Our instincts toward each other are naturally for sympathy and pity. When we see someone in pain, even a face expressing sadness or stress, we have an almost autonomic instinct to help them somehow. If only to ask if there’s a way we can help.
Most of you may not experience that kind of universal kindness every day. Most of the time, we probably walk around in a constant hum of mutual irritation. When I’ve worked in customer service jobs at different points of my life, I’d meet people who seemed constantly on the verge of exploding with rage just from interacting with strangers all day long.
Society, says Hobbes, requires the strong hand of a police power who must never be questioned. The sovereign is the force that keeps us in line. Fear is the goal of the law.
Yet our natural state is more along the lines of that annoyance. We can still live together without having to suppress the urge for violence. But we do get pretty irritated with each other.
And that vision of a complicated society of mutual irritation is much more like Rousseau’s conception of how humanity lives together. It fits with his vision of a fundamentally kind humanity because of the context of where and how human kindness emerges.
It’s in the face-to-face interaction of people. And the better we know someone, the closer they are to us in our daily lives, the more powerful that face is in evoking our sympathy and love.
The problem is that when larger numbers of people live together, society gets complicated. We find ourselves reliant on many strangers for a lot of our needs – our food, shelter, education, entertainment, general well-being. And our networks of mutual need become so big and complicated that it stresses us to maintain them.
We experience stress, irritation, and pain that separates us from each other. We need to accumulate far beyond our personal needs when our society depends on each of us supplying the needs of others. The need to accumulate all-too-easily tips over into greed, which is at the root of so many destructive human behaviours.
|Yet sometimes, we learn to rely too much on others to look after our|
neighbours who are in great material need. That's the lesson I take from
the modern parable of the homeless pastor. When you expect an institution
– whether the church, a charity, or a government welfare program – to
care for the poor, you can erase your pangs of guilt when you look in
the face of people who ask you for help but still look through them.
But civil laws don’t restore the original equality all people shared in simpler social structures, when each of us could provide for our own needs with our own efforts. Far from it.
Laws lock in some specific regime of inequality. Maybe it would be the state of political and social affairs at the time of an institution’s birth. Maybe a community would refine their legal institutions and regulations over time to become more equal, more fair. To redress past wrongs and build a better future for everybody.
Of course, political pressures of all kinds could push changes in those laws to fuel inequality, stall social mobility, lock in systematic inequities, discriminations, and humiliations. It feels like that’s the trend of the last few decades.
But that law is still the law. It can never restore the genuine equality of a totally self-sufficient population because it can never simplify society to flatten away all those differences and new needs that arise from the complexity of just a few hundred humans living together.
We’ll always need the law. And the law will always require some element of coercion. And Rousseau writes with a mix of trolling, theatricality, and ironic honesty when he says that the law amounts to slavery. So is there a way out of this? . . . . To be continued