Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

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Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  narky on Mon Jan 31, 2011 1:31 pm

Just read this for a policy class and I am not sure if I agree. Has anyone else read it?
Basically Rousseau claims that society is a mad beast which steals all true freedom and equality from individuals, and that we were way better off, a simpler and more gentle species, when we were all out in the woods by ourselves.
Personally I don't think this is true. But he makes some pretty convincing arguments, pretty interesting stuff if you are looking to read random old school philosophy.
Do you guys think society / man is inherently evil?
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Re: Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  Ramsus88 on Mon Jan 31, 2011 9:10 pm

I mean, to be a part of society you trade in some of your freedom for security so there is an argument to be made there. Inherently is too strong of a word for it but I think all men and societies are susceptible to evil. Then again, evil is defined by society and your own upbringing so it's hard to say whether a society is evil or not. I'm reading Stranger in a Strange Land and in the Martian society in the book cannibalism is a-okay and in fact, it's an honor to be eaten by your friends. They will also kill/send you to another dimension without hesitation if they detect "wrongness" in your actions and it won't bother them a bit. Although to be fair, they are basically immortal and exist as ghosts after they die so death isn't a big deal to them. If they mess up they'll gladly "discorporate" themselves.

I'd say that until we can deal with the problem of scarcity(lack of resources, manpower, time, w/e) society will be inherently evil in that it cannot support every human on this planet in a humane fashion. By humane I just mean the bare minimum: food, water, shelter, and opportunity( i guess this would be some basic freedoms and the guarantee that those with greater power can't use it to oppress you). Until then, people will continue to be scared of scarcity and will be easily influenced by survival instincts which leads to selfishness and fear that the Other is somehow going to fuck you over. By the Other I just mean some vague notion of other people, nations, religions or whatever. Basically, anybody you can't completely trust upon first meeting them.

Admittedly, even if we could figure out a way to solve scarcity tomorrow it would be incredibly difficult to implement because our current ideas of how men and societies should be are so entrenched in most people's minds. The worst are ideas acquired subconsciously by just living in a certain society. Those ideas tend to not be consciously understood and are often mistaken by individuals as gut instinct and are thus considered natural and obvious. It's hard to get someone to change something they consider an axiom of being civilized. Again, I have an example from Stranger in a Strange Land I can point to. A lot of characters in the book are absolutely repulsed by the idea of cannibalism and refuse to even consider an explanation for it. One of my favorite characters in the book, Jubal Hershaw, makes an argument similar to the one in this paragraph to another character about how even if nobody explicitly taught him that cannibalism is wrong, he definitely picked it up just by living in the society and experiencing the culture. I'd look up the passage but I'm lazy. He admits he's repulsed by the idea too, but he will at least admit that he could probably learn to be okay with it and would have embraced it if he grew up on Mars.

tldr:Evil is somewhat relative. Modern society/man is still heavily influenced by primal and survival instincts and will therefore be 'evil' until scarcity and the problem of survival can be dealt with. Also, ideas and traditions are entrenched in people's minds and will be very hard to change even if we could draft a plan to solve scarcity.

I could probably try to write more / edit what I already wrote a bit but I need to do some reading for class.
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Re: Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  Ramsus88 on Mon Jan 31, 2011 9:21 pm

I haven't read Rousseau btw but I've been meaning to.

Also, why does my spell check get mad at me for Hershaw/Harshaw and not Jubal?
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Re: Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  narky on Mon Jan 31, 2011 9:30 pm

brilliant response andy. interesting linkage of the Other and scarcity and fear.
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Re: Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  jaingo on Tue Feb 01, 2011 11:05 pm

Society v. Lack of Society with regards to freedom and equality

First I think it is difficult to think about life without society --- people all alone in the woods, and what that life was like exactly. When did we not have some form of society? Are we talking pre-tribal societies? Surely there were the norms of small groups which must amount to some sort of society. I suppose that it just seems a difficult line to draw society v. pre-society. And with regards to freedom and equality, I would say that the security afforded by society and a simple market system does in fact allow people the freedom to participate in activities that were impossible before systems of trade. Art could hardly exist. Really, any advanced techniques/activities/interests not related to survival would have to be incredibly, incredibly limited. in the past, even if there weren't social inequalities defining people, surely biological inequalities played a larger factor, but were still a discriminating tool for worth

Thinking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (imperfect, yet useful - link) --- it would be hard to achieve any of the higher levels of need or self-realization in a primitive setting without a society because one is primarily stuck on the lowest level (food/shelter/water/clothing/sleep/breathing). Maybe these needs are products of a society, I suppose one could respond, but regardless, individuals still did not previously always have the ability to pursue some aspects of the higher tiers until society came around.

In terms of methodology for answering the problem what would be sweet and impossible would be to examine the current state of society for individuals in terms of quality of life (for example perhaps break it down into 5 groups --- lowest 0-24, 25-49, 50-74, 75-99) and compare it to people pre-society in groups and see... yet there would be debate over a) the factors determining quality of life (how important freedom and equality are as well as life expectancy, happiness, safety, etc) and b) to what degree the factors were present or absent in presociety past, or even present as well

lastly i suppose is the issue of freedom and equality... it is impossible to really have lots of both, no? to have equality one has to suppress freedom right in some ways no? kind of harrison bergeron-esque
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Re: Rousseau: On the Origin of Inequality

Post  ellis on Thu Feb 03, 2011 6:16 am

Ramsus88 wrote: I'd say that until we can deal with the problem of scarcity(lack of resources, manpower, time, w/e) society will be inherently evil in that it cannot support every human on this planet in a humane fashion... Until then, people will continue to be scared of scarcity and will be easily influenced by survival instincts which leads to selfishness and fear that the Other is somehow going to fuck you over. By the Other I just mean some vague notion of other people, nations, religions or whatever. Basically, anybody you can't completely trust upon first meeting them.

I'm pretty sure we could easily handle feeding everyone on the planet if we wanted to. Seriously. We just don't. Instead of spending $600 billion on the department of defense (not even bothering with the equal amount we spend on social security AND welfare) we could easily be feeding the entire world ourselves. And yet, somehow we are still fighting because "why should I have to pay for someone else to live?"

jaingo wrote: lastly i suppose is the issue of freedom and equality... it is impossible to really have lots of both, no? to have equality one has to suppress freedom right in some ways no? kind of harrison bergeron-esque

It all depends on how you define freedom and equality. I think Harrison Bergeron is an excellent example of how freedom would exist in a world that attempts to promote absolute equality (equality at the every level, even physical and mental). While this is hardly a feasible solution, much less a desirable one, I see no reason why freedom and equality couldn't both exist. Equality: everyone has access to the same (portioned in terms of food or other physically dependent*) resources (books, etc). Freedom: That's much trickier. It depends on what you want to define as free.

I feel that one reason why society does strip freedom and equality is because it's attempting to apply a set of rules to such a large and diverse population. Even when we were "pre-societal," which I would believe is pre-agriculture, we were about as equal as any other animal could be and certainly as free.

Random book promotion: I highly recommend reading Ishmael or My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It gives a lot of great perspective on the human race. Here's a great quote:

"The ship was sinking---and sinking fast. The captain told the passengers and crew, "We've got to get the lifeboats in the water right away."
But the crew said, "First we have to end capitalist oppression of the working class. Then we'll take care of the lifeboats."

Then the women said, "First we want equal pay for equal work. The lifeboats can wait."

The racial minorities said, "First we need to end racial discrimination. Then seating in the lifeboats will be allotted fairly."

The captain said, "These are all important issues, but they won't matter a damn if we don't survive. We've got to lower the lifeboats right away!"

But the religionists said, "First we need to bring prayer back into the classroom. This is more important than lifeboats."

Then the pro-life contingent said, "First we must outlaw abortion. Fetuses have just as much right to be in those lifeboats as anyone else."

The right-to-choose contingent said, "First acknowledge our right to abortion, then we'll help with the lifeboats."

The socialists said, "First we must redistribute the wealth. Once that's done everyone will work equally hard at lowering the lifeboats."

The animal-rights activists said, "First we must end the use of animals in medical experiments. We can't let this be subordinated to lowering the lifeboats."

Finally the ship sank, and because none of the lifeboats had been lowered, everyone drowned.

The last thought of more than one of them was, "I never dreamed that solving humanity's problems would take so long---or that the ship would sink so SUDDENLY.""
--Daniel Quinn

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