Philosophy, University of Warwick
The economic freedom of working, producing, consuming, and investing in the way one pleases is an essential human right in modern society.The development of commercial society provides an efficient way of allocating resources and providing convenience to people’s lives. However, at the same time, it also brings serious problems such as the increase of inequality, environmental pollution, and exposure to economic crises. What role does commerce play in politics? Does commerce necessarily bring corruption and inequality? What are the dangers, as well as the appeals of developing a robust commercial society? My proposed research seeks to answer these questions by looking at the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is regarded as one of the ‘first and greatest critics’ of commercial society (Rasmussen, 2008).
In this proposed project, I present a nuanced reading of Rousseau’s understanding of commercial society. This project will dive into Rousseau’s criticism of commercial society and demonstrate its depth and sophistication. Unlike the traditional reading which regards Rousseau as the pioneer of critique on modern capitalist society, I argue that even though Rousseau criticises commercial activities for increasing inequality and deepening dependence, he regards the practices and institutions of commercial society as necessary in the social state, such as the institution of private property rights, division of labour, and commercial exchanges. Though recognizing the corruption brought about by commerce, Rousseau does not aim to eradicate commercial practices. Instead, he wants it to be carried on in an orderly way according to the requirements of utility. In the opening paragraph of Social Contract, Rousseau states that the aim of his political inquiry is to ‘combine what rights permits with what interests prescribes, so that justice and utility not be disjoined’ (SC: I.1.1). Justice and utility, rights and interests, serve as two parallel threads in Rousseau’s design for ideal society. However, the previous Rousseau research focuses more on Rousseau’s thought on establishing political justice and positive rights, but neglects his economic concerns regarding how utility is achieved and interests are satisfied. My thesis aims to narrow this academic gap and demonstrate how ‘justice and utility’ can be united in Rousseau’s political design.