Rousseau’s project in the Discourse on Inequality is to describe all the sorts of inequality that exist among human beings and to determine which sorts of inequality are “natural” and which “unnatural” (and therefore preventable). Rousseau begins by discussing man in his state of nature. For Rousseau, man in his state of nature is essentially an animal like any other, driven by two key motivating principles: pity and self-preservation. In the state of nature, which is more a hypothetical idea than an actual historical epoch, man exists without reason or the concept of good and evil, has few needs, and is essentially happy. The only thing that separates him from the beasts is some sense of unrealized perfectability.
This notion of perfectability is what allows human beings to change with time, and according to Rousseau it becomes important the moment an isolated human being is forced to adapt to his environment and allows himself to be shaped by it. When natural disasters force people to move from one place to another, make contact with other people, and form small groups or elementary societies, new needs are created, and men begin to move out of the state of nature toward something very different. Rousseau writes that as individuals have more contact with one another and small groupings begin to form, the human mind develops language, which in turn contributes to the development of reason. Life in the collective state also precipitates the development of a new, negative motivating principle for human actions. Rousseau calls this principle amour propre, and it drives men to compare themselves to others. This drive toward comparison to others is not rooted only in the desire to preserve the self and pity others. Rather, comparison drives men to seek domination over their fellow human beings as a way of augmenting their own happiness.
Rousseau states that with the development of amour propre and more complex human societies, private property is invented, and the labor necessary for human survival is divided among different individuals to provide for the whole. This division of labor and the beginning of private property allow the property owners and nonlaborers to dominate and exploit the poor. Rousseau observes that this state of affairs is resented by the poor, who will naturally seek war against the rich to end their unfair domination. In Rousseau’s history, when the rich recognize this fact, they deceive the poor into joining a political society that purports to grant them the equality they seek. Instead of granting equality, however, it sanctifies their oppression and makes an unnatural moral inequality a permanent feature of civil society.
Rousseau’s argument in the Discourse is that the only natural inequality among men is the inequality that results from differences in physical strength, for this is the only sort of inequality that exists in the state of nature. As Rousseau explains, however, in modern societies the creation of laws and property have corrupted natural men and created new forms of inequality that are not in accordance with natural law. Rousseau calls these unjustifiable, unacceptable forms of inequality moral inequality, and he concludes by making clear that this sort of inequality must be contested.
Although Rousseau would later develop many of the Discourse main points more expansively, it is significant as the first work to contain all the central elements of his philosophy. In the moral and political realm, the fundamental concept here is moral inequality, or unnatural forms of inequality that are created by human beings. Rousseau is clear that all such forms of inequality are morally wrong and as such must be done away with. The means by which moral inequality is to be banished is not a topic Rousseau broaches here, though this is a question that was hotly debated during the French Revolution and subsequent revolutions in the centuries since.
In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau uses Hobbes’s concept of the state of nature but describes it in a very different way. Whereas Hobbes described the state of nature as a state of constant war populated by violent, self-interested brutes, Rousseau holds that the state of nature is generally a peaceful, happy place made up of free, independent men. To Rousseau, the sort of war Hobbes describes is not reached until man leaves the state of nature and enters civil society, when property and law create a conflict between rich and poor. Aside from foreshadowing the work of Marx and later theorists of class relations and societal inequality, Rousseau’s conception of natural man is a key principle in all his work: man is naturally good and is corrupted only by his own delusions of perfectability and the harmful elements of his capacity for reason. The means by which human beings are corrupted and the circumstances under which man agrees to leave the state of nature and enter human civil society are the focal points of Rousseau’s masterpiece, The Social Contract.