The Great Debate

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The Great Debate

Post by jsreed5 » Mon 18th Nov 2013

I wrote this story for an assignment in a class titled "Introduction to Humanities and Western Civilizations II." Not the best work I've ever done, but if you're into philosophy, you might enjoy it.

References are listed at the bottom in Chicago format.

(Note: Anschutz and Budig are buildings on my university campus. I have substituted Reed in place of my real last name.)


     The rain fell heavily outside the windows of Anschutz Library. I couldn’t hold back a small sigh. Even if I was brash enough to ditch my project partners and head home for the day, that downpour would only make me feel more miserable than I already felt. At any rate, this absurd Sociology project was worth forty percent of the semester grade, and brushing off the work would only put me in a bad position.

     Across the room, the elevator doors slid open gracefully, and a young man with short curly hair stepped into the hallway. A path among the crowds of students formed itself before him, and my eye caught an expression of overconfidence on the face of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

     I did not choose voluntarily to work with Rousseau. The moment our professor announced that we were allowed to choose our own partners, the other students had instantly paired off as though they were lovers. I had remained motionless and wordless in the back, hoping that anyone had been left to work with, when I made the unfortunate decision to look to my right and catch Rousseau’s eye. My emotions had sunk at the sight, but my need for a partner overpowered my reluctance, and I headed to his desk with an air of uncertainty.

     The scene replayed itself in my mind as Rousseau made his way to the table I now found myself at in Anschutz. Small wonder why no-one in the class wanted to work with him: the man jumped on every opportunity to ask the professor scathing questions about the shortcomings of society. It was no secret that all the students thought him arrogant and pretentious, and an assignment such as this would only serve to redouble his sentiments.

     I had already decided that I would keep my head down and simply nod at everything Rousseau said; he was so passionate about his convictions that trying to shut him up would only cause him to argue the point further. Only one circumstance could make the situation any worse– and it was just my luck that I had fallen victim to it.

     I turned away from Rousseau’s smug visage and looked at the stairway on the other side of the room. As though on cue, a tall man with long, flowing hair bounded up the final steps and approached my table with a grin. If only I could share the same positive attitude as my other project partner, John Locke.

     Working with Locke and Rousseau simultaneously seemed like a worse idea to me than simply dropping the project altogether and withdrawing from the class. As Rousseau and I had exited Budig Hall the day of the assignment, Locke appeared beside us and mentioned that he was in need of a partner. I said nothing, knowing the tensions that would inevitably arise if Rousseau and Locke were holed up in the same room alone for five minutes, but Rousseau seemed eager to work with Locke, and he immediately offered to let Locke work with us. I couldn’t hope to talk him out of it, so I agreed to the appointed meeting time and left the hall with a heavy anxiety on my shoulders.

     Locke stuffed his still-dripping umbrella into a plastic bag, set his backpack down on the floor next to his chair, and sat down at the table. “How dismal this weather has been all week! One can only hope to protect his things from complete saturation. Did you stay dry?”

     Before I could answer, Rousseau’s shoulder bag thudded onto the center of the table.

     “Monsieur Locke, Monsieur Reed, I’m glad to see you weren’t swept away in this deluge.”

     Locke looked up. “As I am for you, Mister Rousseau.”

     Rousseau gaze burned with a passion I had never seen in him before. “I must venture to say that you are probably quite excited to be working on this project with us?”

     I stared at my notebook, sitting unopened in front of me. Voicing my true opinion would get us nowhere.

     “I am indeed,” replied Locke with an uncharacteristic lilt. “In fact, I’ve prepared a whole set of notes detailing my thoughts on the impact of civilized society.” He unzipped a pocket of his backpack and pulled out a thick spiral notebook covered with scribbles.

     Some of the fanaticism left Rousseau’s eye, replaced with an air of enthusiasm. He opened his own bag and procured a large legal pad that had so many notes written on it that the ink had bled through the cardboard on the back side. “I have written up notes as well. Shall we get started, then?”

     “By all means,” I muttered.

     Locke flipped to a page near the front of his notebook. “My initial approach to this question concerns the origin of society in the first place. All of us had, more or less, total freedom to act as we pleased in our original anarchic state: our ‘State of Nature,’ if you will. But even in that primitive state, humans are still endowed with a sense of reason, and only a small application of that reason will lead us to some unavoidable moral conclusions. One may think of it as a law of nature, even. I’ve written it here: ‘The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.’¹ Thus by our very nature, our reason provides a moral compass for humanity.”

     Rousseau was already eager to identify a flaw in Locke’s argument. “Endowed with reason we may be, but the very nature of your argument introduces the concept of property.”

     Locke paused. I could tell that he wasn’t sure where Rousseau was going with this observation, and I wasn’t sure either. “That is correct,” he said finally.

     “The idea that reason can provide humanity with some sort of moral compass, as you put it, makes no guarantee that humans will abide by such a code. In fact, the very ideas of property and liberty give humans an incentive to disregard morals entirely.” The legal pad rustled loudly as Rousseau searched for a page near the middle. “The very concept of possession brings with it a desire to possess more, to leave the State of Nature and focus more negatively on the desires of the self. I wrote it here: ‘How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would… the human species [have been spared], who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: … you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!’²”

     A verse of John Lennon’s Imagine floated through my mind.

     Locke seemed oddly delighted that Rousseau had pointed this out. “Ah, but this is exactly where we see society finding its role. The very existence of a moral code means that one may wish to transgress this code. Indeed, the total freedom I feel existed in the State of Nature allows one to punish transgressors of the laws of nature in any way the punisher sees fit. But even this is not a perfectly balanced solution, and in order to protect the balance of justice and incentive to follow the morals of nature to begin with, society and government fill a very necessary post.” He flipped past pages in his notebook furiously until he reached an area near the middle. “This is an idea I voice here: ‘But though men, when they enter into society, give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society… the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good; but is obliged to secure every one's property, by providing against [the] defects… that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy.’³”

     It was only then that Locke and Rousseau noticed that I had been silent for the entire discussion so far. Rousseau slowly replaced the pages he had folded back on his legal pad and regarded me with an inquisitive look. “Clearly Monsieur Locke feels that the introduction of society was a positive step in human history, and I feel quite differently on the matter. It would seem you are the tie-breaker for this discussion. How do you feel?”

     This was exactly the situation I did not want to be put in. I hated taking sides in general, but when my vote became the crucial vote, I felt as though a boiling spotlight were focused right on me. But from what I’d heard so far, Locke seemed to have a more valid argument. “I think Locke is onto something with his notes,” I ventured. “Since humans have the ability to reason, they therefore have the ability to consider how they would feel if another human slighted them in some way. Isn’t that what empathy is, after all?”

     Locke was nodding vigorously, but Rousseau didn’t like that I disagreed with him. “You have to remember that empathy is a logical extension of self-preservation. In the State of Nature, self-preservation is useful to humans insofar as it pertains to their direct survival. But at the introduction of society, that survival instinct warps and becomes self-gratification.” Rousseau peeled a few pages back from the legal pad. “I actually made a note about that idea here: ‘From the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished… [and] slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.’⁴”

     I couldn’t deny the legitimacy of that concern. “That’s true, but what Locke is saying is that whether or not such is the case, a government is needed to help keep such transgressions on check. To me, the idea is that there already exists a code of ethics borne of nature itself and human reason, and the role of government is to enforce and regulate this code. That sounds pretty reasonable to me. God knows mankind isn’t going to try very hard to enforce moral codes in a state of anarchy.”

     Locke and Rousseau had listened patiently and considered my words after I finished. Finally Rousseau decided to speak. “So you agree with Locke in this case?” he asked quietly.

     All I could think of was the relief of getting my next statement over with. “Yeah, I have to agree with Locke.”

     Locke looked at Rousseau and beamed with an expression of arrogance that made me want to side with Rousseau instead. “In that case, I guess I can start writing up a draft for the project paper tonight.”

     Rousseau maintained a calm demeanor, but I could sense his fury. “I will abstain. You can argue for your governmental control all you want for this project. You may as well write an entire treatise for an argument as silly as that.”

     Locke’s eyes lit up in the way I imagined Archimedes’ did when he discovered his displacement principle. “That, my friend, is quite an idea! Perhaps I’ll send an email to our professor for suggestions.”

     Rousseau had clearly heard enough. He stood up abruptly, shoved his legal pad into his shoulder bag, and headed directly to the elevator.

     Outside the window, the rain had begun to slow. I picked up my notebook, set it carefully inside my own bag, and headed to the stairwell in search of a snack.

     Next time, I’m picking different partners.


¹ John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Project Gutenberg, 2005), (accessed September 23, 2013).
² Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse Upon The Origin And The Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind (Project Gutenberg, 2004), (accessed September 23, 2013).
³ Locke, Second Treatise.
⁴ Rousseau, Discourse.

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