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What Is the Discourse on Inequality?

The discourse on inequality examines the disparities in wealth, opportunity, and power within societies. It's a critical conversation that addresses how these imbalances affect individuals and communities, influencing everything from health to education. As we consider the roots and repercussions of inequality, we must ask ourselves: what steps can we take to foster a more equitable world? Join the discussion.
A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The Discourse on Inequality is a commonly known philosophical work by a philosopher named Jean-Jaques Rousseau. This document, which is also called the Second Discourse of Rousseau, was written in the mid-1700s. It discusses various aspects of human nature and psychology related to the critical problem of inequality.

Many aspects of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality are timeless. The judgments that are made on different types of human characteristics can be applied to many societies over many centuries. Reading the Discourse on Inequality brings the reader to a more full understanding of Rousseau’s broader philosophies.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau relates a kind of natural inequality to one that is artificial, or built over time by social conventions. One critical piece of Rousseau’s philosophy regards the natural man, which is a figure of primitive humanity not encumbered by what the philosopher viewed as the artificial constructs of social civilization. Experts point out that in general, Rousseau considered the natural man to be a figure of glory, and in a state of advantage over the average citizen within a civil society.

As an analysis of inequality, Rousseau contrasts natural physical inequality, or differences in physical power, with another sort of inequality that could be called social, political, moral, or ethical. This second kind of inequality, argues the philosopher, is built on specific constructs that appeared rather late in the formation of human development, as written language and other tools helped humans to mold their communities into more formal arrangements that could be called societies. Throughout the discourse on inequality, Rousseau makes rather strong judgments on a range of social conventions; for example, property ownership is often singled out as an artificial element of human nature that Rousseau suggests is part of a greater move toward the artificial power of some humans over others.

Students and others who write about specific instances of social inequality can use Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality as part of a platform for analyzing unequal conditions. This fundamental philosophical work helps to frame individual instances of inequality as natural progressions from the greater formulation of hierarchical structures that are fundamental to most societies. After the time of Rousseau, many other philosophers and writers have taken up the same theme in different ways, many of them agreeing with Rousseau’s general view on the role of a developed society in human psychology and behavior.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books