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#Rousseau’s Views on The Corrupting Effects of #Society and #Technology

posted Dec 27, 2013, 11:05 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

Rousseau’s Views on The Corrupting Effects of Society and Technology

By Peter Moons

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's argument on the corrupting effects of society is that these develop as people group together in ever-larger communities. Rousseau notes that as society develops, great disparities emerge: "inequality" and "abuse of wealth"[1] arise just as the rich chase money and the poor commit "brigandage."[2] If these negative manifestations of society continue, violence will result. Moreover, as governments develop, citizens will have contempt for laws that "change daily;" they will also disfavor evil being employed to correct actions of lesser evil.[3]  Additionally, Rousseau notes the ill effects of mob rule as well as the imposition of rule and administration of civil society by a corrupt and/or unjust leader.[4]  What is the solution that Rousseau recommends? Increasing virtue and "morality" while addressing the "physical inequality" in society are two requirements. These actions are necessary because man cannot return to the state of nature whence he came.


In the state of nature, a healthy self- love kept man alive. Contrast this experience with the decrease in pity in modern civilization. Rousseau does not mention God, or His compassion, or influencing man to have compassion for others. If there is compassion, the government is its provider. Thus, if the vanity of man in the state of nature continues in a civilization devoid of pity, a rough form of society will ensue. This new paradigm will combine greed by the rich and anti-social behavior by the poor, resulting in a worsening situation. Rousseau will argue that a better civilization can develop once the focus is on compassion, which will mean the government will have to ‘spread the wealth around’ through redistribution schemes; many citizens may not like this while other will welcome such methods.


For Rousseau, technology worsens injustice. Rousseau’s economic philosophy promotes capitalism and the division of labor in the market. Of course, this contrasts with man in the state of nature and there are two points on technology-induced injustice. First, on the theory side, technology will decrease the amount of labor needed by the owners of the means of production. The result is that workers are thrown out of their jobs and back into the vast ranks of the unemployed (and then seek new work and/or new skills…or not).


Concurrently, technology is advancing at an exponential, not linear, rate and the previously valuable skills held by the workers quickly pass their expiration date. The real-world example of the injustice is that no one will hire a 55-year-old former middle manager, whose job went to China and the profits from which went to a banker on Wall Street. This ex-manager does not have the skills to dominate in the information age; the economic paradigm shifted from under her feet.


Secondly, also on the theory side of Rousseau, capitalism is hyper-competitive, and this pervades the job-market, life-styles, and socio-economic classes. The injustice comes from the ultra-consumerism that results in capitalistic societies. People in this environment become über-consumers, even though they may not have the money to afford expensive consumer items outright, as they vainly compete for status. The introduction of technology into this equation only makes the market economy more selfish, surreptitiously stimulating unsustainable consumerism.


Rousseau noted the freedom that is inherent in the state of nature and this is juxtaposed against a society that would have three factors enabling a more controlled environment: technology, a division of labor, and a market. Technology would only heighten the ‘man-as-cog-in-the-machine’ mindset, as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis emphasized. The result can certainly be an increase in injustice. Thus are visible the dialectics intrinsic in Rousseau’s philosophy: the state of nature versus modern society, natural versus artificial, equality versus inequality, and freedom versus exploitation.

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

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid.