History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Rousseau Lecture 1

I. A final question on Hume to tie things together. Recall that a central premise in Hume's argument against his rationalist opponents was that morality (and moral judgment) are inherently motivating. Now that we have examined Hume's own constructive picture, ask yourself exactly how Hume would interpret this premise in his own theory. That is, as he is thinking of morality and moral judgment, what about them makes them inherently motivating? This turns out not to be a simple matter. While there are passages that suggest that moral sentiment has some motivational force, there are others where Hume dramatically plays this down: see pp. 499--500, 583, 586. Certainly, another element in his thought is, first, his idea that the merit of an action always derives from the virtue of its (usual) motive, and his further thought that we tend to approve only of virtues we think to be normal and natural to human beings (although, perhaps, as with the artificial virtues, naturally cultivatable rule-following dispositions). It would follow that any action morality recommends is one that human beings normally have a motive to perform.

Thus, with the natural virtues, such as private benevolence, gratitude, parental affection, etc., human beings generally have these natural motives. With the artificial virtues, we have both a motive of self-interest (the ``natural obligation'') and a moral sentiment (the ``moral obligation'') which lead us to want to have the (conventional) virtue of justice: a motive to be just for its own sake. You should consider how this complex motivational story fits with what Hume says about the intrinsically motivating character of morality.

II. Now to Rousseau. 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 liberty … alone makes a man truly the master of himself. For to be driven by appetite alone is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is liberty.'' (151) 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.

IV. The first chapter of On the Social Contract begins famously: ``Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. He who believes himself the master of others does not escape being more of 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 XI, ``On the Civil State'', that in a properly democratic civil state, there is the ``acquisition of … moral liberty, which alone makes man truly the master of himself.'' 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.

V. 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 liberty'' that can be acquired only in civil society, he contrasts it with a ``slavery'' that consists in being ``driven by appetite alone''. Moral liberty, then, is positive liberty.

VI. How, then, are we to understand the freedom with which Rousseau says all are born? Consider the following passages:

``This common liberty is one consequence of the nature of man. Its first law is to see to his maintenance, its first concerns are those he owes himself; and, as soon as he reaches the age of reason, since he alone is judge of the proper means of taking care of himself, he thereby becomes his own master.'' (143)

This language might lead one to think that Rousseau is here talking about what later calls moral liberty, since we have the same association with self-mastery, but it is hard to see how it can be since Rousseau explicitly says at 151 that in entering the social contract, people give up their ``natural liberty'' in order to gain, through civil association, the possibility of moral liberty. And the ``natural liberty'' seems to be the very ``common liberty'' to which he earlier refers.

We get some insight into what Rousseau means by this ``common'' or ``natural'' liberty in Chapter IV, ``Of Slavery''. Here he speaks of ``men living in their original state of independence'', and that this derives from the fact that ``no man has a natural authority over his fellow man''. Because this is so, ``conventions therefore remain the basis of all legitimate authority among men''. His point here seems to be that there is no natural right that any person has to direct the life of another and be obeyed. Each person (of the age of reason) is within his rights in directing his own life. And others can direct only by convention, i.e., only by his (and others) consent.

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 dignity as a man''. It cannot, therefore, be justified.

VII. 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 writes, he ``does not escape being more of a slave than they''. What can this mean?

Well, recall that Rousseau says that we must give up natural liberty in entering civil society, but that we thereby acquire the possibility of ``moral liberty 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.

Actually, this explanation anticipates a number of themes, viz., the disinction between private and general will, the idea of law, and so on. We will continue trying to make sense of these ideas next time.

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