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A Brief Analysis of Rousseau’s Ethics of Compassion in “Discourse on Inequality” and Relation to Buddhist Teachings

Last week, I read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on Inequality.”  It’s a fascinating discoursework of political philosophy written in 1754 by Rousseau as an entry for an essay contest that challenged authors to address the question: What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?  In order to thoroughly answer this question, Rousseau expounds a philosophy  of man, discussing who and what man is as an individual, what is freedom, what are man’s essential and accidental qualities, what is the effect of society on man and the ideal political situation.  As someone who is interested in Buddhism’s answers to these same questions, I was curious if there was any similarity between Rousseau’s answers and Buddhist views.

I think there are at least two similarities.  The first similarity concerns Rousseau’s account of man’s natural morality of compassion; this corresponds with the Buddhist view of compassion as constitutive of morality.  The second similarity arises out of Rousseau’s lamenting about the detriments of rational thinking to man’s mental constitution; likewise, Buddhism teaches that false reasoning is the barrier to enlightenment.


Morality as Compassion

Rousseau speaks of compassion as a disposition that comes spontaneously to man, prior to reflection or cognition, and which arises immediately upon the impression of another creature’s suffering.  This “pure emotion of nature” is universal among sentient beings; as the savage man is squeamish of viewing distress, so are the beasts of the earth who refuse to walk near a dying member of their kind.  The function of compassion is to disincline us from inflicting adversity on others – we avoid bearing witness to suffering.

The basis of treating another being with compassion is one’s identification with the sufferer on the grounds of common sentience.  The person observing the suffering recognizes that sentience is morally relevant; one recognizes her own aversion to suffering and identifies this aversion in other creatures. The identification between oneself and the object of reflection is the grounds of compassion, and identification naturally motivates man to be concerned with the welfare of other creatures.

Within the community of sentient creatures, Rousseau elaborates on the natural distinction between moral agents and moral patients (albeit he does not use those modern terms). He writes that,

…so long as [man] does not resist the internal impulse of compassion, he will never hurt any other man, nor even any sentient being, except on those lawful occasions on which his own preservation is concerned and he is obliged to give himself the preference…. [and regarding animals] it is clear that being destitute of intelligence and liberty, they cannot recognize that law; as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of [their] sensibility… they ought to partake of natural right….

Sentience is the baseline requirement for a natural right to compassion, so that any sentient creature – man or beast – is a moral patient.   However, since man is a special kind of creature, bestowed with intelligence and self-direction even in his savage form, he has the additional responsibility of moral agency, i.e. the duty to correctly apply the moral law.  To apply the moral law is not, however, intellectually strenuous; Rousseau praises savage man for his simple and imperfect, yet highly functional, sense of morality.  Savage man easily comprehends and readily applies his moral sense.

On the issues of sentience and compassion, the parallel in Buddhism is clear.  The first of the Four Noble Truths is that life is suffering.  (The Four Noble Truths are the most significant of Buddhist doctrines.) This truth implies that to live is to suffer.  Therefore, all living creatures are united by their common suffering – and the aim to be free of it.  Metta meditation is specifically aimed at fostering identification between the meditator and other sentient creatures, cultivating the awareness of the shared capacity to suffer and its converse, to feel free of suffering.  This is compassion in Buddhism: the empathetic altruism as a propensity to behave in a way that allows others to be free of suffering.

Although both Rousseau and Buddhism hold that compassion and sentience are the basis for motivating moral behavior, one should be careful not to overstate the similarity and assume further congruence.  Indeed, even at inspection of the Second Noble Truth – that craving is the source of suffering – the similarity with Rousseau becomes unclear.  Although there may be an argument to be made, it would seem to require extensive re-interpretation of Rousseau or Buddhism, or both.

The Detrimental Effects of Reason:

Rousseau believes that our higher cognitive activities are not the blessing that Enlightenment thinkers declare it is.  Rather than being advanced by reason, rational man obscures the natural goodness of the world.  An excess of judgments, self-awareness, ego, concepts and presuppositions impede modern man’s access to the natural state of freedom, which is a happy state that the savage man still retains.  Rousseau writes:

If [Nature] destined man to be healthy, I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal.

Man creates his own mental suffering in a way that animals do not, for “every animal has ideas, since it has senses; it even combines those ideas in a certain degree; and it is only in degree that man differs, in this respect, from the brute.”  Man’s use of language and imagination propagate the cognitive activities of distinguishing, classifying, abstracting, identifying particulars and universals.  All these activities rely upon comparative judgements.

Rousseau traces the history of pre-social man to social man, theorizing that as society and language (co-)develop, the tendency to make comparative judgments became solidified into a culture of comparison.  As property rights are subsequently introduced, then long-story-short, man starts to compare his lot with others’ and mistakes his ownership of property for moral superiority.  In this way, reason corrupts man morally – it makes him think too much of himself as an individual and attribute to himself rights that he denies other men.

For that reason, modern man is not acting or living correctly.  Furthermore, when man upholds a warped view of himself as an individual in relation to others, he will be caught up in the life activities that perpetuate this view – man is taken from his natural life of satisfaction into a life characterized by fear, competition, and comparison.  Rousseau takes savage man to be in a condition of “original happiness” and in possession of an un-scheming soul “which nothing disturbs.”

Rousseau’s anti-Enlightenment views seem to accord with Buddhist enlightenment thinking.  Buddhism advocates the elimination of false concepts and cultivation of right views as the path to enlightenment.  The profundity of the Heart Sutra advises us that the happy ones have no false views and therefore,

… no more obstacles in their mind,

 they can overcome all fear,

 destroy all wrong perceptions

 and realize Enlightenment…

(As noted before, enlightenment is freedom from suffering.) False concepts and views of the world result in mental unrest, dissatisfaction, and suffering.  We should note that, just like Rousseau does not advocate the cessation of all rational activity – savage men and animals think – nor does Buddhism. The similarity in attitudes towards rationality is that an excess of thinking alienates man from his natural happy state.

Again, to avoid taking the similarity too far:  there is a notable difference in the definitions of a state of happiness.  For Rousseau, happiness occurs in a savage man who does not suffer from detrimental effects of reason.  He is a man who is present in his circumstances, does not think of the past or future, is aimed at survival (not vengeance), and who takes his surroundings to be all that he needs.  For Buddhism, “happiness” is marked by a clear view of reality and thinking devoid of false concepts, which allows man to transcend suffering.  Man does not cease to think, but rather man has transcended all false views.

There is some reason to find Rousseau’s ideas in Discourse on Inequality similar to Buddhist doctrines.  Especially if we read the Discourse from a Buddhist perspective, a few areas provide hope for common threads.  However, after examining two important theses with the Discourse, the similarity somewhat dissolves.  I think further comparison – to include a discussion of metaphysics – is required in order to determine the true depth of the similarity of these ways of thinking about rationality and morality.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. Do you think that too much thinking (comparison, analysis, etc) makes us unhappy?
  2. Are less sophisticated people happier than intellectually sophisticated people?
  3. Can you give Rousseau a counter-example?
  4. Do you think that sentience (the ability to feel) gives all creatures rights to be treated kindly?
  5. Is it possible to be too sentimental for others’ suffering?
  6. Do you think that happiness is merely NOT suffering, or is happiness defined by having, thinking, or living pleasure?


    • Hello Ontologicalrealist!

      Thanks for your question! I guess the simple answer is that Rousseau certainly wouldn’t make eating other animals off limits, simply because it is part of our survival – he says that man is permitted to prioritize his own survival. However, I think he would hold it wrong to kill animals in certain ways because the natural reaction of squeamishness, for example, indicates that there is something incorrect going on. Torturing a chicken in an unnatural life before brutally killing it is different than allowing it to roam freely and then slaughtering it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

      As for Buddhism, there are many different beliefs about killing and eating animals. Some Buddhists – the Tibetans and some Japanese – don’t object to eating flesh. However, other Buddhists are strictly vegetarian. There are many interpretations of Buddhist doctrine on this issue.

      My own belief is that it’s not wrong to kill animals for food. I was a strict vegetarian for almost 6 years and followed all the precautions, but it made me very ill. I now consume animal products again, although I try to make good choices and avoid overconsumption.

      What do you think about animal suffering – do you think it means that animals are off limits for food?


  1. Hello Emily, I would like to ask you that what do you think about Kant’s transcendental idealism? Does it make sense to you? For me this is one of the most important and meaningful things in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

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