education philosopher

On Natural Inequality?: Huxley’s Rebuttal of Rousseau

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on September 20, 2009

There is much to be said in favour of the view that Rousseau, having got hold of a plausible hypothesis, more or less unconsciously made up a clothing of imaginary facts to hide its real nakedness. He was not the first nor the last philosopher to perform this feat. – Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Natural Inequalities of Man” (309)

RousseauIf I had not doubted Rousseau before, and I had, having cats would have led me to doubt Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is in large part known for his Discourse on the Nature of Inequality. In the book, he writes that inequality did not exist in humans’ “state of nature” but only came after society was invented and entered into.

Now why would cats make me doubt such a story? Well, even though my cats have “entered into society” (they sleep on couches rather than grassy plains, and eat processed food rather than raw meat), they are quite instinctual animals; their instincts give us a glimpse into their natural inclinations. And cats’ natural instincts know nothing of such concepts as fairness or equality.

In fact, right now , my cats are eating. I have to look over every few minutes to make sure that one cat doesn’t “kick the other cat out” of the room in order to eat their food. I’ve tried many times to let the three cats know that this is wrong behavior  – that each cat gets to eat only from her own food bowl – but the cats simply don’t learn this. I have also tried to “unlearn” their behavior of order establishing, with one cat being the most dominant and another being the most submissive, but again, too much travail. According to the several books I’ve read and websites I’ve consulted, cats are just naturally this way – territorial, opportunistic, caring not  a lick for equality.

It simply makes one wonder whether humans could also have been this way in their natural state. (Hint: science has been proving Rousseau wrong for years, as evidenced in such works as Lorenz’s  On Aggression.)

One of the best critiques of Rousseau’s work, though, was Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay, “On the Natural Inequalitythomas huxley of Man.” This is so, I think, not only because Huxley was a biologist every bit as good at philosophy as Rousseau was (better, I think).

To me, the most notable thing about Huxley’s critique is that he essentially turns Rousseau’s view on its head, arguing that equality is not something the establishment of society removed from nature, but something that it imposed on nature.

Huxley did not necessarily agree with Hobbes that humans lives in a state of nature were “a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” war of everyone against everyone. Using the best anthropological evidence at the time, Huxley postulated the view – that has endured into today – that

The particular method of early landholding of which we have the most widespread traces is that in which each of a great number of moderate-sized portions of the whole territory occupied by a nation is held in complete and inalienable ownership by the males of a family, or of a small number of actual or supposed kindred families, mutually responsible in blood feuds, and worshipping the same God or Gods.  (324)

Land was owned “as private or several property” and, whether owned individually or severally, property would have  been jealously guarded with the best able to defend having the upper-hand. Even within groups, equality very likely did not exist: ”

But it is a profound mistake to imagine that, in the nomadic condition, any more than in any other which has yet been observed, men are either “free” or “equal” in Rousseau’s sense. I can call to mind no nomadic nation in which women are on an equality with men; nor any in which young men are on the same footing as old men; nor any in which family groups, bound together by blood ties, by their mutual responsibility for bloodshed and by common worship, do not constitute corporate political units, in the sense of the city of the Greeks and Romans. A “state of nature” in which noble and peaceful, but nude and propertyless, savages sit in solitary meditation under trees, unless they are dining or amusing themselves in other ways, without cares or responsibilities of any sort, is simply another figment of the unscientific imagination. (322)

Of course, this is not to attempt justification of inequality; it is just to point out that Rousseau’s vision that inequality is an outgrowth of society has it backwards: society tries to remedy inequality because it is natural to humanity. Huxley suspects, in fact, that Rousseau was able to imagine an egalitarian human state of only because society went about ways to make laws and customs designed to result in certain equalities.

Even before the great leveler, Rome, had actually thrown down innumerable social and national party-walls, had absorbed all other forms of citizenship into her own, and brought the inhabitants of what was then known as the world under one system of obligations–thoughtful men were discovering that it was desirable, in the interests of society, that all men should be as free as possible, consistently with those interests; and that they should all be equally bound by the ethical and legal obligations which are essential to social existence.

In Huxley’s view of history – much more akin to what archeologists, anthropologists, and biologists  think today than Rousseau’s – humans first lived in primitive nomadic worlds where ownership was dictated by “blood feuds,” and fighting, only to somehow enter into societies where “great leveler[s]” like Rome instituted, “in the interests of society,” rules designed to promote degrees of equality.

It is important to note that Huxley was in no way attempting to justify or normalize inequality, but simply to point out that we cannot look for it as a naturally existing characteristic of humans. He even points out what should have been an obvious truism: that far from “being born free and equal,” humans are born in the subordinate position of an infant, dependant on and defenseless against the will of others.

How can it be said that these poor little mortals who have not even the capacity to kick to any definite end, nor indeed to do anything but vaguely squirm and squall, are equal politically, except as all zeros may be said to be equal? How can little creatures be said to be “free” of whom not one would live for four and twenty hours if it were not imprisoned by kindly hands and coerced into applying its foolish wandering mouth to the breast it could never find for itself?

Even when babies become young adults, they are still – naturally, not only societally – subservient in many ways to the adults that protect and guide them. (That Rousseau thought things the other way around – that babies were born free and society imposed artificiality on them – that led to his strange views on education in Emile, where children learn best when adults interfere as little as possible, serving as mere facilitators. More on this in a future essay.)

But what about when the young adult grows into a full adult? Huxley argues what should be confirmed to any honest observer in experience: that talents, proclivities, etc, are not evenly distributed in nature. Some are born very intelligent, others are born less intelligent. Some are born with talents in high demand, others are born with more mundane talents. As politically unpopular such a thing is, it is not only observable but – as far as we can tell – would occur in nature every bit as much as in society.

In fact, nothing is more remarkable than the wide inequality which children, even of the same family, exhibit, as soon as the mental and moral qualities begin to manifest themselves; which is earlier than most people fancy… Among the children, there are some who continue to be “more honoured and more powerful than the rest, and to make themselves obeyed” (sometimes, indeed, by their elders) in virtue of nothing but their moral and mental qualities. Here, “political inequality” visibly dogs the heels of “natural” inequality. The group of children becomes a political body, a civitas, with its rights of property, and its practical distinctions of rank and power. And all this comes about neither by force nor by fraud, but as the necessary consequence of the innate inequalities of capability. (my italics, 308)

All of this is to say that if inequality existed in the “state of nature,” then society can do what it can to eradicate inequality, but should not be surprised if inequality is with us for the long haul. It is still a view much en vogue to ask what societal mechanism we can blame for disparities – discrimination, unequal distribution of wealth via capitalism, unequal treatment by institutions. If Huxley is right, though, (and I suspect that he is), we might want to question the (Rousseauean) assumption that inequality must have a social and societal cause. Even if we picked a moment in time whereby we could eradicate all inequalities (except for the natural ones of being born with natural differences), how long would it take before those natural inequalities of birth led to the return of social inequalities?

My sense is that a certain level of inequality is not only morally justifiable (as people should be entitled to reap rewards of their varying efforts), but that, to a certain degree, inequality is the necessary fuel of human aspiration and achievement. If private property were abolished as unequalitarian, would we work as hard (if we knew our rewards were not in proportion to our efforts)? And how many people derive motivation from seeing those financially above them and aspire to join them? And would we work so hard at educating our children if we did not believe that the output they derive is contingent upon the input we provide?

It was, I think, the goal of Rousseau to fight for the principle of equality. Like many other thinkers, the American founders and Marx among them, Rousseau found that the best way to argue for his desired x was to make it seem natural and inevitable and its opposition appear as an evil artifice that can be easily fought out of existence. Huxley, and others since, have shown that it is not so easy. Equality is not part of the state of nature that we simply have to return to realize its potential; it is an ideal that, like ideals generally are, is a hard won artifice that may, in the end, only be imperfectly realized.


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