Is Rousseau’s conception of the Amour Propre a central impediment to a successful democratic rule? What precautions must be taken to overcome the influence of Amour Propre? Is he right?

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This was written as part of a University Philosophy module.
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It is worth exploring Rousseau’s Amour Propre concept at the beginning of this article for the sake of clarity. Along with that, I will look at Rousseau’s argument that Amour Propre is a central impediment to the possibility of a successful democratic rule, though I will withhold my own views until later on in the article. Before arguing for my own views, I will outline Rousseau’s theory on overcoming the influence of Amour Propre. I will then argue that his view needs adjusting in light of objections raised. Just so Rousseau is fully understood, I am going to reference parts of his general political philosophy that are in direct relation to Amour Propre, and is not meant as a divergence from the topic of this article. Any use of philosophical terminology will be defined at first mention.

We can only attain a successful democratic rule under the influence of Amour Soir, or ‘self-realisation’. This term entails being influenced reasoning and by your own norms and values. Amour Soir is seen as a detachment of Amour Propre, a phrase used to refer to people who prefer adopting artificial values, ready-made by society. That is one Rousseau’s fundamental philosophical claims.  How he outlines the essential criteria of Amour Soir in ‘Emile’[1] is by overcoming the influence of primary[2] and secondary[3] socialisation. Doing so will make us free, and that’s a crucial element to a successful democratic rule. His position on this topic is quite elaborate, so I intend on thoroughly examining it in light of the question.

Rousseau on democracy 

To begin with, it is worth explaining Rousseau’s view on democracy, and how that relates to his contractualist theory. No Law could possibly limit the power of a Sovereign, because doing so would entail that there is a higher power than the Sovereign. To put it simply, you cannot have sovereignty over a Sovereign. Doing so implies tyranny, which is an unfavourable political climate, and putting a limit on the power of the Sovereign means maximising Amour Propre[4]. Therefore, it follows that you cannot transfer power from one to another, it is inalienable. Not even part of the power. Because of this, it follows that society must be a democracy. And that is because society is governed by the of the majority. How this argument works is relatively intricate, so therefore I think it is worth formalising it to see how the conclusions follow on from the premises:

Premise 1) limiting the Sovereigns’ power suggests a higher power than the Sovereign.

P2) a higher power implies tyranny.

P3) tyranny moves us towards Amour Propre.

P4) we should avoid Amour Propre.

Conclusion 1) Therefore, we should not limit the power of the sovereign.

P5 1) the sovereign adheres to the will of the majority.

P6) if we limit the power of the Sovereign, then we limit the power of the sovereign.

P7) a democracy is the only solution that satisfies the will of the majority.

C2) Therefore, society must be democratic.

From this, it is clear that the conclusions follow on from the premises, which overall lends it its validity. The argument also seems rationally persuasive, and this is because the argument is made clear and logical. It is easy to be convinced by it. However, I do not think it is wholly sound. I base this on P3. It is unclear how Rousseau argues that tyranny leaves us with a state of Amour Propre. The one thing I want to achieve by pointing this out is that it is a vague premise, and more clarity is essential. However, as a principle of charity, my best interpretation would be that he meant tyranny makes Amour Propre an inevitable conclusion because it allows a shift of focus of values and allows men to “become wicked”[5]. This interpretation follows onto p4, that Amour Propre is therefore something to avoid. P4 is an implicit argument made by Rousseau. I explicitly included it in my formalisation in order to guarantee the validity of the argument.

Essentially, Rousseau’s point is that society should be governed by the general will of the public[6], and that is what is meant when we use the phrase ‘justice’. It is to act in a way that is in the common interest.

The State of Nature

I have suggested in the previous section that returning to the State of Nature is something that should be avoided. I want to clarify what is meant here so we have a deeper understanding of what Rousseau meant by this. This is a relevant part of the question because the only means of achieving a successful democracy is by abandoning Amour Propre, according to Rousseau, and leaving the State of Nature is a fundamental element of doing so.

Rousseau idealised the State of Nature in a way Hobbes didn’t[7]. Rousseau considered this state to be beautiful in that it allows freedom of the individual as there is no centralised authority that has power over you, yet that itself has its issues. The main concern being that the State of Nature limited our ability to be rational, and that by leaving the State of Nature, we can achieve greater objectives with a centralised authority and work collectively to achieve common interests[8], such as developing new antibiotics to fight illnesses. However, precautions must be taken upon leaving the State of Nature to avoid the influence of Amour Propre. The precautions are outlined in ‘Emile’, which I will discuss next.

But first, to answer the question, Rousseau thinks that the one central impediment to the possibility of a successful democratic rule is Amour Propre, because Amour Propre does not make us free. And democratic freedom (as a version of freedom) is a core element to the social contract.

‘Emile’

I have briefly mentioned Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ already, but I will now elaborate on it with regards to the question of Amour Propre, something Rousseau thought best to avoid. This part of the article will focus on answering what precautions must be taken to overcome or avoid altogether the influence of Amour Propre, and therefore preserve democracy as the main form of government.

Emile’s aim is also to provide guidance in achieving ‘Amour Soir’, and again, we can interpret this to be the antonym of Amour Propre. The former refers to acts that aren’t at the expense of others, whilst the latter refers to acts that are at the expense of others. Rousseau’s romanticised view of human nature is in direct contrast with the Hobbesian view that humans are innately evil. Though for Rousseau, it is artificial greed created by society that is the root of Amour Propre. And to free ourselves from the influence of Amour Propre, we need to rethink the way people are socialised and educated throughout life, and that is exactly what Rousseau tries to do in ‘Emile’.

Rousseau writes Emile, the central character in his book, to be especially sceptical of academic institutions, including the school system, because they contribute towards the corruption of morals, and therefore allowing Amour Propre to flourish. Emile is raised to also value freethought and scepticism. This is principally the case when confronted with religious institutes, in this case, the church. Thinking critically and philosophically about religion is one method of avoiding the influence of Amour Propre, though Rousseau is quick to point out that this does not necessarily mean to abandon religion altogether. Rousseau’s philosophy seems to focus on the reconciliation between his Christianity and his academic works[9], so we can therefore assume that he means for Emile to be similar. This is one method of removing the influence of Amour Propre. So, if the inability to think for yourself is a symptom of Amour Propre. It entails that people tend to think in herds when influenced by it, especially confronted with political issues. Corollary to this, political parties tend to evolve that only cater to specific interests, creating an atmosphere designed for partisanship and biased voting. Through thinking independently, Rousseau argues, we can ensure the survival of democracy. In conclusion of that, one of Rousseau’s fundamental arguments is to think independently.

I would agree with Rousseau’s reasoning here. It seems intuitive to believe that thinking independently ensures a healthy democracy, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily reasonable to claim that Amour Propre is responsible for restricting us from thinking independently. I base my reasoning on experience: plenty of people’s childhoods seem nowhere near as ideal as Emile’s, and therefore Rousseau would class them as under the influence of Amour Propre. Yet a good proportion of them would still able to think independently and without any bias. Therefore I fail to see how it follows that you must have ‘herd-like’ mentality under Amour Propre, and why it is a threat to the survival of democracy.

Another big issue that Rousseau’s political philosophy raises lies in his view of an ideal education in ‘Emile’. Rousseau describes the relationship Emile has with his tutor, or “master”, and the level of influence that he has over Emile. My initial observation when reading it was just how controlled the relationship between them is.  The purpose of Emile’s education is to “free” him, so to speak, but hardly ever in the text was it suggested that Emile had any freedom at all, except maybe to play outside. What I’m trying to say is that Rousseau’s ideal education has no sign of freedom, and he might have a problem with reuniting his desire for a child to be brought up as a freethinker and for his childhood to be so controlled, even from birth. It’s hard to see how Rousseau might respond, but it certainly poses as a problem for him.

Words: 1768

[1] Rousseau, J. and Foxley, B. (1921). Emile, or, Education. 1st ed. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

[2] By ‘primary’, I refer to the basic level of education. The education that is provided typically during infancy by guardians, specifically the values and norms associated with their social group.

[3] By ‘secondary’, I refer to external influences that happens later in life, such as the education system and social media.

[4] Shemmer, Y. (2017). Political Philosophy, week 10. First Lecture.

[5] Kolodny, N. (2010). The Explanation of Amour-Propre. [online] Sophos.berkeley.edu. Available at: http://sophos.berkeley.edu/kolodny/165.pdf [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].

[6] Munro, A. (2017). general will | philosophy of Rousseau. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/general-will [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

[7] Hobbes, T., Rogers, G. and Schuhmann, K. (2006). Leviathan. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, pp.289-97.

[8] Shemmer, Y. (2017). Political Philosophy, week 10. First Lecture.

[9] Robinson, D. and Groves, J. (2013). Introducing philosophy. 3rd ed. London: Icon Books LTD, p.85.

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