Rousseau was Wrong about our Origins and the Origin of Inequality

Many people continue to regard the works written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in particular A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, The Social Contract, and Emile, which cover a variety of different subjects, including sociology, anthropology, psychology, pedagogy, political science, and human evolution, as if they were true. I suspect that Rousseau’s continued appeal is due partly to his ability to present a simple, coherent, and comprehensive story about humanity’s origins and later development, as well as facile solutions for the problems of modern societies. But the truth is that Rousseau was completely mistaken about our origins and the nature of primitive societies, as well as the origin of inequality and the causes of our behaviour.

If an organism has gills or wings, then it is a pretty sure sign that it lives in the water or is able to fly.[1] Similarly, the fact that we humans have a highly-developed behavioural mechanism that enables us to imitate precisely the things we see other people doing[2] shows that, going back a long time in our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in stable, long-term social groups, where the young learned the things they needed to know in order to survive, both in terms of knowledge and skills, by imitating their elders. And the fact that we also have a strong tendency to conform to the behaviour of others shows that these groups must have contained more than just a few members.[3] For we need to live with and observe other people, in order that we can imitate and conform to their behaviour, for these evolutionary adaptations to be advantageous and make sense.

What this means is that Rousseau’s fable about the noble savage that, after the age of physical dependence on one’s parents, primarily one’s mother, lives alone, apart from other humans, and uses one’s reason to discover important things about the world one lives in, is nothing more than a coherent and plausible but completely erroneous fiction about our distant ancestors. Like so many other writers and thinkers, Rousseau was misled in his speculations about human nature and our species’ origins by the ancient Greek belief in the importance of reason in human affairs. Although he inspired the Romantic movement, which rejected the primordiality of reason, both he and the Romantics nevertheless accepted the simplistic but erroneous Platonic belief that human behaviour can be explained by the tripartite interactions of reason, will, and emotion and desire.

Rousseau is by no means the only thinker who has mistakenly attributed social inequality to the institutions of private property and money. However, these are only symptoms or secondary causes of what is wrong with large societies. The true cause of inequality is the fact that, as social creatures, human beings evolved only to care about the people they know well, while they are either indifferent or hostile towards everyone else. This explains why, for example, a group of people in a society who are discriminated against by the majority, such as black people in a predominantly white society, will not have the same opportunities, and hence, will probably be inferior, whether socially, intellectually, or economically, to those who belong to the majority.

Stated succinctly, this explains why eliminating money or private property will not resolve the problem of inequality, for the attitude of indifference or contempt, which is the cause of hostility towards others, along with the fact that different people grow up observing different models of behaviour, are the true causes of inequality.[4] As the failure of communism very clearly demonstrated, eliminating or prohibiting private property results in extreme economic and behavioural distortions, to the point that there are shortages of many basic necessities, while necessitating totalitarian control over people’s lives in order to enforce compliance and prevent the development of deviations from the rulers’ vision of the ideal society. Most people now understand that these sacrifices of freedom and economic prosperity were not justified by the communists’ single-minded pursuit of equality or doctrinal uniformity at the expense of everything else, including people’s lives.

The reason why many people mistakenly attribute inequality to money or private property is because, roughly speaking, these models arose and developed during the time in our species’ history when human societies began to grow beyond their previous traditional limits – that is, when they became so numerous that their members were not able to know all the other members intimately, or they had dealings with people who did not belong to their social group, tribe, clan, band, or people. Hence, there were members of the society whom one didn’t know well, with the common result that one was indifferent or hostile towards them. Along with the development of a hierarchy of social classes, which classes generally do not exist in very small, uniform, traditional societies, and which initially arose from admiration towards a certain individual or group of individuals, this – and not money or private property – was the true cause of inequality.

So how can we overcome the innate human indifference or hostility towards those whom one doesn’t know and who are different from oneself? Before we try to answer this important question, two important points to recognize are that, first, it is not true that whatever is innate in human behaviour is necessarily good or desirable; and second, human beings, more than any other species of organisms, are malleable, meaning that their behaviour is determined primarily by the models of behaviour that they grow up observing, and not by their instincts to behave in certain ways, for these instincts can be overcome by imitation or inhibited by embarrassment, which both depend on the dominant models of behaviour that are practised by the members of the society in which one lives.

People differ in how selfish they are, which is determined by the degree of indifference and contempt they feel towards others, along with the models of behaviour they have observed while growing up, and the models that are practised by the people they know. Of course, how selfish a person is can also be influenced by certain beliefs, such as the widespread belief, which is central to the thinking of many economists and others, that human beings are innately selfish creatures and therefore there is little or no point in trying to change this feature of humanity. Economists also propound the nonsense that behaving selfishly, or what they pompously call “pursuing one’s enlightened or rational self-interest,” will, at the same time, also benefit others. There are many instances where this view is so preposterously wrong that it is a wonder that such an obvious falsehood was able to gain currency among them. Although racism and prejudice towards others are also innate human tendencies, they can be overcome, and their harmful effects lessened or eliminated, through a combination of education, criticism, protests, and by observing models of inclusion of and tolerance towards others, such as minorities.

The comparison with racism is useful in considering human selfishness, for if people in the past had believed that, since hatred and prejudice towards others are innate features of human behaviour, these things cannot be changed, and therefore there is no point in trying to combat racism or change prejudiced people’s attitudes towards those who are different from them, and the racist attitudes that were widespread in the past would still be prevalent today. It has been a very long, difficult, imperfect, and incomplete path from the widespread intolerance that prevailed in the past to the present tolerance.[5] Most people, I think, would agree that these changed attitudes towards others, which also resulted from technological changes such as mass media and increased travel due to easier, faster, and cheaper means of transportation, so that foreigners are no longer as foreign to us as they were to people living in the past, is a definite step forward in our development as social and civilized creatures.

But the same cannot be said of human selfishness, which has not been criticised and condemned to the same degree as racism. In fact, there are some people, notably the advocates of free-market capitalism like Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and others, who argue that selfishness is good because it motivates people to work harder, take chances, and be more creative and inventive so they can earn more money in order to satisfy their selfish desires. Considering how widespread are these mistaken beliefs about selfishness and the extent to which people can learn to care about others who are not related to them biologically, it is not at all surprising that significant degrees of inequality still exist in many societies, including those that are wealthy enough for all the members to have enough in order to live meaningful and satisfying lives.

One of the primary effects of contempt, which arises towards those who are different from the members of the group to which one belongs, is exclusion. When certain groups of people are excluded, whether socially, economically, or educationally, then it is inevitable that they will remain or become different from those who exclude them. This fact very clearly demonstrates the falsehood of the common belief held by those who are successful that the poor deserve their fate because they had the same opportunities as those who are more successful, but they failed, whether because of laziness, ineptitude, stupidity, or some other personal or moral deficiency. For the fact is that when people are excluded from participating in society, such as from attending certain schools, acquiring certain jobs, associating with certain groups of people, and so on, whether because of the colour of their skin, their religion, sex, or economic status, then it most certainly is not true that there exists equality of opportunity for everyone.

Contrary to the widespread belief that human selfishness is innate or good, meaning that either we cannot, or we should not, do anything about it, I argue that, as is true of racism and prejudice, although human selfishness may be common, it is most certainly is not good, and therefore it should not be encouraged. And just as, in the past, tolerant people were a minority, whereas now they constitute the majority of inhabitants in most societies, at the present time, whereas selfless or generous people are a minority, there is no reason why they cannot become the majority in the future. For it is only by overcoming people’s selfishness that we will be able to reduce inequality and enable all people to participate in a capitalist economy, thereby acquiring some of the prodigious amounts of wealth and material products that it is able to produce.

I wish to emphasize two things: first, I am not an ascetic, and second, I am not a communist. I am not advocating that people should deny themselves even the basic necessities of life so that they can give everything they own to others, as Jesus preached;[6] and I am most certainly not advocating that people should be forced to be generous, as occurred in communist countries, so that their labour will go towards providing the necessities of life for others. And neither am I against money and private property, as many advocates of utopian societies are. Like other things such as knives, hammers, axes, and scissors, all of which can be used to harm people, but in most cases are employed in useful or beneficial ways that do no harm, money and private property can be put to a good or bad – in this case meaning a selfish – use.

In the past, when human production was achieved primarily by human and animal labour, it often happened that there was not enough to feed everyone and for all people to have the things they needed in order to survive. Misery, want, hunger, cold, and sickness were widespread and common companions for many people. As in more and more industries, human and animal labour were gradually replaced by machine labour, which greatly increased the amount that each worker could produce, the ancient dream of security and plenty, or at least sufficiency, for everyone seemed at last within reach. What has prevented this dream from being realized is the present dominance of certain models of behaviour. These models show and tell people that, even if one has enough to satisfy one’s basic needs, instead of sharing one’s excess wealth with others who do not have enough, one should instead seek new ways to spend that income or wealth only on oneself and those one cares about.[7] The most egregious examples of these foolish models of behaviour are the extremely wealthy who have far more money than they can possibly spend, and yet many of them are not willing to share their money with others, or if they do donate some of it to charitable causes, they do so in certain well-defined ways, such as by donating to museums, hospitals, or universities, which primarily benefit members of the social and economic class to which they belong, while it does little or nothing for the poor and disadvantaged.

If human beings were truly wise and sensible creatures, then once they have acquired enough wealth to satisfy their basic needs and desires, instead of constantly seeking new ways to pleasure themselves, as if they were merely selfish, overgrown children, such as by buying more or expensive cars, a larger house or a second, third, or fourth residence, expensive jewels and artworks, a private plane or large yacht, and so on, in the mistaken belief that these things will make them happier, they would use their excess wealth to help others. After all, this is what more highly evolved social creatures like ants and bees do: when an individual ant or bee has collected more food than it can eat, it does not hoard the food but shares it with the other members of its colony; or if it is able to find a large source of food, it does not keep this information secret so that it alone can profit from it, such as by bartering the food with the other insects in exchange for doing the work which it would otherwise have to do, or gain other favours or services from them. This sort of sharing is much more common in small, stable societies where all the members know each other and have lived together during the whole of their lives.

Not only does sharing one’s excess wealth, beyond the amount one needs to live a comfortable, secure, and happy life, make more sense when considered from a human perspective, it makes much more sense from a natural or environmental perspective. For the present dominant economic model of constantly seeking to increase our possessions and consumption of everything, which is a model that is not at all sustainable in the long run, will, in my opinion, ultimately lead to our extinction, because, due to our unbounded desires, we were not able to live within the bounds of natural restrictions. In the long run, we will all be dead, said Keynes, but it does make a difference whether we all die at once, as we are increasingly at risk of doing because of our highly destructive excesses, or gradually in a staggered manner, as has been the case until now, when humanity was able to survive for hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of years, depending on how one defines humanity, without the benefit of all the scientific discoveries and technological inventions that are presently polluting and destroying the Earth and many of its non-human inhabitants at an alarming and ever-accelerating rate.

I hereby declare that, provided we make efforts to reduce the global human population, which cannot be allowed to continue growing at its extremely irresponsible present rate, we human beings now know how to produce enough for all people to have enough to satisfy their basic needs while leading meaningful and satisfying lives. But this will never happen so long as we continue to labour under a number of mistaken beliefs about human behaviour, in particular that we are rational creatures, that selfishness is innate or good, and therefore should be encouraged, and that selfishness and competition are both beneficial, and therefore they should not be checked, corrected, or impeded in any way. For in order to construct the ideal society, which I have called the Inclusive Society, and which will not be based on force or coercion, or on a simple set of rigid rules, as was the case with so many utopias in the past, we must first discredit these and other false beliefs that have begotten so much harm, societal distortions, failures, and undesirable outcomes in the past and present. If the human race is truly to call itself wise and civilized, then we must change the dominant models of behaviour that determine the nature of our societies, so that as many people as possible are able to lead meaningful lives, while we learn to respect all the many wonderful non-human organisms, both plant and animal, with which we share the planet, and without which our species cannot long survive.

[1] I am well aware of the existence of some birds, such as ostriches, emus, and penguins, that have wings but cannot fly. However, these are rare exceptions to the general statement about the relationship between possessing wings and the ability to fly. In the case of penguins, their wings have become streamlined, non-jointed flippers that aid them in swimming in the water, in which liquid medium they hunt their prey.

[2] That many people in Western societies seek to differentiate themselves from others and deliberately try not to imitate others exactly is due entirely to their having grown up observing this particular model of behaviour. The desire to be different from others is not innate, for it is a very recent development that, even today, does not exist in all societies. In other respects, such as the way they pronounce the words of their native language, or the way they use and hold eating utensils such as spoons, forks, and knives, even Westerners imitate others exactly, since they have never observed the model of someone who attempts deliberately to pronounce words differently from others, or uses or holds these utensils in a different manner. Moreover, there are generally strict limits to what is considered acceptable behaviour. For example, a person who used a clean sock to wipe one’s mouth while eating would be viewed by other people as a very strange person and would probably be avoided by them.

[3] Although there are many other animals that imitate, including monkeys, chimpanzees, bears, birds, dolphins, and whales, I do not believe there are any other animals that conform, or at least not to the extent that we do. In some ways, this single difference explains why we humans have been able to accomplish so much more than these other imitating animals, while, along with contempt, it also accounts for much of the harm that we have done to other members of our kind, as well as to the Earth and its many other inhabitants.

[4] To be more precise, I should add that indifference and contempt towards others beget certain dominant models of behaviour, such as that everything one earns rightfully belongs to oneself, and therefore one is not obliged to share any of this wealth with others, unless one wishes to do so. These mistaken beliefs are the basis of the false doctrine known as free-market capitalism.

[5] The physicist Max Planck observed about new scientific theories that they do not necessarily convince the older generation, who grew up believing in a different theory to which many of them still adhere, but these new theories become dominant by being taught to the younger generation, while the older generation is ignored and eventually dies. Similarly, much of the progress that humanity has made against racism is due to the older, racist or prejudiced generations gradually dying, while the younger generations are taught that racism and prejudice are wrong, while they observe and practise different models of behaviour.

[6] The great problem with the model of charity that Jesus advocated is that, if one leads a life of voluntary poverty, as he exhorted his followers to do, then one will not be able to help many people, no matter how generous one is, since one will not have much to share with them. It is far better to work hard and accumulate riches, and then, while limiting one’s desires to one’s needs, as all organisms do except human beings, to share one’s excess wealth with others who are in want. Another important criticism of Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty is that if most or all of the generous people in the world remain poor because of his and other people’s contempt for riches, then obviously the majority of rich people will be selfish, for only those who do not believe in or follow this Christian doctrine will become financially successful, which is more or less the situation that prevails in the world today. Another important point is that the great majority of people do not want to be poor, and so a religion that preaches voluntary poverty will have little appeal for them. Many of those who profess to be Christians today ignore this fundamental teaching of Christianity, and they are Christians for other reasons, such as that it gives meaning to their lives, it has helped them get through difficult times or events in their lives, or the promise of eternal life after death alleviates their fear of death, or eternal non-existence.

[7] The common argument that this conspicuous consumption is beneficial because it creates jobs has many problems with it. First, it encourages a model of behaviour that is wasteful, profligate, and often leads to boring and repetitive jobs for those who are able to find work. Second, it encourages other foolish human beings to want to imitate their profligate lifestyle. And third, under the constraining effect of unbridled competition, the constant desire for more and more profits and wealth has led to the elimination of many well-paying jobs in richer countries.