing relations of power and domination through laws and moral inequality. The "Discourse" described a fundamental evolutionary process in which individuals could not ultimately be free as a result of things like labor, inequality, property, ownership, and moral laws. As well, the domination of one person over another would invariably reduce the very freedom of the poor. In sum, real freedom within society is impossible because economic inequality and property lead inevitably to domination.

Rousseau was sharply critical of philosophers in the past, like Locke and Hobbes, who failed to take into full account the inevitability of social injustice and economic inequality in their accounting of civil society. He wrote, they "have spoken of the natural right of every man to keep what belongs to him, without letting us know what they meant by the word belong" (176). Rousseau also noted that governments and laws were created, in part, to subject the weakest individuals to the most powerful. Rousseau, as noted above, looked back to a time before "morality began to insinuate itself into human actions" (Rousseau 219), before laws were communally enacted and an individual was "the only judge and avenger of the injuries he had received," and argued that with the evolution of moral inequality, replacing physical or natural inequality, the "goodness of heart suitable to the pure state of nature by no means was suitable for the new society" (219). Rousseau's main criticisms were against sovereign social authorities; he wrote, "inequality, almost non-existent among men in the state of nature, derives its force and its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and at last becomes permanent and lawful by the establishment of property and of laws" (246). He believed that social inequalities would invariably clash with natural rights and where that collision took place, it would be natural rights and natural laws, derived from the state of nature, that would suffer at the hands of newly established laws designed for the privilege and power of the few.

In civil societies, though, laws exist that are differentiated from the laws of nature. Individuals choose to wave some of their natural rights so as to be protected by common laws that are defined by the legislative branch of government and enforced by the executive. Executive powers protect property and defend liberty, but it is important to remember that in Locke's system, government was essentially a function of the people, and the citizenry, for its part, held the power to elect leaders who would serve and protect them. In addition, it was certainly within the civil rights of the people to challenge or dissolve the leadership of those who the people come to believe have failed to fully serve their interests. Locke contended that civil society must be governed for the good of the people. In civil society, individuals must submit themselves to the majority and agree to play by the rules and decisions of the majority. Locke recognized, thought, that there have been many examples through history of the existence of absolute power -- czars, kings, etc. -- and his work was responsive to his time and place and the prevailing notion of the 'Divine Right of Kings.'

But Locke believed that originally all societies began with a kind of social contract. He wrote, "Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent" (52). Locke's idea was that historically individuals freely and willingly consented to political society, though he also recognized that because individuals were born into an existing government, they were not always able to band together to reform or change that government. Locke argued that parents could not bind their children to a certain governmental order; at some point, those children would need to make a commitment themselves to government. For Locke, they must freely make the decision about whether to ally themselves with their parents' government. Once again, "consent makes any one a member of any commonwealth."

Locke's Treatise began with liberal notions of free and equal communities of individuals, all possessed of natural rights. In Locke's theory of nature, individuals did not have control over one another; natural laws governed and created equality amongst all humans. By extension, within nature, individuals had naturally occurring executive powers in order to execute natural law that were in their best interest. But for Locke it would take the creation of a government to ensure that rights were met, laws were enforced, and justice was carried out. He argued that human rights were based on the creation and adoption of a moral code. Locke believed that "rights" could only be ensured in a just and moral system that appealed to conscience and reason. He was also very certain that reason held the key to justice and equality, where Rousseau was sharply critical of reason being able to adequately control human actions and natural instincts.

Since individuals would acquire properties and goods, and because they would come into conflict with one another on the basis of those personal acquisitions, Locke made a plea for moral laws set in place to govern individuals in social settings. Locke assumed that the people would understand that the benefits of such laws would outweigh whatever the perceived threat to their natural liberties in order to protect themselves and their property. He also argued that individuals must come together into some sort of social and political body and agree to certain standards of behavior in order for society to function smoothly, but again they would have to forego some of their natural rights. As noted earlier, in Locke's civil society, people would have to lose natural freedoms in favor of common, social laws, but, in return, they would receive governmental protection… [END OF PREVIEW]

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