Locke and Rousseau on the Question of Inequality
John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government argues that “men are naturally free” (55). In other words, Locke believed that humans, in their natural state, and prior to the creation of civil society, would have been a kind of sovereign entity, possessing a set of natural rights prescribed by God and nature, and those rights would have afforded individuals the opportunity to protect themselves against the transgressions of others. Societies, for their part, were set up in order to avoid civil, interpersonal, or foreign wars — wars that might have occurred over a dispute, for example, about property. Locke believed that in the early stages of evolution, humans would have lived with one another as co-owners of the earth and its resources, and given this type of communal existence, humans were all equal. In the natural world, a natural set of laws took precedence — a ‘law of the jungle,’ as it were — and again, individuals would have had the absolute right to protect themselves from those who might have wished to take liberties with regards to their natural rights.
In comparison, Rousseau, in “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” (hereafter “Discourse”), argued that modern systems of morality and law were at the heart of economic, social, and political inequality, where Locke saw such systems as the basis of civil society and as the protector of individual rights. In humanity’s natural state, and prior to the imposition of moral laws forged in and through governmental bodies, Rousseau hypothesized that humans would have been motivated by certain instincts, like pity and self-preservation. At this stage, humans would also have had only a few needs and no real understanding of the difference between good and evil — a difference only intelligible inside modern political or social orders. As humans came progressively into contact with one another, societies developed and humans began to adapt to new systems by developing new needs and qualities. One of the negative consequences of these evolving social and political orders was the need amongst people to compare themselves to one another, to envy others, and to attempt to gain power and economic control over others. In part, Rousseau described this impulse as “amour propre.” While savages only cared about survival, modern man learned to care about what others thought about him; in other terms, the modern individual became keenly aware of the difference between simply being in the moment and appearing to be a certain way in the eyes of others. For Rousseau, this was certainly a harmful psychological condition that again was linked to the evolution of human reason and political society.
In general, though, Rousseau believed that the creation of both labor and personal property marked the beginning of inequality amongst people, and, as well, the desire amongst humans to dominate or exploit one another. Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, humans had certain natural inequalities, for example, strength, age, and sex, and those inequalities allowed some individuals to take more personal, self-serving liberties than others. In line with Locke’s thinking, Rousseau asked, “for what can a man add but his labor to things which he has not made, in order to acquire a property in them?” (223). But Rousseau goes on to show that t]he man that had most strength performed most labor; the most dexterous turned his labor to best account; the most ingenious found out methods of lessening his labor; the husbandman required more iron, or the smith more grain, and while both worked equally, one earned a great deal by his labor, while the other could scarcely live by his. Thus natural inequality unfolds itself… (223).
For Rousseau, the beginnings of labor brought with it the beginnings of inequality and the destruction of natural liberties; civil society “fixed for ever the laws of property and inequality…and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labor, servitude, and misery.” (228). In Rousseau’s system, inequalities would never be remedied in and through social systems in a way that they would for Locke; such inequalities would only be compounded and would culminate in a kind of despotic rule where wealth would become the one and only standard by which people are measured. Inequality, for Rousseau, is certainly natural when considering physical differences, but in societies, economic inequality is the inevitable result of an intellectual and social evolution that begins in nature and becomes progressively more corrupt and unjust as it evolves into societies. In other terms, moral or economic inequalities are the result of an unnatural and unhealthy social contract between humans that leads to discrepancies in power, status, and wealth. What started as a wholly acceptable and natural inequality resulted in destructive moral and economic inequalities in society.
Locke saw things differently. While both he and Rousseau developed a primary distinction between the state of nature and civil society, Locke was less accepting of natural freedoms or natural states of liberty where political authority did not exist. He argued that a state of nature was not the same as a “state of licence.” Locke wrote, “though man in [a state of liberty] have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions…he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession” (9). In other words, humans do not live in a moral vacuum, unresponsive to moral and social requirements. While they may have natural freedoms, humans do not have the absolute license to exercise their natural impulses in any way that they might wish; they are obliged, in fact, to act in a way that affirms the equal status and rights of others. Locke went on to say, “[t]he state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (9). Locke felt that the construction of social laws and social contracts would ensure that natural laws were followed and that humans would not descend into a state of war (civil or interpersonal), given that self-preservation is an essential law of nature. Where natural license is grounded in natural law, an individual would presumably be able to act freely, without either obligation or the accusation of having perpetuated some injustice. Locke rejected the argument that individuals should have license to enact natural laws or instincts because, as shown above, the state of nature appealed to an even higher law, that being reason, and that law imposed natural obligations on the individual. Natural laws limited what was permissible and on this point Rousseau remained in sharp contrast with Locke.
For Rousseau, reason was certainly not the highest law, in fact, the passions or instincts inform reason. For the savage, the passions instinctually drove him, his reason and language developed as a means to explain or explore those more basic passions. For Rousseau, the savage had all he needed in his instincts alone. Therefore, reason was a later addition to the human skill set in Rousseau’s philosophy. Moreover, in Locke’s argument, he problematically presented the idea of license in that he failed to acknowledge that license is an entirely moral distinction and cannot be readily applied to the state of nature. Individuals can only concern themselves with the moral consequences of natural laws after having pre-figured civil society, law, reason, and morality. Locke is clearly priortizing the reasoned, civil man over Rousseau’s savage, perpetuating his lack of reverence for the originary state of nature. In the above argument, Locke seemed troubled by the potential consequences of natural law in society, showing a disdain for uncivilized acts. But for Rousseau, the savage was complete in himself. He would gratify his senses and move on, without a thought. Rousseau wrote, “nothing is more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the pernicious enlightenment of civilized man; and confined equally by instinct and reason to providing against the harm which threatens him, he is withheld by natural compassion from doing any injury to others” (219). In this context, Rousseau even quotes Locke, saying, “according to the axiom of the wise Locke, Where there is no property, there can be no injury” (219). Of course, though, Rousseau ironically quotes Locke for the two men are certainly not on the same page with regards to either property or the state of nature.
For Rousseau, inequalities can only breed when individuals come to believe that they have the right to say “this is mine” (211). Throughout the “Discourse,” Rousseau created an impassioned argument that showed how all human injustice, including economic inequality, began with the emergence of civil society and the ownership of property. The capitalist society that Locke envisioned was based in large part on greed and inequality, and could not be fully justified in the way Locke layed it out. 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 against those who might infringe on their liberties. A political consensus would be formed based upon the ideas of limited government and natural human rights and dignity, and also on the right to unlimited personal property. That is, Locke argued for unlimited personal property protected from governmental invention; he even sometimes elevated property over the sanctity of life. In the end, the executive branch of the government has the power to enforce laws and punish offenders.
This system, though, may seem too ideal. For Rousseau, Locke may have been too optimistic, even deluded, about such a civil system working on behalf of all people. Too often inequalities crop up, while natural laws suffer, and so too do humans who are essentially natural beings. Rousseau, in a very forward looking moment in the “Discourse,” anticipating everything from Marxism, to the Civil Rights movement, to modern environmentalism, wrote that “from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess enough provisions for two, equality vanished; property was introduced; labor became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which had to be watered with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the harvests” (220). For Rousseau, whatever was natural in humanity would be usurped through rational progress towards civil society. In response, Locke argued that nature lacked important elements that only a civil society could provide, including, established laws, judges or public arbiters, and the power to carry out sentences in the service of equality and justice. But, of course, to gain these guarantees of social and political equality, people must give up their natural rights — including the right to do as one wishes within the bounds of natural law, and the right to exact revenge against those who violate natural laws. The two figures under investigation in this paper reach such ultimately different conclusions about the nature of inequality, economic or otherwise, because of the way that they prioritize the two essential realms in this paper, nature and society. Locke read the state of nature through the lens of civil society, arguing that nature and humans alike conformed to reason and that society corrected inequalities. Rousseau showed that nothing could ever precede natural law and therefore civil society and its concomitant moral inequalities would be a natural outgrowth of natural law. In both cases, the weaknesses of their arguments may be grounded in their inability to view either nature or society, outside the terms of its opposite.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind.” In The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Ed. Lester G. Crocker. New York: Washington Square, 1974. 149-258.
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