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.