Philosophy 433                                                 History of Ethics                       Darwall                                    Winter 2008






I  Rousseau: the background.  Rousseau was an almost exact contemporary of Hume's.  Their dates overlap almost precisely.  Hume was born in 1711 and died in 1776.  And Rousseau was

born one year earlier and died two years later (1712-1778).  Moreover, their lives intertwined in one pretty remarkable incident.  Hume invited Rousseau to make his home in England, and Rousseau came in 1766.  After a while, however, Rousseau, who was, shall we say, sensitive, became convinced that Hume had invited him to England only to defame him.  A violent quarrel ensued, ending with Rousseau leaving in a panic and Hume publishing his version of the whole affair.  Philosophers!

            While Rousseau is mainly known as a political philosopher, certain central moral philosophical themes underlie his political views.  These concern the nature of liberty, freedom, and obligation.  In particular, Rousseau describes a kind of moral freedom or autonomy which begins, with his thought, to play a central role in moral philosophy.  This is Rousseau's idea that human beings are both free and obligated only by virtue of their capacity to obey a law which they prescribe for themselves, and, specifically, by laws that they would prescribe by exercising this capacity. 

            We saw an antecedent of this idea in the "transcendental" interpretation of Butler.  Butler held that only creatures with a principle of reflection can be moral agents, and that the principle of reflection is a capacity for reflective guidance of the will by our reflective approbation and disapprobation of first-order motives.  But we also saw that for Butler (as for Hutcheson) these approvals and disapprovals are simply a given of our psychological makeup.  This makes the condition for our holding a certain condition of will (a motive) to be justified a determination which is external to the will itself.  Rousseau, however, and Kant after him, describe an autonomy of a more complete sort:  "moral freedom . . . alone makes man truly the master of himself; for the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom." (54)  On this conception, the agent holds herself subject, not to judgments which are determined by her given

psychological makeup, but to laws which she wills for herself.  Her nature is thus a "law to itself" not just in Butler's sense, but in the stronger sense that she is only subject to laws which she can give to herself.


II  Masters and slaves: both unfree?  The first chapter of On the Social Contract begins famously:

            "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.  One believes himself the others’ master, and yet is more a slave than they."  While this passage

appropriately sets the theme of freedom and unfreedom, it does so in a slightly misleading way.  The contrast seems to be between a freedom human beings might have in a state of nature, outside of any relations in a social or governmental order, and an unfreedom that occurs in societies and states.  That this can't really be Rousseau's contrast is suggested by his saying in Chapter VIII, "On the Civil State," that in a properly democratic civil state, there is the acquisition of the “moral freedom” mentioned above.  And it seems to be this freedom that contrasts with the sort of slavery that Rousseau attributes to the slaveholder.  The person who has moral liberty is "master of himself".  He only owes "obedience to the law [he] has prescribed for himself."  He who would master another as slave, fails to be morally free himself--he fails to follow any law he would prescribe for himself.  But we are getting ahead of our story.


III Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty One way of getting a grip on Rousseau's theme is to note a distinction, made in this century by Isaiah Berlin, between two kinds of liberty which he called negative and positive liberty.

            Negative liberty is the absence of restraints or hindrances to doing what a person wants to do, or perhaps might want to do.  A person is free in this sense if there is nothing stopping him from executing his will.  There are various variations on this theme.  Sometimes only the absence of restraints posed by the will of others is counted; sometimes the absence of restraints of any kind.  Now, a slave may well be unfree in this sense, but the master is likely not to be, relatively speaking.  So if there is a sense in which neither slave nor master is free, it will have to be some other sense.

            Positive liberty is a condition of a person's will and action.  A person is positively free when she is autonomous, master (mistress?) of herself, when she determines herself by her own judgment of what she should do.  Here the contrast is with what Kant called heteronomous conduct--conduct that results from the will of another, or from other sources within the self, say appetites, passions, etc., that conflict with one's sense of what one should (or would best) do. 

            To put the difference between these kinds of liberty in a nutshell:  one concerns the absence of impediments to the will, however that will might be formed, the other concerns the forming of the will itself.

            Now when Rousseau characterizes the kind of "moral freedom" that can be acquired only in civil society, he contrasts it with a "slavery" that consists in being "driven by appetite alone."  Moral freedom, then, is positive liberty in Berlin’s terms. 


IV  Natural independence   How, then, are we to understand the freedom with which Rousseau says all are born? 

Consider the following passages:

            "This common freedom is a consequence of man’s nature.  His first law is to attend to his own preservation, his first cares are those he owes himself, and since, as soon as he has reached the age of reason, he is the sole judge of the means proper to preserve himself, he becomes his own master.” (42)

            This language might lead one to think that Rousseau is here talking about what later calls moral freedom, since we have the same association with self-mastery, but it is hard to see how it can be since Rousseau explicitly says in VIII that in entering the social contract, people give up their "natural freedom" in order to gain, through civil association, the possibility of moral freedom.  And the "natural freedom" seems to be the very "common freedom" to which he earlier refers.  Rousseau says that we gain “moral freedom” by “substituting justice for instinct in [our] conduct.” (53) 

            We get some insight into what Rousseau means by this "common" or "natural" freedom in Chapter IV, "Of Slavery."  Here he speaks of a “primitive independence” (46), that " no man has a natural authority over his fellow-man." (44)  Because this is so, "conventions remain as the basis of all legitimate authority among men." (44) His point here seems to be that there is no natural authority that any person has to direct the life of another and be obeyed.  Each person (of the age of reason) has the authority to direct his own life.  And others can direct him only by convention, i.e., only by his will or consent taken together with others’ (i.e., by their collective will).

            Note also that Rousseau explicitly expresses this idea as a statement of the dignity that any person has.  For a person to attempt to renounce or alienate the direction of his own life is to renounce "one's quality as a man."  (45)  It cannot, therefore, be justified.  Note the doctrine of the dignity of man.


V  Independence without autonomy (moral freedom)  Here now the puzzle.  The master of a slave presumably still has authority over his own life in this sense (although the slave doesn't).  And yet Rousseau says that that the master is every bit as much a slave as his slaves.  What can this mean?

            Well, recall that Rousseau says that we must give up natural freedom in entering civil society, but that we thereby acquire the possibility of "moral freedom” which alone makes man truly the master of himself."  Presumably, this must be what the master of slaves lacks.  In having slaves, in particular, in willing for them a condition he could not will for himself, he does not act according to a law he would prescribe for himself.  And thus he is not truly master, even of himself.  This is why I say the opening passage of Chapter I is misleading.  It seems to contrast the freedom of "natural man" with the unfreedom of the slaveholder, as though these were two dimensions of the same species of freedom.  But actually they are not, since both have the right, as we might say, to direct their own lives.  The difference is that the slaveholder is not truly a governor of himself because he does not live by laws that he prescribes for himself.  


VII  Autonomy (moral freedom).  It is useful at this point to note Rousseau’s formulation of the major problematic of The Social Contract:  "Find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force, and by means of which, each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before.  This is the fundamental problem for which the social contract provides the solution." (49-50)

            There are two different contrasts that are involved in Rousseau's thinking at this point.  We can put the difference between these two different contrasts crudely by saying that one concerns the subject of the will and the other concerns the object of the will.  Let us take the first contrast first.

            A.  This is a contrast Rousseau draws between private will and general will.  When we join the social compact "each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible member of the whole.” (50) We are capable of willing from different perspectives, as it were.  I can will from my own personal perspective, as myself.  So, when I choose my clothes in the morning, for example, it seems that I simply consult my own tastes and preferences and choose from own point of view.  But, we can also choose and intend from standpoints that are essentially conceived as knowingly shared;  that is, I can choose to do something as part of a "we."  I can choose or will from a perspective we (which may be more or less extensive) share as related in some way or other, say, as friends, or as part of the same community, or team, and so on.  The "general will" is an essentially shared will; its subject is the person as identified with this shared standpoint.

            B.  The second contrast concerns whether what is willed is personal, pertaining to a particular person, or not.  Rousseau says that moral liberty consists in obeying a law that one prescribes for oneself.  This means that insofar as a particular action is willed, it is willed as falling under a law (we might also say "principle" here) that one wills.  In Chapter VI of Book II, "On Law", Rousseau writes, "when I say that the object of the laws is always general, I mean that the law considers the subjects in a body and their actions in the abstract, never any man as an individual or a particular action." (67)

 Thus, to will a particular action as falling under a willed law, is to will it as part of willing that actions of such and such kind be performed in circumstances that are thus and so, for some "such

and such" and some "thus and so".

            If we put these two "moments" together, we get that the autonomous person wills his actions as

            (i) falling under general principles (laws) which he wills that all follow, and

            (ii) that he wills this from a standpoint that all members of the community can share.


            Now, actually, these two moments are not entirely distinct.  The proper object of the general will is itself general--"there is no general will concerning a particular object" (66).  And the idea of a law that could be prescribed from a particular individual's point of view also seems oxymoronic.  So each moment seems to involve the other.


VIII Autonomy and the social contract.  If we take for granted, then, Rousseau's assertion that there is a kind of moral liberty or autonomy that is realized in an agent's being guided by a law she prescribes for herself, we seem to have something like the following explanation for why autonomy requires civic association.  There can be autonomy only if individuals have available a shared perspective from which they can consider by which principles ("laws") they should guide their lives.  But this shared perspective will be available only if there exists a consensual community with which all identify.

            Now actual members of communities will, of course, disagree about what laws should be prescribed, about what is for the common good.  Two points should be stressed here.

            (a)  What Rousseau calls the "general will" is, as it were, the correct will from this standpoint, i.e. which law really would be most for the common good, and not necessarily what any particular person, or even every particular person happens to will from that point of view. [See Book II, Chapter III, "Whether the General Will Can Err."]

            (b)  If someone disagrees with the (correct) general will, and refuses to act appropriately, then Rousseau thinks it will be no violation of his autonomy to require him to do so.  Indeed, Rousseau seems to say that if he is thus forced, then he ends of up acting autonomously.  As Rousseau puts it, "he shall be forced to be free." (53)


            At this point we should no longer take for granted that acting autonomously involves acting on self-prescribed law, and ask why we should believe that.  Consider, for example, a heroin addict who shoots up because of an overwhelming desire for heroin.  We need to distinguish different cases here.  [Assume that the only considerations relevant to what to do concern the agent himself.]  It is not enough that he wishes he didn't have such a strong desire for heroin.  Because he may still think that given that he does have such a strong desire, he really should shoot up.  If this is his state of mind, it is hard to see how he fails to act autonomously.  His shooting up is not just the result of desires to which he is simply subject.  On the contrary, he endorses his action, it is what he thinks he should do, though, of course, his endorsement is conditional on his having the addiction.  To get someone whose action is not autonomous it seems we need

someone who shoots up despite the fact that he thinks he shouldn't. 

            But does this give us what Rousseau needs?  The person who is guided by what he should do seems to be guided by some conception of law.