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No Free Cheese: Jean-Jacques #Rousseau on Virtue and Compassion in a Capitalist Economy

posted Dec 21, 2013, 2:24 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

No Free Cheese: 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Virtue and Compassion in a Capitalist Economy

By Peter Joseph Moons

            Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right: Once man leaves the State of Nature (nature) and enters modernity, he cannot go back, barring an apocalyptic cataclysm.  The worlds inside and outside nature represent different conceptual environments for man: the former is paradisiacal while the latter shows a much harsher reality.  Outside, of course, is life where man currently lives: controlling governments run capitalist economies with divisions of labor; a pitiless, isolated, anti-social existence where one is valued for production but conversely devalued as a person; with citizens whose virtues have waned since leaving nature.  One of those virtues, of course, is compassion, which Rousseau saw a lacking in the new paradigm, but championed its return. This out-of-equilibrium balance described by Rousseau leads to a question: Are lack of virtue, low compassion, and exploitation endemic in and permanent to a capitalist economy?


            A principal outcome on the individual level from the activities of a market economy is a definite lack of virtue, opines Rousseau.  He saw the harshness of life, not only in the type of work done by people just to take care of themselves and their families but also in the way they treated one another.  The dichotomy went beyond the inequality that is a natural outcome in a competitive structure -- the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in capitalism -- but stretched into a sort of proto-class warfare.  Rousseau described the bourgeoisie deliberately treating those in a lesser economic state poorly.  The question to ask is why?  If a citizen is above another in stature, class, wealth, education or any other factor, is there a need to denigrate another or to disrespect those whose level is lower than one’s own?


            The answer may lie in maintenance of one’s position in society; concurrently, to bring another done, may imbue in someone a sense of importance (is this not the paradigm of a bully?).  Since capitalism breeds constant competition, those in any class, except for the wealthiest and perhaps the lumpen, are competing for more wealth.  Rousseau notes that as society develops, great disparities emerge: “inequality” and “abuse of wealth”[1] can arise as the rich chase money and the poor commit crimes.[2]  In such a world, virtue is a hard-to-come-by element, for there is no tangible remuneration for courtesy and niceties, unless a quid-pro-quo is already established, such as a seller-buyer relationship.  No matter the economy type, virtue appears to become part of society by an external catalyst: from a religious context, as a standard of a fraternal organizational, within a small circle of people, or as a standard of employment.  Rousseau noted the commonality of man in nature, though of course, returning to that paradigm is not possible.


            Rousseau recognizes the low-level of compassion in a capitalist economy.  Of course, compassion in any environment promotes goodwill across a spectrum of activities: care for the disadvantaged, concern for those who are complete strangers, and even the unknown, e.g., through donations.  Thus, compassion generates goodwill, which directly creates more happiness, an Aristotelian concept that would certainly have Rousseau’s approval.  Interestingly, the Catholic Church’s Pope Francis exhorted the Church’s followers “to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.”[3]  The Pope mirrored Rousseau here as the latter said, “Benevolence and even friendship are…the products of a constant pity.”[4]  Compassion, pity, care can each aid in building friendships and maintaining positive relationships, between individuals and socio-economic classes.  So the idea of government entitlements, wealth transfers, or direct handouts like the proverbial ‘government cheese’ would not be anathema to Rousseau.  There is a connection to this concept in a capitalist economy.


As man progressed from nature into communities, said Rousseau, metallurgy, agriculture, and technology led to a more bountiful existence, but also to “slavery and misery” as the work never stops.[5]  Therefore, the division of labor, even economic activity in general, has caused the commodification of nearly all human activity; even leisure time is evaluable in terms of the money that goes into sport, art, etc., or the money a person could make if they were engaged in a job and not in a hobby.  Rousseau also saw the monetization of virtues, self-worth: “Each one began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself, and public esteem had a value.”[6]  People compare the value of products so people comparing people is not a far step beyond.


The Pope’s comments on capitalism[7] have certainly gained traction; the Pontiff also described how, in market economies, “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”[8]  Here the Pope argues for a return of Christian love to care for the “exploited,” “the outcast,” and “the leftovers,”[9] while Rousseau advocates an antidote consisting of legislation and government intervention: there are “a multitude of passions which are the product of society and which have made laws necessary,”[10] he noted.


            Rousseau appears less than hopeful that modern capitalist societies can re-capture some of the values and honor extant when man freely roamed through nature.  His solution to a lack of compassion is more laws, but these also aid in controlling the poor while aiding the rich.[11]  His jaded views were obviously influenced by what he saw as the artificiality of both the structure of communities, which were based on the power of people and relationships, as well as the absence of true virtue among the population.  Rousseau’s description of life and people was certainly dark: “savage,” “factitious,” “bogus,” “deceitful,” “frivolous” and “honor without virtue.”[12]  Because he has employed “reason” to recognize the current “moral” and “physical inequality,”[13] in society, he hopes to redirect society to become more virtuous and just.  However, no one will change competitive capitalist economies; as Rousseau realistically recognized, people will have to become more virtuous to make life more livable.


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992) 53.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium of The Holy Father Francis, November 24, 2013,, 136.

[4] Rousseau, 37.

[5] Ibid., 51.

[6] Ibid., 49.

[7] Reuters, Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2013,

[8] Pope Francis, 46.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rousseau, 35.

[11] Ibid., 57.

[12] Ibid., 70.

[13] Ibid., 71.