Theses Doctoral

Political Pity: A Sentimental Account of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Moral and Political System

Koffer, Brittany A.

My dissertation seeks to restore the sentiment of pity to Rousseau’s moral and political system. Rousseau scholarship tends to offer a proto-Kantian interpretation of Rousseau’s concepts of moral liberty and the general will. I argue that these readings neglect Rousseau’s own definition of virtue as the product of an individual’s pity moderating rational self-interest (amour de soi). I offer an account of Rousseau’s moral liberty dependent on this concept of virtue that incorporates the sentiments. I then argue that pity must perform a similar role in the general will because it is through the general will that people express their moral agency. To do so, I explore how Rousseau’s account of pity as a social sentiment is more expansive and active than standard interpretations allow, and thus it is better described as expanded pity or sympathy.

Understanding pity’s role in the general will also affects Rousseau’s accounts of equality and individuality. Because virtue demands that pity moderate impulses to excess, the general will that arises from a virtuous citizenry will tend toward distributive equality. A state then best achieves equality by cultivating virtue through private institutions like education and public institutions like civil religion. Finally, I argue that Rousseau’s account of pity alleviates the perceived conflict, first posed by Judith Shklar, between the individual life of man and the homogenized life of citizen. In its expanded form, pity motivates individuals to care about others’ pursuits of their own personal interests while also maintaining a separation between self and other. Exploration into Rousseau’s pity thus has important implications for the kind of political emotions we should look to revitalize in modern democratic society.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Moody-Adams, Michele M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 5, 2021