History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Rousseau Lecture 2

I. Last time we distinguished two kinds of liberty, two of which loom large in Rousseau's writings: (a) What Rousseau calls ``moral liberty'', a kind of autonomy or self-mastery (b) the natural liberty Rousseau calls ``independence''. [Rousseau's idea here is that no human being has any natural authority over any other, we are all naturally independent, in that we assume authority over ourselves. A major theme of the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is that inequality, and the desire to have authority over others, arises with the development in society of desire for the esteem and recognition of others: ``Each began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself, and public esteem had a value. The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded. And this was the first step toward inequality and, at the same time, toward vice …. As soon as men had begun mutually to value one another, and the idea of esteem was formed in their minds, each one claimed to have a right to it, and it was not longer possible for anyone to be lacking it with impunity. From this came the first duties of civility, even among savages; and from this every voluntary wrong became an outrage, because along with the harm that resulted from the injury, the offended party saw in it a contempt for his person, which often was more insufferable than the harm itself.'' (64) Those who attempt to master others, therefore, thereby express contempt for their person, they fail to respect their dignity. This will be a very important theme in Kant.]

II. Let's explore Rousseau's claim that moral liberty can be realized only in a civic association. First, note the connection Rousseau asserts between the following:

(a) an agent's achieving mastery over himself and not being a ``slave'' to his appetites, and

(b) his obeying a ``law he prescribe[s] for himself''.

We will want to ask why these two things are connected. Why is the contrast between heteronomy and autonomy, between self-determination of the will and determination of the will by desires, appetites, and motives to which it is subject, the same as the contrast between the latter and determination by laws that are self- prescribed? As it happens, Rousseau says next to nothing about why these should be connected, and we shall have to wait for Kant to see an attempt to make an argument connecting them, but we can speculate below on how his thinking might be running.

III. For the moment, though, let us take this connection for granted and see why Rousseau thinks, then, that autonomy can only be realized within a democratic civic association. It is useful at this point to recall his formulation of the major problematic of The Social Contract: ``Find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before? This is the fundamental problem for which the social contract provides the solution.'' (148)

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 places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.'' 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 have in mind that the law considers subjects as a body and actions in the abstract, never a man as an individual or a particular action.'' 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'' (161). 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.

IV. 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 will be forced to be free''. (150)

V. 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.

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