Were Rousseau’s Children Victims of His Moral Theory?

Yes, it’s true: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher of compassion, fierce defender of the weak against the strong, the man who never tired of talking about equality and justice and virtue, who wrote a long book (Emile) about just the right way to raise children, sent all his own children to the Paris Foundling Hospital immediately upon birth.  He never knew or even saw them.  Rousseau’s admirers sometimes write as if there might be some doubt about this (e.g., Riley 2001, 6).  But not usually.  More commonly the fact is accepted without question (e.g., Cohen, 1953, 13; Bertram, 2012, 4; Edmonds and Eidinow, 2006; Kelly, 2001, 315).  Indeed it’s hard to see what doubt there could be when Rousseau refers repeatedly to it in his Confessions (1953, 320–22, 332–35, 387, 437, 515–16, 549, and possibly 583–84).  As Cohen (1953, 13) points out, several of the people Rousseau claims to have confessed the secret to were still alive when the Confessions were published, and if it weren’t true, some of them surely would have said so.

Now, being no fan of Rousseau’s brand of social thought, I admit that I am not sorry to find evidence of his hypocrisy.  I’m inclined to smile along with Deirdre McCloskey: “A house ‘filled with domestic cares and the noise of children’ would make a poor place for discoursing on social justice and the raising of children.  Thus on five occasions did Jean-Jacques Rousseau act, that great pre-Romantic teacher of good behavior in love and education” (2006, 114).  But being also at present the teacher of a class on Critical Thinking, my conscience is pricked with the thought that this is ad hominem.  Rousseau’s hypocrisy does not make his social and moral theories false.

My own thought when I learned of this episode in Rousseau’s life was, “if Rousseau had spent less time cultivating his conscience and more time cultivating his character, maybe he wouldn’t have done that!”  That is, it struck me that Rousseau’s actions in this case illustrate a fundamental problem with his conscience-centered morality and thus are philosophically relevant after all.

To judge from the statements of the Savoyard Vicar, which are confirmed repeatedly by statements made in Rousseau’s own voice in the Confessions, conscience is the lone pillar of Rousseau’s moral view.  Rousseau espouses a form of moral sense theory that makes conscience the sole and infallible oracle of right and wrong.  Rousseau’s moral view can be summarized in eight points.  (a) “All the morality of our acts is in the judgment that we ourselves pass on them” (1975, 259).  This seems to be a statement of subjectivism, though how far to take it is questionable.  The same Savoyard Vicar who makes this statement also believes that God rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked after the death of the body.  Still, if there is any other basis of right and wrong, Rousseau gives no hint of it.  (b) The “judgment” in question is a matter of feeling, not reason or cognition.  “[W]e feel before we know, and just as we do not learn to will our own good and avoid what is harmful to us, but receive that will from nature, love of good and hatred of evil are as natural to us as self-love” (1975, 262–3).  (c) Our moral feelings are the product of an innate faculty called conscience.  It is the inner voice of right and wrong.  It not only allows us to recognize the good, it motivates us to love and pursue it.  It is to the soul what passions and instincts are to the body (1975, 258–9).  (d) Conscience is infallible (1975, 264).  (e) The judgments of conscience are universal; that is, essentially the same across persons and cultures (1975, 261–2).  (f) Although infallible, conscience can be misled by false information or sophistical reasoning.  The Savoyard Vicar doesn’t discuss this point, but it is clear and important in the Confessions (see for example 1953, 190–1, 218–9).  The same point is made concerning the general will in The Social Contract: the general will is infallibly good but not necessarily very wise (II.iii, vii).  It can be misled.  For Rousseau, the general will is to the body politic what the conscience is to the individual.  (g) The voice of conscience can be ignored or denied (1975, 264).  Indeed this happens all too often, usually from personal interest.  When we are disinterested in a case, the voice of conscience is typically clear and easy to discern; when our personal interests are engaged, our passions compete with conscience and frequently overwhelm it.  (h) A person whose conscience is misled is not morally culpable.  It is not a moral requirement that one be wise or smart.  But it is morally wrong to deny or ignore one’s conscience.  Moral goodness consists in listening to and following the voice of one’s conscience.  This is a matter of degree.  One can be more or less guilty, depending on the degree of temptation, the seriousness of the moral issue, one’s level of strength and personal development, and so forth.  Again the Vicar doesn’t go into these details, but the many moral judgments passed in the Confessions make this clear.

The Savoyard Vicar summarizes the view:

Conscience!  Conscience!  Divine instinct, immortal and celestial voice!  You are the sure guide of a being who is ignorant and limited, but intelligent and free.  You are the infallible judge of good and evil; it is through you that man resembles God; it is to you that he owes the excellence of his nature and the morality of his acts.  Aside from you, I feel nothing in me that raises me above the level of the beasts, except the sad privilege of wandering from error to error by means of understanding without rules and reason without principles. (1975, 264)

We can see also how this moral view supports Rousseau’s famous thesis that we are born good and corrupted by society.  Conscience, the guide and motive force of our inmost soul, is inborn.  Unfortunately it is “timid” (1975, 264) and retires in the face of the raging passions stirred up by our personal concerns and the competitive pressures we are subject to in the world of affairs.  When we allow this to happen, it is due to our own weakness.  Nevertheless, that we allow it to happen is the rule, not the exception.

Now, what’s wrong with all this?  I believe there are several things wrong with it, but here I want to emphasize one in particular, which is that it is largely content free.  What does the voice of conscience say?  How do we know when we are hearing the voice of conscience and when we are hearing the voice of passion, prejudice, tradition, etc.?  Rousseau provides no criterion or even any discussion.  He seems to think it’s just obvious.  But of course it is not.  It is not even obvious—not to mention plausible—that a Rousseauan innate faculty of conscience exists in the first place.  Note the difference between Rousseau and the Scottish moral sense theories of David Hume and Adam Smith.  Hume and Smith, each in his own way, provide a specific psychological mechanism by which moral feelings (and hence judgments) arise from other, relatively uncontroversial, nonmoral feelings.  Thus they give us both a reason to believe that the sort of moral feelings they describe really exist and a guide to the content of those feelings.  Rousseau gives us neither.

He does supply some examples to give us an idea of what conscience dictates (1975, 258–60).  Conscience approves of compassion, kind acts, friendship, clemency, magnanimity, and Cato the Younger.  It disapproves of seeking our own good at the expense of others, malicious acts, insensitivity, violence, suffering, and Caesar.  But for the most part he describes the deliverances of conscience in terms that are already moral: conscience approves of goodness, virtue, heroic deeds, sweetness, the noble, justice, etc., and disapproves of wickedness, crimes, injustice, viciousness, depravity, etc.  Unless we already know good from bad, this hardly helps.

But of course, he thinks we do already know!  That’s the theory of conscience.  Perhaps, anticipating G. E. Moore, Rousseau would say that the good, right, etc.—in general, moral approval—is sui generis and irreducible.  We know it when we see it, or rather when we feel it, thanks to our innate faculty of conscience.  There is nothing more to be said.  We cannot identify the good in any other terms (such as flourishing, desire satisfaction, living in accordance with nature, etc.) or supply any standard by which to assess it.  If we would know the good, we must cultivate our “exquisite feelings” (1975, 259) and “tender emotions” (1975, 260), not deny or suppress them.

Moral development on this view is a matter of uncovering and encouraging these exquisite and tender feelings, and this in turn is primarily a matter of ceasing to deny and suppress them.  The feelings are natural; they are there.  But they are “timid” and driven underground by the passions, corruptions, artificialities, and concerns whipped up by society and its pressures.  To recover our innate goodness and cultivate our conscience depends on returning to nature and its simplicity.  This is quite different from a traditional view of moral development as requiring that one master some set of substantive principles and acquire the habit—the strengths of character—of following them.

If Rousseau’s basic moral precept and advice is to cultivate one’s tender and exquisite feelings, then no one can say he didn’t practice what he preached.  The Confessions consists almost entirely of the history of Rousseau’s feelings.  Every episode is described principally in terms of how Rousseau felt about it, the feelings that motivated his own actions and the feelings that resulted.  The feelings are often intense, sometimes all-consuming.  Rousseau’s thoughts on the other hand take a decided second place.  And if one approaches the Confessions expecting something like an intellectual autobiography, one will be disappointed.

The point of the Confessions is not exactly to justify Rousseau and defend his reputation—well, not before Book IX anyway—but it is to reveal Rousseau’s soul to the reader in such a way as to make clear that Rousseau is a good man.  Notwithstanding a few bad moments, Rousseau believed that “I am on the whole the best of men” (1953, 479), and he proposed to demonstrate this by presenting an account of his life that would be as complete and truthful as he could make it, with respect to both his actions and their motivations.  It is evident that a key component of this project of displaying the goodness of his soul is to tell the history of his exquisite and tender feelings.  By showing what “tender feelings” underlay his every action, his actions are rendered, if not always quite good, at least not viciously motivated.

We see the exculpatory power of tender feelings repeatedly in the Confessions, not just in Rousseau’s own case but in the cases of other people he loves and is determined to think well of.  His father, whom he refuses to criticize, effectively abandoned him at the age of ten and never supported him thereafter, although he could have done so.  Indeed, Rousseau effectively supported his father through an inheritance from his mother (who died of puerperal fever nine days after he was born), money that belonged to Jean-Jacques but which was at the disposal of his father as long Jean-Jacques wasn’t around to collect it.  Hence, according to Rousseau (1953, 61), his father’s neglect.  But his father wasn’t bad.  On the contrary, he was good, affectionate, and “a man of scrupulous integrity, and possessed of that strength of mind that makes for true virtue.”  How does this evaluation square with his father’s actual behavior?  Evidently the idea is that his father meant well—his tender feelings never wavered—but unconsciously (“obscurely without his being conscious of it”) his self-interest in the money influenced his behavior.  Thus he could remain good in his heart even though his actions were not what they should have been.

Another person Rousseau loved and was determined to think good was Madame de Warens, whom he met shortly after running away from home at the age of 16 and with whom he lived during most of his twenties.  His senior by about fourteen years, she was a mother figure to Rousseau (he called her “Mamma”) and remained so even after she became his lover.  She was surely the most important person in his entire life.  He insists throughout the Confessions that her character was one of angelic purity and goodness.  Her M.O., at least during the period of her life that Rousseau describes, was to attach men who could do things for her to herself by sleeping with them, for as long as the arrangement was useful and no matter what other men were simultaneously in her life.  To this reader, it seems evident that Rousseau’s own relationship with her was not exceptional in this regard.  She informed Rousseau that they would have sex at about the time it became apparent that he might otherwise be seduced by other women.  Later, when he became sickly and incapable of doing much, she replaced him with another man.  Or perhaps “supplemented” would be more apt, since, although the other man took the primary position, she did not propose to withdraw her favors from Rousseau.  (He however declined to accept them anymore and soon moved away permanently to Paris.)  Rousseau himself does not regard her sexual behavior as morally appropriate.  How does he reconcile it with her goodness?  She had mistaken ideas.  “All her faults, I repeat, came from her lack of judgment, never from her passions” (1953, 190).  To be specific, she was led astray by her philosophy teacher!  In an attempt to seduce her, which succeeded, he plied her with sophistries and convinced her that sexual intercourse is intrinsically unimportant and that marital fidelity need be kept up only in appearance, not in reality.  Thus hers was a case of a misled conscience: innocent and good although mistaken.

These two cases set the pattern: wrongdoing can be compatible with goodness of heart if the wrongdoing can be put down to weakness, such as unconscious corruption in the case of Rousseau’s father and weakness of understanding in the case of Mme. de Warens.  This is the strategy Rousseau applies to himself as well.  He has, he says, every virtue but strength of character (1953, 261).  I do not mean that he completely lets himself off the hook for every wrongdoing.  He clearly blames himself (in a mild way) for certain acts, though not many.

To return at last to les enfants, what does Rousseau say about his actions in this regard?  He insists that at the time of the decision, he was morally untroubled (1953, 322).  The only reason he did not boast openly of his actions was to save the feelings of his mistress (the mother), who did not agree with the decision (1953, 333).  He claims he got the idea that abandoning one’s children at the Foundling Hospital was “the custom of the country” (1953, 322) from the ribald stories told by the “fundamentally decent” men at the dining establishment he frequented.  He regarded children as a considerable inconvenience, abandoning them was a socially acceptable way to relieve oneself of it, problem solved.  So like Mamma, his heart was good but he was misled.  He asks himself whether he might have been callous or lacking in humanity in abandoning his children, and answers: “No, I feel, and boldly declare—it is impossible.  Never for a moment in his life could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feelings or compassion, an unnatural father.  I may be been mistaken, but I could never be callous” (1953, 333).  He then alludes, in all seriousness, to reasons that persuaded him to abandon his children that were so powerful that they cannot be revealed, lest they corrupt other young men!  Some other reasons he does give in this passage include imagining himself as a guardian in Plato’s Republic who must turn over his children to the state and never know their identities, and the reflection that it would be better for them to be brought up “as honest people” (at the hands of an 18th century state orphanage) than with money, as would have happened if one of Rousseau’s aristocratic patrons had taken them in, as some offered to do.  A final reason was that he wanted to keep his children away from the influence of his mistress’s bad family (1953, 334, 387).  Whatever Rousseau’s all-powerful hidden reasons may have been, one has to agree that he could safely reveal these others.

Rousseau eventually developed a considerably bad conscience about the way he had disposed of his children.  He considered making a public confession of the fact at the start of Emile, but thought better of it.  (He does make a veiled allusion to it in that book, 1979, 49.)  Nevertheless, in spite of his later bad conscience, he insists that the action was innocently done at the time and with a good heart.  I believe this raises a serious existential challenge to Rousseau’s whole conscience-based moral view.  A baby at the Paris Foundling Hospital in these years had only a two thirds chance of surviving its first year and only a five percent chance of reaching maturity.  These are facts which Rousseau could have determined without much difficulty if he had felt motivated to bother (Johnson 1988, 21).  One can imagine the Dickensian conditions that must have prevailed in the place.  What is the use of a moral view that can’t tell a modern European he shouldn’t treat his kids that way, like so much garbage?  Less rhetorically, can it be true that we possess an innate, infallible oracle of right and wrong if Rousseau could not hear that oracle telling him it is wrong to dispose of his children in the way he did?  Rousseau, after all, was “the best of men” and “never for a moment in his life… without feelings or compassion.”  He must have been fully attuned to the voice of his conscience if anyone ever was.  Even without any explicit moral theory or moral code, his conscience would be there, according to his view, and he as a man of tender and exquisite feeling should have been in a position to hear it.  But by his own account, he didn’t.

His own account is that he honestly thought he was doing the very best for his kids, better than raising them himself and better than letting one of his aristocratic patrons take them in and better than any other avenue he might have pursued but didn’t.  But can conscience be supposed really to be so utterly detached from cognition as to accept without a murmur the idea that it is better for a child to be in an orphanage than in the home of his parents or on an aristocrat’s estate?  Can conscience really be so passive and accepting of what cognition says as not to at least raise concerns and push for a clear examination of conditions at the Foundling Hospital?  Conscience is supposed to at least be able warn against suffering and seeking one’s own interest at the expense of others.  Can it not be expected to recognize when these conditions are liable to be going on or at least to motivate cognition to make proper inquiries?  If it can, then Rousseau’s account of the case of his children is inadequate and we must suppose his conscience failed him.  In which case, we must be skeptical about the existence of such a thing as a Rousseauan conscience.  If it can’t, there is a serious theoretical problem of how conscience is supposed to provide the guidance it is supposed to provide.  If conscience cannot tell you the suffering of your children is morally important, what can it tell you?

Of course, really the best account of Rousseau’s actions in disposing of his children at the Foundling Hospital is that he callously eliminated them from his life because they interfered with the way he wanted to live it.  He doesn’t want to admit this, no doubt even to himself, and the story of his being misled is his form of denial.  In which case Rousseau might not after all have been the best of men, but at least his moral view might be saved.  His conscience did speak, but only timidly and was drowned out by the passions of self-interest.  But this solution will not do for reasons similar to the ones that scuttled the solution in terms of his being misled.  We can’t just say Rousseau was depraved so naturally he didn’t listen to his conscience.  He may not have been the best of men, but he was hardly depraved.  Surely he was a basically decent man and as full of tender feelings as he describes.  (No one could make that stuff up, or would want to, who wasn’t really of that character.)  He was in as good a position as anyone could reasonably be to hear and heed the voice of his conscience.  But he didn’t.  Although not depraved, and motivated by tender feelings, it seems he was morally somewhat rudderless.  So if we are still to believe in the existence of conscience in the Rousseauan sense, then as before we will have to radically reduce its supposed efficacy.  There seem to be two choices: either the voice of conscience speaks so softly as to be barely audible even on such questions as the fate of one’s children, or its content is so vague as to provide no real guidance, again even on such a question as Rousseau was facing.  Either choice seems hardly distinguishable from the skepticism they are being proposed to avoid.

We are driven to the conclusion that Rousseau’s own case raises serious doubts about the existence of an infallible, innate faculty of conscience that operates in something like the way Rousseau describes.  Rousseau would have done better, both in his moral philosophy and in his life, to cultivate substantive moral principles and the character to go with them than to wallow in exquisite and tender feelings with the idea that they are a sufficient guide to life.

There is one further point.  Rousseau’s theory of conscience is a poor source of moral guidance, but it is a rich source of excuses for moral failings.  Consistently in the Confessions, we see Rousseau excuse his own bad behavior and that of the people he loves on the claims that they were misled or at worst a bit weak.  Not coincidentally, his theory makes this easy to do.  Since the theory articulates no substantive principles a person is expected to follow or character they are expected to exhibit, and since a good heart is unobservable, it can always be claimed that a good heart is really present but let down by bad advice or weakness, and this is sufficient to make a person good according to the theory.  So the people Rousseau loves, like Rousseau’s father and Mme. de Warens, can be claimed to be pure and good despite their bad behavior, while the people Rousseau is on the outs with, like Denis Diderot and Friedrich Melchior Grimm, can be base and wicked.

It is tempting for a variety of reasons to believe that we just know by an innate faculty what is good.  But it is false.  The effect of holding that we have such a faculty in Rousseau’s case, and probably in any other, is to leave him with no standard of moral evaluation either in theory or in his own life.  It is thus to leave him without moral guidance.  It is tantamount to no moral view at all.


  • Bertram, Christopher.  2012.  “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philoosphy.
  • Cohen, J. M.  1953.  “Introduction.”  In Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, J. M. Cohen, translator, Penguin, pp. 7–14.
  • Edmonds, David, and John Eidinow.  2006.  “Enlightened Enemies.”  The Guardian, 28 April.
  • Johnson, Paul.  1988.  Intellectuals.  Harper & Row.
  • Kelly, Christopher.  2001.  “Rousseau’s Confessions.”  In Patrick Riley (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Cambridge U. P., pp. 302–328.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre N.  2006.  The Bourgeois Virtues.  University of Chicago Press.
  • Riley, Patrick.  2001.  “Introduction: Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”  In Patrick Riley (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Cambridge U. P., pp. 1–7.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  1979.  Emile, or On Education, Allan Bloom, translator, Basic Books.
  • ———.  1975.  The Creed of a Savoyard Priest, Lowell Bair, translator.  In Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Essential Rousseau, New American Library.
  • ———.  1953.  The Confessions, J. M. Cohen, translator, Penguin.

23 thoughts on “Were Rousseau’s Children Victims of His Moral Theory?

  1. This is very provocative, thanks. I happen to be working on a paper on intuitionism at the moment, so it’s at least indirectly related to what I’m working on right now.

    I have a lot of different comments, but a simple one is this: couldn’t Rousseau get out of the largest part of your objection by giving up on (h)? Suppose that he admitted the possibility of culpable error along with the possibility of corruption of conscience, rather than claiming merely that conscience can go astray. Wouldn’t that get him off the hook as far as your objection is concerned? The objection would work, obviously, but there’s a strategy for avoiding it that saves the theory.


    • I’m not quite sure what you’re proposing on Rousseau’s behalf, so it will be easy to reply. [joke] I suppose the idea is to say that conscience isn’t infallible after all and can be weakened or even perverted. It can become a bad conscience in a sense completely different from the usual one; bad in the way Billy Bob Thornton was a Bad Santa. Then Rousseau’s theory is saved from the objection derived from his hypocrisy because hypocrisy can now be incorporated into the theory without having to make conscience either uselessly vague or uselessly faint. Conscience is real and it has an audible and determinate voice. It can just go bad, like a bad cop, and then bad things happen.

      But the Bad Santa/bad cop image makes clear, to me anyway, what’s wrong with this idea. Certainly Rousseau would not regard this as saving his theory. Rousseau is the guy whose central tenet is that the human animal is born good and corrupted by society. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man” (Emile, 37). This includes man himself. Conscience for Rousseau is the element of nature. In this passage he compares what is natural in us to a shrub planted in the middle of a path; it can be bumped and bent and trampled, but it remains what it is. To express itself, it needs to be protected from all this. But if it is not protected, it doesn’t become a “bad shrub” but only a weakened, repressed, sickly shrub. The bad effect of society is to “denature” us, not to make our nature bad. There is no such thing as bad nature. So there is no such thing as bad conscience in the Bad Santa sense.

      Also from the standpoint of moral sense theory more broadly, not just Rousseau’s, I don’t think the notion of a bad moral sense can be tolerated. Not if the moral sense is criterial of moral good. Take a moral sense theory of Hume’s type. For Hume, the moral sense just is the origin of moral good and bad, right and wrong, praise and blame. They don’t exist without it. Without the moral sense, there would be no moral right and wrong, etc. So there can be no corrupt or bad moral sense, because there is no standpoint from which to make such a judgment.

      The same goes for a cognitivist moral sense theorist like Moore. Moore (if I understand right, which I might not) thinks that the moral sense detects something objective, some “there anyway” dimension of value, so that there is room in his view for the moral sense to go astray and deliver bad judgments. But he also holds that our moral sense is our only access to this objective moral dimension, so that even if a moral sense were to go bad, we would have no way of knowing it. He must regard the moral sense as like a mercury thermometer: under an extremely wide range of conditions, it detects what it detects in a quite direct and infallible way.

      We could talk about a corrupt or bad moral sense if we believed: (1) that the moral sense is like a sense organ that detects an objective moral dimension, and (2) that we have some independent means of knowing the moral dimension, that would give us a check on the deliverances of the moral sense. This is not hard to imagine, actually. One could be persuaded by Aristotelian arguments that the human good is to flourish in a distinctive sort of way, by the excellent exercise of our distinctive faculties, say, and one could also believe that we have been shaped by natural selection in the course of our evolution to have an intuitive appreciation of this objective good, an innate sense of the noble. I’m inclined to think something like this might well be true! But I don’t think it’s what most moral sense theorists (or intuitionists) have in mind.


      • What I meant was that there is a way to get moral culpability out of Rousseau’s theory, and so, a way of indicting Rousseau for moral culpability on his own terms for his neglect of his children. It can’t be done directly by attributing the moral culpability to the deliverances of moral sense per se (true), but it can be done in a way that comes close enough to what he says to save his theory (whether he himself would have saved it that way or not).

        Claim (f) says that conscience can be misled. Claim (g) says it can be ignored or denied. Suppose that we say, on Rousseau’s behalf, that being-misled and ignoring or denying conscience can be culpable qua exercises of cognition, not deliverances of moral sense. Then we can revise or re-conceive (h): A person whose conscience is misled, ignored, or denied is (or can be) morally culpable because he has misused his cognitive apparatus so as to block the deliverances of conscience. (So it’s not the conscience that’s corrupted, but the cognition of the deliverances of conscience, that is.)

        That’s why I don’t quite understand your gloss on (h).

        It is not a moral requirement that one be wise or smart. But it is morally wrong to deny or ignore one’s conscience. Moral goodness consists in listening to and following the voice of one’s conscience. This is a matter of degree. One can be more or less guilty, depending on the degree of temptation, the seriousness of the moral issue, one’s level of strength and personal development, and so forth. Again the Vicar doesn’t go into these details, but the many moral judgments passed in the Confessions make this clear.

        If it’s morally wrong (culpable) to deny or ignore one’s conscience (or be misled by it) then can’t we explain Rousseau’s child-neglect as a case of culpable refusal to listen to the promptings of conscience? In that case, he would be personally culpable for what he did, but his (revised) theory wouldn’t be that badly off. It would attribute culpability to him in an internally consistent (and not implausible) way.

        Ultimately, I’m taking issue with your claim that the deficiencies in Rousseau’s theory explain his bad behavior. I don’t think they do, because his theory has the resources, with relatively minor modifications, to get out of the explanatory problem you pose (the problem being: how could Rousseau explain his own malfeasances in a manner consistent with his theory?). As a general proposition, I think we ought to evaluate theories not literally by the details of what their authors say, but in terms of their core elements. No theory ever survives in “originalist” form, fully faithful to the author’s original claims. In Rousseau’s case, as in any other, that requires adding and subtracting to the details of the theory.

        Imagine, for instance, that Rousseau had taken exemplary care of his children. Would we then be justified in inferring that that vindicated his theory? Only if the core elements of the theory tended to motivate such exemplary behavior better than rival theories.

        In the actual case, Rousseau neglected his children. But it’s not clear that the core elements of his theory had to lead to that result, or even made the result probable. The child neglect could just have been an idiosyncratic feature of Rousseau’s personality. Put the same theory in someone else’s hands, and you might get a totally different result.

        I think it’s clearer that Rousseau’s children were victims of Rousseau than they were victims of his theory.

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      • What you’re proposing is that besides ignoring or denying the voice of conscience, one can willfully misunderstand it. I say “willfully” to make the misunderstanding culpable. It may be that there are some misunderstandings that aren’t willful but are nevertheless culpable somehow. Some mistakes there’s just no excuse for. I’m not sure how that would work, but such mistakes would have to be blatant and extreme. Perhaps an example of a culpably bad action done through cognitive failure would be hitting a pedestrian with your car because you were fiddling with the radio—or to be more up to date, texting. You didn’t intentionally hit the person, but you did so as the result of a cognitive lapse. You weren’t paying attention, although you should have been. But isn’t this cognitive lapse willful? You knew exactly what you were doing, and you knew it was not what you should be doing.

        How psychologically realistic is this as applied to the supposed faculty of conscience? The idea is that conscience speaks with a decisive and clarion voice. It says, “Rousseau! Pity the poor children!!” But he doesn’t get it. He fails to understand, through a cognitive lapse. Really? What is there not to get? The message is simple. How could anyone who has this message blaring in his ear not understand it?

        We already have two mechanisms for moral misbehavior on Rousseau’s theory, which are more plausible. One can ignore the voice of conscience, and one can deny it. In the first case, one says “I don’t care; I’m going to do what I want to do.” In the second, one says, “The voice is wrong” or “My case is an exception” or “There are higher principles involved here” or something of that sort. These are helped along by two of Rousseau’s doctrines concerning conscience: that its voice is timid and shrinks from strong contrary passions, and that it is better at general aspirations than at particular determinations. It seems to me that these mechanisms are plenty for explaining culpable moral lapses without introducing the implausible idea that one can somehow succeed in literally not comprehending a voice that speaks audibly in plain French (as opposed to ignoring or denying it).

        But even if we accept this idea, I think it has already been answered. It’s not fundamentally different from the proposal considered in my original post that the voice spoke to Rousseau but was drowned out by the passions of self-interest. The problem with that proposal was that it requires Rousseau to be dramatically insensitive to his own moral voice, of which he must have been very conscious, since it is the core of his own moral view, and he was a moralist. It requires us to believe that he could somehow simply deny clear knowledge that he was doing something terribly wrong. For myself, it is easier to believe that he did not have clear knowledge. There was no clear voice. There is no such thing as an infallible, oracular voice of conscience. There is only a mush of moral feelings and intuitions, which come to us from various sources, innate, personal, and social, and which do not provide clear guidance. If you want to say, on your proposal, that he didn’t deny the voice, he just didn’t hear it because he was fiddling with the radio or texting, I say that doesn’t help. This was obviously an important moral issue. Rousseau would have had to do quite a lot of very determined radio-fiddling to keep his mind away from the voice of conscience in this case. It is easier to think that he lacked clear principles for thinking about the matter (which is close to the way he himself represents the case, actually).

        On the more general question of my supposed claim that deficiencies in Rousseau’s moral view explain his bad behavior, I am not making any such claim in the strong sense in which you construe it, that we should be able to predict from these deficiencies that he would abandon his children. Obviously no such specific predictions are possible. What I am saying is: Rousseau’s theory relies on a supposed voice of conscience—everyone’s personal, sole, infallible oracle of moral truth—for moral guidance; but there is no such thing; so anyone who tries to live his life by such “guidance” will be morally somewhat rudderless, sometimes overly sensitive, sometimes overly callous, and in general unprincipled. That pretty well describes Rousseau’s conduct in life as described in his Confessions. (Abandoning his children is only the most horrific example.) He would have done better, as a moralist and as a person, to hammer out some clear moral principles and instill them into his life and conduct.

        I should say for the record that I don’t regard Rousseau’s life as any sort of empirical refutation of his moral theory. From a social science point of view, it’s an N of 1, which counts for nothing. Also there’s the suspicion that he looks worse than average only because he wrote a memoir that he intentionally filled with all the worst details about himself. His life does look bad—he did lots of things I’ve never done and hope I never would do—but just maybe it’s not worse than average, even for a moral philosopher. Maybe if we had equally revealing memoirs from Aristotle and Aquinas and Locke and Hume and Kant, we would see that his life was really typical. That doesn’t seem likely to me, but without hard evidence, we don’t know. So I take his case as an ironic illustration, that’s all. In view of his moral theory, his life isn’t really so surprising.

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  2. I found this post quite stimulating. I gather that conscience, on a theory like Rousseau’s, is supposed to be a guide to morally appropriate or correct action. However, one might think of conscience as revealing only what the basic moral ends are and what the appropriate attitudes are toward them (and this seems consistent with the gist of Rousseau’s exculpatory conclusions). Perhaps there is some confusion between a certain motivational or character-wise evaluation (of specific actions, of the person overall) and objective evaluation (doing what is actually morally appropriate or correct in a situation)? The sorts of verdicts that Rousseau renders (morally good heart/intentions/motivations, morally inappropriate or incorrect action) are sometimes true. However, I suspect that in Rousseau’s case – and in a great many other cases – such verdicts are rationalizations of failures do the sometimes-hard work of translating one’s good intentions into actions that are actually sensitive to what moral desire, intentions, etc. aim at. And this is broadly a failure of moral agency (of the moral character and attitudes of the agent) – it is just not the specific failure of having the right basic attitudes toward the right basic elements. Rather, it is the moral-character failure of not taking seriously the task of being sensitive, in one’s desires and intentions, to what we best promote diverse (perhaps conflicting) moral aims. If only being a morally good person were as easy as getting the basic aims (and attitudes toward the aims) right! I think non-marginal cases of all being aright with the agent moral-character-wise, but ignorance or strong personal motivations intervening to produce morally inappropriate or incorrect action are sort of rare. (This may not speak much to your central points – this comment is as much a related thought on what I take to be the relevant substantive issues in moral theory.)


    • Hi Michael. Thanks for your thoughts.

      The way I understand conscience in Rousseau, it is very like the general will in his political philosophy. Both are the only source of right and wrong in their domains, the only legitimate authority, and infallible though capable of being misled–and indeed not necessarily even very bright. Thus the general will needs good counselors to advise it and a “legislator,” a supremely wise individual, to design the original constitution. (A group from newly independent Corsica invited Rousseau to perform this service for Corsica, and Rousseau seriously considered trying it, but the deal fell through.) None of this is supposed to reduce the authority, the legitimacy, or the infallibility of the general will. The counselors are only bringing the horse to water, as it were. It is still up to the horse to drink or not. And the horse’s judgment in this regard is infallible–well, except when the horse is mistaken. But then that’s really the fault of the counselors. One thing is certain: the horse’s heart is in the right place. I am not exaggerating. See The Social Contract, Book II, ch. iii (and also chs. vi and vii). The effect of this doctrine is to add yet another degree of freedom to a mechanism that is already essentially constraint free. There is no independent check on the judgment of the general will, so in principle it can always be right. It seems like it must be, actually. It is the only standard. By what means will we ever know it was wrong? And yet it can be wrong after all. Sorry, I mean misled. Evidently the criterion of being misled is that the general will comes later to regret some judgment it made earlier. This must be the criterion, since no other criterion is available. At least, I can’t think of any other. All this applies equally to conscience, I think.

      The general will takes up only matters of general policy, not of particular detail. Also whatever principles of political right might be derivable from the general will must be put into practice for a particular people, in a particular geographic location, in a particular time, with a particular geopolitical context of neighboring states, and so forth. So the best constitution can differ greatly from one situation to another. It seems to be the same with morals. (I have read a passage in Emile to this effect, but I can’t find it now.) The deliverances of conscience concerning right and wrong can be somewhat different in different social and historical contexts. Nonetheless, the fundamentals are universal across times and nations, he says. So, as you say, conscience may be better at articulating basic values and precepts than at deciding particular cases.

      The main question you seem to be raising is whether we can exonerate a person by saying something like, “his heart was in the right place” or “he meant well,” in cases where his behavior wasn’t what it should have been. Can you separate a person’s moral status from his performance? That is what it amounts to, right? And that’s just what Rousseau does in the cases of people he loves and wishes to think well of. Thus his father was a good man and true, of scrupulous integrity, and so forth, despite the fact that he cut Rousseau loose so he could enjoy the proceeds of Rousseau’s inheritance for himself.

      Without thinking about it quite explicitly, it was in the back of my mind when I wrote my post that I meant to deny that we can separate moral status from performance in this way. It’s just dishonest to say that Rousseau’s father was a man of scrupulous integrity and true virtue in view of his actual behavior. These are not compatible facts. This doesn’t mean we have to condemn and vilify Rousseau’s father. Everyone is a mixed bag of character strengths, and everyone performs variably from one occasion to another. Perhaps Rousseau’s father was in nearly all ways a prince of a guy, as Rousseau wished to believe. This is a determination that should be made by considering all the man’s actions, intentions, and dispositions, as well as the history of these, throughout his life. But this means including the bad along with the good, and we will not be able to ascribe to Rousseau’s father the sort of moral purity that Rousseau himself ascribed to him.

      The critical question is whether you can justify someone for acting badly with a phrase like, “his heart was in the right place.” Think honestly about the cases where you acted badly. When I think back on my own moral lapses, things I did that I’m not proud of and what led me to do them, I find that the reasons are typically that I was weak; that I was thoughtless; that I allowed myself to be influenced by other people too much; that what I did was an easy way out or an easy way to get something and that I just didn’t allow myself to think much about the moral issues involved; sometimes that I was just flat dishonest. I can think of cases where I was lacking in moral direction, where I thought cynically “everybody does this” and really just suffered from a lack of proper principle. But I wouldn’t describe these as cases of being misled. It’s not that I had a heart that was thinking about and desiring purity and virtue but that got misdirected. I suffered not from a strong but mistaken sense of what was right but from lack of principle. If I had really given the matter much thought, or if I had had good principles inculcated in me, in the cases from my own life that I can think of, I wouldn’t have acted as I did. In other words, if I had been a better person, I wouldn’t have acted as I did. It’s not that my heart was good, if that means the only thing it really can mean: that I was thinking about doing what is morally good and was determined to do what is morally good. My heart wasn’t good! It it had been, I would have been much more likely to do what I should have in these cases.

      I do not mean to say that wrong actions are never the result of being misled. The news lately has given us several examples of murders committed by people who apparently thought, under the influence of their ideological beliefs, that they were doing something good. But this is relatively rare. Very few cases from my own life are cases of being misled in anything like this way (I can only think of one offhand). Usually we do not do wrong thinking we are doing right. Rather we do wrong without clear and ingrained principles to keep us on the right path, and usually without thinking too much about what we are doing from a moral perspective. When one does wrong, it’s generally not that one is “really” a good person who just happens to do something bad; it’s that, in regard to the action in question, one is not a good person. Rousseau’s theory of conscience allows him to kid himself on this score and tell himself that he and certain other people were good when they weren’t. That strikes me as both false and morally destructive.


      • I would certainly agree that neither conscience nor the general will can function as a criterion of moral rightness. But I don’t think Rousseau’s theory of conscience is distinctive in facilitating rationalizations for bad behavior. Every theory has liabilities of that sort. I can’t think of a single theory in the history of ethics that provides corrective mechanisms for the distinctive liabilities of the theory itself–or at least, a single theory that provides such mechanisms internal to the theory itself.

        And every ethical theory has some distinctive liabilities. Aristotle doesn’t ask, “What if an ethics of flourishing is really just a rationalization for the exploitation of others?” Divine command theorists don’t ask, “What if the commandments you’re following are rationalizations for your own neuroses, projected outward onto a deity you’ve confabulated?” Kantians don’t ask, “What if the whole apparatus of maxim-universalization is just a vacuous rationalization for blind adherence to the conventional rules of a deeply repressed society?” Utilitarians don’t ask, “What if this whole theory is just a rationalization for imperialism, or at least, the sort of god-complex you’d expect of a very intelligent imperial administrator?” Eventually, such questions get asked, but as postscripts to the theory, not as integral parts of it. Rousseau is in good (bad) company; I don’t see that his theory is any better or worse than anyone else’s in this respect.

        Separate point: I have a worry that you’re not leaving enough room for blamelessly-produced bad actions. Granted, you say: “I do not mean to say that wrong actions are never the result of being misled.” But in that case, doesn’t Rousseau have a point? Sometimes people act badly but their intentions (or “hearts”) were in the right place. Put more precisely, if you’ve done everything in your power to get things right, and you still manage to do the wrong thing, you really can’t be blamed; your heart really was in the right place.

        So I think Rousseau has latched onto something real and important in that respect: for any agent, it’s always the case that there is some such action (“I did the best I could”) and some such possibility (“I did the wrong thing”). In other words, for any agent, there is some action that satisfies the description “he did his best” and some possibility such that “even though he did his best, the action misfired.” As far as moral culpability is concerned, Rousseau is right that there is something infallible about the judgment expressed after you’ve done your best, i.e., acted conscientiously: even if your most conscientious judgment doesn’t track the truth, it’s the best that you could have done, and in that sense inevitably (“infallibly”) non-culpable. I realize that isn’t quite what Rousseau is himself saying, but it’s the element of truth in what he is saying.

        You seem to be suggesting that it’s rare that people do their best and yet do the wrong thing. I don’t think it’s possible to know the frequencies of that sort of case by consulting one’s own experience. It may not be possible to know the frequencies at all. It’s clear enough that cases like that can happen, and that cases like that can also be exploited for purposes of rationalization. It’s not clear (to me) that rationalization is any more or less common than honest error.


  3. Rousseau’s moral theory is especially productive of excuses for bad behavior because of the one-two punch of (1) no ultimate substantive principles, only the voice of conscience and (2) the strange idea that conscience, though infallible, still somehow needs guidance from other mental faculties and can be misled. The first point means there are no principles one can appeal to as a check on one’s behavior, and the second means that no matter what one does, one can still regard oneself as good if one feels one’s heart was in the right place. So, since nearly everybody thinks they mean well nearly all the time (and Rousseau certainly exemplifies that!), it follows that almost nobody is ever blameworthy.

    I don’t see any parallels for this in Aristotle or Kant or Bentham. They supply substantive principles and hold that any well brought up person (Aristotle) or any rational person (Kant) or any benevolent person (Bentham) should see and follow them. True, application of their principles can be difficult sometimes. That hardly puts them in Rousseau’s category.

    One interesting point you raise here about the misapplication of general principles (flourishing, universalization, etc.). I notice that the moral philosophers we’re talking about other than Rousseau provide both general principles and a rich set of more particular principles that build out the general ones. For instance, Aristotle doesn’t end the Nichomachean Ethics after Book I (i.e., the general discussion of flourishing). He goes into great detail with particular moral principles, of justice for example, and the various virtues that make a life well lived. I think both need the other. The general principles wouldn’t be very meaningful without the copious applications, and the inevitable parochialism of the applications wouldn’t be correctable without the general principles.

    As to your separate worry: “Sometimes people act badly but their intentions (or “hearts”) were in the right place. Put more precisely, if you’ve done everything in your power to get things right, and you still manage to do the wrong thing, you really can’t be blamed; your heart really was in the right place.”

    I think there are three sorts of case I’d like to distinguish. First is what you describe, where you do everything in your power to do right but get misled and still do wrong. Call this “earnest but mistaken.” I have in mind cases that aren’t actually all that difficult but where one’s head gets turned, usually by ideological philosophy. What Rousseau claims happened in the case of his children. What perhaps happens in certain cases of crimes committed by ideological extremists. Second is relatively thoughtless misbehavior of the sort I mention from my own life in the post you are replying to, generally the result of taking the easy way out and not thinking too hard about the moral implications. These are cases where conventional moral reasoning would have led to the right answer, but the person did not wish to think that hard. Third are more difficult problems that different moral philosophies judge differently. The trolley problem, but many other and more realistic and fundamental questions fall under this heading (what is more important, happiness or meaning or creativity or duty or serenity?; what may one’s country legitimately ask one to sacrifice?; what is the proper balance between materialistic and spiritual values?; and so forth).

    I was not thinking about the third category when I wrote the post you’re replying to. About this category I agree with you completely. It is hard to find one’s way with regard to such questions. I’m inclined to think there are better and worse answers to such questions, and it would follow that people who act on the worse answers aren’t living as well as they could or should. But obviously it wouldn’t be my first thought to blame them for it.

    On the subject of conventional wrongdoing, however, I would stick to my guns. You’re right, I think earnest but mistaken wrongdoing is relatively rare. I don’t think the case of Rousseau’s children is a legitimate case of this, and I don’t think most of the murders in the world are earnest but mistaken, nor most of the home invasions, nor most of the lies told on resumes, nor most of the marital infidelities, nor most of the child molestations, nor most of the embezzling, nor most of the email scams, nor most of the cheating at games, etc. It’s not just my own reflections on my own life that provide support for my claim, it’s also general observation of the wrongdoing that goes on in the world. People who satisfy your description of doing everything possible to do the right thing and still discard their children or commit bank fraud or whatever—I do admit it’s possible, as I said, but I think it’s safe to say that this is rare.


  4. Hi, David. Thanks for your response – quite helpful (as was your exchange with Irfan).

    I’m still at a bit of a loss in understanding just how Rousseau takes himself to be speaking at once to both good moral character (conceived of in terms of something like having a good heart – say, knowing what the basic ends and means of morality are and being motivated toward them) and good moral performance (specified and motivated by the verdicts of conscience, something akin to an authoritative voice that tells you which actions are morally best or right).

    Does Rousseau take having a good character to be simply following the dictates of conscience (so that conscience explains good character rather than the other way around)? If so, why does following the dictates of conscience come to something like having a good heart – why doesn’t it come to something else (say, dutifully follows the moral law above all else)? Alternatively, if one thinks that having a good heart leads straight away to correct verdicts (and hence usually performance), the idea of our naturally having this sort of good character might motivate the idea of voice of conscience that is infallible (or nearly so). Does this reflect Rousseau’s thinking? (This is the most natural way for me to motivate the sorts of views Rousseau has, by starting with the idea of good character as having a good heart and adding the quasi-empirical premise that reaching moral conclusions from the “natural” position is easy.)

    I agree with you that, at the general and systematic level, good character goes hand-in-hand with good moral performance. And perhaps Rousseau accepts a similar premise and takes good moral performance to be a function of following the dictates of conscience. But this does not provide us with a specific conception of what having a good character comes to.

    However, good moral character and good moral performance are distinct elements and it is Rousseau’s error with regard to moral character that generates his odd judgments about who is blameworthy and who is not. This error consists in equating having a good moral character with having a good heart (something like knowing and being motivated toward the ends and means of moral practice) when this is only part of what having good moral character is.

    Though we should agree with Rousseau that having a good heart in this sense is reasonably natural and easy for us, our good hearts may be corrupted by incomplete moral theories that alienate us from important moral ends or means. And, plausibly, we need to weigh out different, competing basic moral ends and means in figuring out how to structure moral practice in a given context for social cooperation (and in figuring out what is morally best or right in a justified, existing moral practice). This speaks to there being quite a bit more to having a good moral character than simply having a good heart. It seems to me that this error is largely independent of the idea of conscience as a verdict-rendering, good-performance-enabling mechanism (whether Rousseau would explain good character by reference to following the dictates of conscience or explain the existence of near-infallible conscience by reference to propitious conditions for moral judgment and a natural orientation toward moral ends and means).

    It is also this error that explains why, for Rousseau, the good-hearted are never blameworthy. And this, along with our natural tendency to think our own motives (and the motives of those who are near and dear) are pure, explains why Rousseau cannot bring himself to blame or condemn himself (or those near and dear to him) for committing obvious, and obviously egregious, moral wrongs. (This is a bit different from your – obviously much more textually well-informed – take on how this goes or should go on a charitable interpretation of Rousseau. I’m just spelling out how it seems that things could or should go logically, in light of the distinction between moral character on the one hand and moral performance and knowledge on the other.)


  5. Hi Michael.

    I think the basic answer to your questions about the relation between conscience and character in Rousseau is that Rousseau is not much interested in the notion of moral character. He does not think we become good by cultivating a good character. For him that is all the wrong approach. Let me explain why I say this.

    Rousseau’s master moral concept is conscience, which is the final arbiter of all moral matters, both general and particular. Having a good heart basically means that one listens to one’s conscience. I believe that Rousseau would acknowledge that this is not all that good character requires. For instance, one might be weak and not follow one’s conscience sometimes even though one hears it, in a “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” sort of way. Rousseau says that he himself is this way, and I think he would acknowledge this as a character flaw. So Rousseau can separate these three things, conscience, a good heart, and good character, and I suppose he would do so along the lines just outlined.

    Of the three, good character is the least important. One reason is that having weak flesh isn’t necessarily a moral issue. At least Rousseau doesn’t think so. (I personally don’t think it’s that easy, and you and I seem to agree about this.) But another and more fundamental reason is that Rousseau doesn’t think that the development of a good character in anything like the Aristotelian sense is the way to make a person good, not only in the sense of having a good heart but in the sense of performing properly as well.

    The contrast between the Aristotelian and the Rousseauan approach to becoming a good person is worth dwelling on. For Aristotle, reason can discern the human good and teach us to follow it. The leading obstacle to human goodness is the passions, which can be unruly and lead us astray. Seeing the passions as the enemy is a very common theme in the history of moral philosophy, as you know. For Aristotle, the way to get control of the passions is to train oneself in habits of right action in the face of our passions. Stand up and do what is right in fearful situations, resist the temptations presented by inappropriate pleasures, work at being affable when you are inclined to feel irritable, and so forth. Start with easy cases and work your way up to the point of responding appropriately in more difficult cases. Habituate yourself to appropriate responses, and they will become pleasurable in themselves and automatic; they will become “second nature.” Note that for Aristotle, this sort of moral perfection is not natural. If it were natural, it would come to all of us uniformly and automatically, like walking and talking. Rather, developing a good character is to the soul what bodybuilding is to the body: it is the activity of perfecting what nature has given us through training that consists in the progressive exercise of the very capacities we wish to develop.

    Rousseau rejects all of this! He thinks moral perfection is natural. He thinks our natural passions are not unruly and do not lead us astray. He thinks reason alone does not discern our good and is incapable of leading us. Finally, moral development is a matter not of developing virtues and good character by perfecting nature, but of recovering the original nature in us that has been buried under layers of social artificialities.

    Rousseau thinks that human wickedness is all the fault of society, which corrupts and perverts our original nature. We are not social animals (note another contrast with Aristotle). Through most of our history we roamed the forest individually like leopards. We did not even live in families. Our recent, accidental, unfortunate coalescence into society has unleashed forces that are barely controllable and that are the source of all our miseries. The key bad actor is an impulse Rousseau calls amour-propre, or self-respect. From the name, self-respect sounds self-regarding, but that is a mistake. Really self-respect is all about the opinions of others. For instance, self-respect is what makes an NFL running back think he needs a $25M contract. This need is entirely illusory, obviously. He thinks he needs it only because it is what other running backs with similar stats have gotten, and so he will be slighted if he doesn’t get it too. It is his desire for the respect of others that makes him feel so passionately that he has to have a $25M contract. Notice how odd it would be for him to justify his desire by saying he needs it for his self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t supposed to depend on such things; self-esteem is feeling comfortable in your own skin, feeling secure in your own capabilities. Self-esteem really is self-regarding. But when you say to yourself that you ought to have a Lexus because “I deserve it,” that’s amour-propre talking. Only in a social context where others are looking and one is conscious of this can one’s dignity require that one own a Lexus.

    Because others are looking and we care, we want to be preferred, to excel, to surpass, to achieve, to possess, to win, to be admired, to be envied, to dominate, to be chosen, to keep up, to be respected, to have the sort of dignity that depends on what others think of us and how they treat us. We want these things very much, and so we become competitive, acquisitive, jealous, possessive, suspicious, and mean. We seek to be better, smarter, more talented, more beautiful, more witty than others, and where we can’t have these qualities in reality, we seek to appear to have them. We seek to dominate and subjugate. We are contemptuous of those below us at the same time that we scrape favor with those above.

    These passions are powerful indeed, and they are not natural. All the artificialities of life and conspicuous consumption are due to them. I should say I don’t mean to endorse this analysis; I think Rousseau blows these features of social life way out of proportion. However, it is Rousseau’s view. The point is—to bring this back to the virtues and good character—we are not going to tame these forces with anything so tepid as the Aristotelian virtues. In the context of Rousseau’s analysis, what can virtues like courage and moderation accomplish? Give the running back the courage to hold out for $30M? Give you the restraint to settle for a Lexus instead of lusting after a Lamborghini? For Rousseau the Aristotelian approach misses the point. Aristotle misconceived the whole problem! The problem is not to improve our nature but to recover it. The problem is to wake up to the artificiality of our lives and all our supposed needs and our concern with what others think. And what this requires is not cultivation of the virtues but a much bigger project: deprogramming. That is the battle. If we can be successful at this, we won’t have to worry much about character. Our natural goodness will emerge.

    Rousseau writes, “what make man essentially good is to have few needs and to compare himself little to others; what makes him essentially wicked is to have many needs and to depend very much on opinion” (Emile, 214). That sums it up.

    Maybe I’ve gone yipping off on an exposition of an aspect of Rousseau’s moral view that you neither needed nor wanted to hear. But as I said, I think the near total contrast with an Aristotelian style virtue approach to being good is interesting and important. If it doesn’t help you in sorting out your concerns, let me know and I’ll try to stay more on track next time.

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  8. I see apologist for tyranny takes volumes. To a man directly responsible for the Reign of terror and other cruelties can now be explained away by a new version of deviant behavior as moral relativity giving all things hideous its privileged place in history.


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  11. Some of you are putting your own bias into your interpretation of his story. The fact that he is guilt ridden and the fact that he is even compelled to creat a excuse for actions is his conscious speaking. It proves the conscious like he said is soft spoken and easily drowned out. Which disproves his statement that humans are pure and just. We are driven by the ego (self interest) from the very beginning. Only slightly better then animals because we are capable of feeling guilt.


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  15. I am not an admirer of Rousseau, but having read and studied some of his work, including the Confessions and Emile, I’m somewhat amused by this article. Rousseau himself clearly stated on many occasions that his conscience told him that this act of giving his children away was wrong. In no way is this proof that his conscience was leading him astray. I am also, by the way, conscious that it is very tricky to judge people’s actions who lived 250 years ago in a totally different social context and your comments around it being convenient for him etc irritate me.
    Have a nice day, Marco de Meijer.


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