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Discourse on Inequality

More importantly it is evident in our lives when you

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More importantly, it is evident in our lives. When you look in the mirror to check your appearance, or wonder about how popular you are, or what your friends think of you, you are taking part in a process described perfectly by Rousseau. The idea that modern life is imperfect and unequal was not an idea invented by Rousseau, but he presents a fascinating argument for how inequality came to manifest itself. Almost every major philosopher in the eighteenth century, as well as many thousands of ordinary people, read the Discourse. Anyone who wants to understand the eighteenth, or indeed the twentieth, century, should read it too. Preface Summary Rousseau begins by twisting the prize question towards his own particular agenda. The original question concerns what is the nature of inequality among men, and whether it is authorized by the natural law. Rousseau asks another, related question: how can one know inequality without knowing man? To answer this question we must not consider man as he is now, deformed by society, but as he was in nature. Progress drives man as a species further from its original condition in the state of nature. As knowledge increases, so our ignorance of the true nature of man increases. Rousseau acknowledges the hypothetical and conjectural nature of what he is about to do in the Discourse. Undertaking to disentangle the natural from the artificial in man is a difficult task indeed. What is needed is a kind of experiment to achieve this. At the moment, ignorance of the nature of man casts uncertainty over the nature of natural right. Rousseau provides a brief account of the ancient and modern debate over natural rights and natural law. A second problem arises; if we are uncertain about what the terms nature and law mean, how can we define the natural law that is supposed to authorize inequality? In considering this question, we return to the problem of the real nature of man. For if we are ignorant of man's nature, it is impossible to tell whether the definition of natural law we decide on fits with that nature at all. To be a law, it has to be agreed to "knowingly" (rationally), and to be natural it must "speak with the voice of nature." There is a way out of this problem, however. Rousseau next claims that he perceives two basic principles that exist "prior to reason"—that is, before man is deformed by society and rationality. These are self-preservation and pity. From these principles, which do not require sociability, natural right flows. Man's duties are not dictated to him by reason alone, but by self-preservation and pity. Therefore a man will not harm another sentient (pain-feeling) being unless his own self-preservation is at stake. The duty not to harm others is based not on rationality but on sentience, the state of being able to feel. According to Rousseau, this solves the age-old question of whether animals participate in natural law. As they are not rational, he says, animals cannot have any part in a natural law, but as sentient beings they take part in natural right, that is, they feel and are the subjects of pity. This gives animals at least the right not to be
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