Week 6 – human nature and ethics in Rousseau and Kant.


(i) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712 – 1778.

1. Rousseau and the philosophes:

- a ‘Judas’ and an ‘anti-philosophe

- passion over reason

- the collective over the individual

- direct democracy over representative democracy

- opposition to absolutism and to inequality.

2. The arts and sciences, and education:

- Discourse on Arts and Sciences (1749/50) – the arts etc are the cause of a corruption of our natural innocence.

3. Human nature, society and politics: the ‘state of nature’:

- 1753/4: Discourse on Inequality – state of nature: pre-social man would have no love, no family, no morality, and no property; people would be free, but without knowledge, language, morality, or industry, i.e. ‘innocent’.

- Sentiments (sensibilité): amour de soi, pitié... 

- “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”

- “Love of men derived from love of self is the principle of human justice.”

4. Women (Emile, 1758):

- public (political) role for men, private (domestic) role for women.

5. Society, inequality, war:

- society corrupts us, bringing: inequality (springing from private property), luxury, idleness and a (false) political constitution. War also originates from the idea of private property…

6. Religion (Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, etc):

- tolerance, piety, a religion based on sentiment

- a civic religion.

7. Politics (The Social Contract, 1762):

- social contract based on ‘general will’ – being ‘forced to be free’

Quotes from Rousseau:

1. Emile:

It is the common people who compose the human race; what is not the people is hardly worth talking about.  Man is the same in all ranks; that being so, the ranks which are most numerous deserve most respect. (Emile, quoted in Sabine p 579)

2. Discourse on Inequality:

[society is result of the] fortuitous concurrence of many foreign causes... different accidents which may have improved the human understanding while depraving the species, and made him wicked while making him sociable... (1990, p 82.

Taught by experience that the love of well-being [amour de soi] is the sole motive of human actions, he found himself in a position to distinguish the few cases, in which mutual interest might justify him in relying on the assistance of his fellows; and also the still fewer cases in which a conflict of interest might give cause to suspect them... (p 86)

But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable…. Slavery and misery were soon seen (op cit p 92). The cultivation of the earth necessarily brought about its distribution; and property, once recognised, gave rise to the first rules of justice… (p 94)

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying 'This is mine', and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.  From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling in 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'.  (p 84)

3. The Social Contract

‘To find a form of association capable of defending and protecting with the total common force, the person and the property of each associate, and by means of which, each one, uniting himself with all the others, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as ever before.’  Such is the fundamental problem of which the social contract gives the solution. (Bk I, ch 6)

If, then, one reduces the social compact to its essence, it amounts to this: “Each of us puts his person and all his power to the common use under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

(ii) Kant 1724 – 1804. A rational grounding for ethics.

1. Kant’s life and influences:

Influences: Deism and Pietism, Rousseau – inner experience, Hume – scepticism: Kant argues need for study of cognition

2. Kant’s position in philosophy:

The ‘two schools of philosophy’: British/empirical, Continental/rationalist

3. Kant’s philosophy – transcendental idealism, and the ‘categories’:

- Our conscious reasoning imposes sense on the world.

- The inner and the outer worlds: objects (the outer world): cannot be known in themselves, but we apply ‘categories’ (space, time, quantity etc) to them. Categories are innate ideas (a priori) – hence ‘idealism’; to ‘transcend’ is to try to understand in depth (roughly!).

- Phenomena: observable appearances

- Noumena: ‘the hidden face of reality’ - includes things-in-themselves.

Our reasoning produces ideas about the metaphysical aspects of reality, but we can have no objective knowledge and no experiential knowledge of metaphysical ideas (God, soul, freedom etc). These ideas are part of ‘practical knowledge’ – i.e. for the purpose of morality. The only right use of reason is directed to moral ends.

In our ‘inner world’ we experience unconditional freedom which we strive to embody in action  i.e. ‘autonomy’. Auto: ‘self’ + Nomos: ‘law. This autonomy is based on a moral sense, not on our ego. Knowledge without morality is ego-bound. Morality without knowledge is unwise.

4. The Metaphysics of Morals and the categorical imperative: key ideas in Kant’s ethics:

(i) Autonomy – that is, the freedom to make moral choices, which enables us to perfect our human potential. The development of moral consciousness is for Kant (as it was for Rousseau) the way to liberation.

Nature subjects us to heteronomous laws, we need to formulate autonomous laws (– as Rousseau said: obedience to a law we formulate ourselves is freedom.).

Reason’s “true function must be to produce a will that is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself” (from The Moral Law). Good acts arise from a sense of duty (to the moral law), not from self-interest or even good intentions.

(ii) The categorical imperative – obedience to an inner moral law (categorical: objectively necessary, without regard to any end, unconditional)

“If I think of a categorical imperative, I know at once what it contains. For as the imperative contains, besides the Law, only the necessity of the maxim to be in accordance with this law, but the Law contains no condition by which it is limited, nothing remains over but the generality of a law in general, to which the maxim of the action is to be conformable, and which conforming alone presents the imperative as necessary. Therefore the categorical imperative is a single one, and in fact this: ‘Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law (universal)’.” (Critique of Practical Reason).

Examples: murder, theft, breaking promises, lying, and for Kant: suicide. But is the categorical imperative a sufficient ground for an act being good? (Not simply a necessary ground).

(iii) “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”  Full development of the individual and of humankind.

Kant’s writings:

1781 Critique of Pure Reason 1783: Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics that may be Presented as a Science. 

1784: What is Enlightenment?

1785: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.

1788: Critique of Practical Reason.

1790: Critique of Judgment.

1793: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone – led to his being forbidden to write on matters of religion.

1795: Eternal Peace.

1797: Metaphysics of Morals.