Written on December 24, 2007 by DeansTalk in Philosophy

Jeremy Whitty, IE Business School Global MBA Student 2007-2008

To what extent are Rousseau and Kant’s views on freedom observed in the world today?


Rousseau believes that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains". So important is the notion of freedom for him, that Rousseau dedicates The Social Contract to detailing freedom and its limits, both legitimate and illegitimate. He asserts very strikingly that to "renounce freedom is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity, and even its duties".

In Kant’s view, the "birthright of freedom" is the sole "inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity". This innate freedom is not unrestricted. It is based on universal laws and takes the freedom of others into account too. Actions in harmony with the freedom of others are legally allowable, "every human being by virtue of his humanity" has a right to as much freedom as "can maintain together with the freedom of everyone else according to universal law".

For Kant, freedom and Enlightenment are inextricably linked. "Freedom is independence of the compulsory will of another". Enlightenment is the ability to use ones understanding without guidance from another. Then Kant claims that not all of us have the determination or the courage to use their own understanding, in other words we sometimes lack the fortitude to be enlightened, to be free. Which of course opens up a Pandora’s Box of ethical issues, which I’ll discuss another time. For now, let’s agree with Kant’s optimism that "free thinking" leads men to act freely and can even affect the "principles of government" and lead to men being treated "in accord with their dignity".


With Kant and Rousseau there is a distinction between liberty and license. The whole of liberty, as opposed to license, consists in doing what that moral law commands.License is akin to anarchy. Man is free to do anything he chooses, regardless of the possible effects of his actions on others. Kant and Rousseau see life in a state of nature as a life of license rather than freedom. It is a situation where ‘might is right’. As there is no justice system, no injustices can be perpetrated. A man who feels he has been wronged has no legal means of redress. Rousseau goes to great lengths to stress how in civil society might does not make right. He also highlights how relinquishing the ‘right of the strongest’ is the path to freedom.

Forms of freedom

Civil and Natural Freedom

Rousseau differentiates between two forms of freedom; natural and civil.

Natural liberty is limited only by physical ability. It could be referred to as the right of the strongest, given that it means a man has an absolute right to take anything he wants and which he is physically strong enough to take. Natural liberty exists in a state of nature, where man is ruled by instinct.

Rousseau contends that even though man may have experienced some benefits to living in a state of nature, the advantages of living in civil society far outweigh them. He outlines that in civil society, man loses his natural liberty (the right of the strongest) and the right of first occupant. Instead, he gains legal right to property, moral freedom (which makes man his own master); he uses his reason, not his ‘inclinations’ and his actions are guided by justice. In other words, in civil society, man gains civil liberty. This ensures that although they may be unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right. This secure freedom is limited only by the general will.

The general will is not necessarily the will of the majority; it is the will which inclines towards equality, hence its importance for civil society. Rousseau contends that the general will is good if the people are properly informed and if there is no communication between them. This emphasis on the need for people to make up their own minds not only highlights Rousseau’s belief in the values of the Enlightenment, it also underlines the responsibility which accompanies freedom.

Sapere Aude, the motto of the Enlightenment, is also central to Kant’s view of civic freedom, as something for which man strives once he realises that life in a state of nature is unsustainable and the only rational alternative is life as part of civil society. This view presupposes that man understands the risk involved in remaining in a ‘brutish’ existence and that he is aware of the option of freedom that awaits him in society.

Kant outlines his view of a state of nature as a place where "externally lawless freedom prevails" and where "men may be said to do no wrong or injustice at all to one another, even when they wage war against each other. For what seems competent as good for the one is equally valid for the other, as if it were so by mutual agreement". Kant makes clear his disdain for life in this natural state by asserting that "all such actions fundamentally involve the commission of wrong and injustice, in the highest degree; because they take all validity away from the conception of right, and give up everything…to savage violence, and thus overthrow the rights of men generally".

Free Will

"The principle of reason lies in autonomy: freedom as self-legislation"

Free will means man is free to follow or disregard laws. The freedom of a free will is therefore morally indifferent. Augustine claims that the proper use of freedom is that of acting virtuously and vicious acts constitute a misuse of freedom. "The will is truly free when it is not the slave of vices and sins".

Rousseau and Kant take up Augustine’s opinion thirteen centuries later and concur that when man is ruled by passions and emotions he is no more than a slave. In order to truly experience free will, they argue, man must be ruled by reason. Reason of course, will lead man to recognise that the only free will worth having is one which wills that which is in harmony with Rousseau’s general will or Kantian universal laws of freedom. The spirit of such laws is encapsulated in Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which states "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law".

In this regard, both proponents of the Enlightenment are in accord with Spinoza, who also argues that when a man uses his reason, he is free. He "does the will of no one but himself, and does those things only which he knows are of the greatest importance in life, and which he therefore desires above all things." A man who follows his passions is no more than a slave because he "is not his own master, but he is mastered by fortune, in whose power he is, so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he sees the better before him".

What illegitimate principles can limit our freedom?

Rousseau states very clearly his opinion that slavery and despotism illegitimately limit mans’ freedom. He contends that there can be no justification for enslavement. Disagreeing with Grotius, he argues that "war gives no right to inflict any more destruction than is necessary for victory". In other words, war gives no right for a conqueror to massacre the conquered people, so therefore, they cannot legitimately agree to serfdom in exchange for their lives. Rousseau gives his reasoning for this view by explaining that once the people of the enemy state "lay down their arms and surrender, they cease to be either enemies or instruments of the enemy; they become simply men once more, and no one has any longer the right to take their lives."

Rousseau also rejects despotism as a legitimate way of limiting mans’ freedom. He explains that "a despot gives his subjects an assurance of civil tranquillity", but asks "what does it profit them," given that there "is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable? The Greeks lived in peace in the cave of Cyclops awaiting their turn to be devoured".

Therefore, in both situations, a man would be giving himself for nothing. In Rousseau’s words, "a man giving himself for nothing is absurd…void, if only because no one who did it could be in his right mind. To say the same of a whole nation is to conjure up a nation of lunatics; and reason cannot rest on madness".

Kant would agree that slavery and despotism are illegitimate limits to freedom. In his view, "there is, indeed, an innate equality belonging to every man which consists in his right to be independent of being bound by others to anything more than that to which he may also reciprocally bind them. It is, consequently, the inborn quality of every man in virtue of which he ought to be his own master by right".

How can the rules we make for ourselves legitimately limit our freedom?

Kant and Rousseau explain how the rules man makes for himself legitimately limit freedom as these rules act as a barrier to license. As such, self-legislation results in man living in secure freedom.

Even though people have innate rights in a state of nature, they suffer from a total lack of security. In a state of nature, individual wills rule. To move away from this state, only one general will, can hold sway. This is contract theory. It rests on the notion that the general will agrees to a contract which restricts lawless freedoms and that legitimate government stems from this contract between free people. Rousseau and Kant are united in this belief, although Rousseau uses the term ‘general will’ and Kant prefers ‘universal laws of freedom’. In this way, men are no longer ruled by human desires. They are now ruled by law.

Given that, as Rousseau argues, no-one would have reason to set an unduly harsh rule for himself, self-legislation would enable everyone to enjoy full and secure freedom.

Rousseau believes that moral freedom makes man his own master; as "the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty." Rousseau acknowledges that the idea of gaining freedom by obeying laws may seem puzzling when he asks,

"How can it be that all should obey, yet nobody take upon him to command, and that all should serve, and yet have no masters, but be the more free, as, in apparent subjection, each loses no part of his liberty but what might be hurtful to that of another? These wonders are the work of law. It is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty."

Kant argues that "legislative power…can only belong to the united will of the people". This leads to a situation where no-one can act unjustly towards another as "all determine and decree what is to be Law to themselves. Volenti non fit injuria."

Kant shows how a state ruled by such laws guarantees freedom to all. "All and each of the people give up their external freedom in order to receive it immediately again as members of a commonwealth". Kant clarifies how this is possible, "And thus it is not to be said that the individual in the state has sacrificed a part of his inborn external freedom for a particular purpose; but he has abandoned his wild lawless freedom wholly, in order to find his proper freedom again, entire and undiminished, but in the form of a regulated order and dependence, that is, in a civil state regulated by laws of right. This relation of dependence thus arises out of his own regulative law giving will."

According to Kant, the law is supposed to make the association of persons possible, prior to all experience. The person is a "legally competent subject, who can be the cause of his actions" and is therefore free. Law relates to the outward freedom to do as you wish, without being at the mercy of others.

By putting such emphasis on the benefits of a law based on consent, Kant and Rousseau echo the philosophy of Locke and Hobbes.

According to Locke, "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins." In his view, "the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." Locke views civil liberty as being "under no other legislative power but that established by consent". Individuals are free to follow their own will about anything not forbidden by the laws of the state. Hobbes offers a similar outline of civil liberty; that is the freedom to do what the law does not forbid or the freedom not to do that which the law does not stipulate.

Hegel advocates a similar view; he maintains that "Freedom is nothing but the recognition and adoption of such universal and substantial objects as Right and Law". All that matters is whether the law is just and the man virtuous. If the law is just, then it does not compel a just man to do what he would freely elect to do even if the law did not exist. Only the criminal is coerced or restrained by good laws. To say that such impediment to action destroys freedom would be to deny the distinction between liberty and license.

As "law is the "very essence" of the conditions under which the freedom of one is compatible with the freedom of all others, every action which, in accordance with universal laws, is compatible with the freedom of all others is legitimate from a legal standpoint. Any interference with this legal authority is illegitimate. Anyone who impedes me in my performance of legal actions does me wrong. Hence, the force preventing illegitimate interference is legitimate because it makes freedom of action possible". Kant is quite clear that force is only legal when it prevents injustice.

Do Rousseau and Kant mean anything to our society?

Rousseau and Kant’s views on liberty and the legitimate means by which it can be limited are as relevant in the twenty-first century as they were in the eighteenth.

The world has not reached the state of perfection that Kant believes we strive for. In fact the evidence suggests Kant was rather naive. The atrocities taking place today suggest some of us enjoy living in a state of nature, and not just in war. This attitude can also be endemic in organisations. How many organisations reward behaviour where ambition is matched by ruthlessness? Where if you are ambitious, ruthless and lucky enough one can get to the top and enjoy a brief spell as the CTO (Chief Tyrannical Officer). In Plato’s view, a tyrant is like a slave owner. "The only difference is that the tyrant has more slaves" and enforces "the harshest and bitterest form of slavery"- he enslaves those who are his equals by nature and who should be ruled as freemen.

In the end no tyranny is sustainable; it devours itself or is devoured. And this is why, not just Corporate Social Responsibility but Ethics and the Humanities must be taught in business schools, for if we do not inculcate the values of liberty and freedom in how society lives and commerce operates, very few of the institutions around today will thrive in the mutual partnerships needed to overcome the challenges looming on our horizon, from peak oil and famine to the melting ice caps. We can follow the principles of the Enlightenment or end up in a world yet again in a state of nature. "No arts; no letters; no society … the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

There are many correctly questioning the relevance, business schools, most of them do not even offer a competitive advantage in what they purport to teach, they use the same case studies and the same text books to a cohort so homogeneous one cannot tell them apart. Funny enough I believe these alma maters of greed and avarice may be crucial in how we adapt to an environment that is ecologically and socially on the precipice. The schools that anticipate the new paradigm and act accordingly, that encourage creativity, talent and tolerance and that embrace the most positive aspects of technology may prove to be as important as the Academy of Athens or the universities of the Renaissance. We have the chance to begin the third great era of learning and civilisation now, or let history repeat itself and hope it emerges after a thousand years of barbarism.


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