Edmund Burke understood that the individual’s own natural reasoning would never be as deep or profound as the wisdom of our ancestors, bequeathed to us through tradition and custom. He believed that looking inwards, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated, would precipitate our demise…

On our college campuses, the clashes between liberals and conservatives have grown hostile. Liberal college students are habitually determined to prevent conservatives from speaking on campus by any means necessary, violence included.

One rationale that liberals have for this behavior is predicated on their emotional dispositions. Conservative political pundits will often use the phrase, “my facts don’t care about your feelings.” What the pundits mean by this phrase is that using one’s feelings and emotions as a basis for policy and action is fallacious. Our feelings can mislead us, our passions can subdue our rationality, and the truth does not care how it makes us feel.

The frequency of “feelings as facts” in the public discourse can lead someone to believe it is a formal ideological position. While it is not formally taught as one, those familiar with the philosophical and ideological origins of liberalism believe this idea is sewn into the very fabric of liberalism as an ideology.

To understand when feelings became the basis of facts, we must be conversant with the work and thought of the patron-saint and godfather of liberalism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s ideology contains the subtleties and nuances involved in the process of making a person’s feelings the basis of facts. The most important starting point is Rousseau’s belief in the natural goodness of man. From his assumptions about the natural goodness of man, all his other premises and conclusions emanate. Rousseau declared,

The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.[1]

The natural goodness of man is Rousseau’s single most important contribution to the ideology of liberalism. Rousseau, like the liberals who follow in the footsteps of his ideology, believed that human beings are naturally good, pure, and benevolent, but society corrupts us. He argued “that man is naturally good, and that is solely by these institutions that men become wicked.”[2] The evils of the world come not from within, but are introduced from without via society. To create a better world, we must fix society.

Rousseau’s fame came from his wildly successful novel, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). The interesting element about this text is that a person who reads it today cannot understand its cultural significance without the scholarly commentary on it. It is extremely tame by contemporary standards. As the philosopher Ernst Cassirer said, “Today, the Nouvelle Heloise as a whole is remote from us; we cannot feel the immediate impact of the force with which it moved and shook Rousseau’s century.”[3] With this novel, Rousseau replaced the concepts of restraint and rationalism with the idea of feelings and emotions as the prime motivators of human conduct.[4] As Cassirer said of Julie,

Feeling is now raised far above passive ‘impression’ and mere perception…. It no longer appears as a special faculty of the self but rather as its proper source—as the original power of the self, from which all other power grow.[5]

Rousseau believed that his feelings were the source of morality. He lauded his emotions as legitimate and just moral foundations. Rousseau “identifies the principle of moral good with positive human feelings.”[6] If it feels good, then it is good, so one should do it.

Rousseau “associates morality with uninhibited spontaneity. The cause of the good society is not threatened by man’s first impulse, which is always good.”[7] Man’s natural goodness makes our first impulses moral, and therefore we must pursue them; our passions and appetites are by their very nature moral. In Rousseau’s world, “morality itself requires of the individual only that he listen to his heart and yield effortlessly to its present command.”[8] We only have to listen to our hearts because of our natural goodness. When Rousseau said, “the first movements of nature are always good,” he meant that one “acts only in accord with his impulses and reason.”[9]

The natural goodness of man means that we are devoid of evil inclinations. This natural goodness makes all our actions benevolent, so long as we mean well. As Rousseau said, “I give myself to the impression of the moment without resistance and [even] without scruple; for I am perfectly sure that my heart loves only that which is good.”[10]

Now, the tenor of feelings as the basis for facts are being extrapolated: Man’s natural goodness means that all his actions, feelings, and impulses are moral and just, and he therefore must follow them. What this amounts to in practice is that the only thing that matters is that one feels good about what he is doing and that his intentions are pure. The results of one’s feelings and actions? Not so important to Rousseau and his disciples.

If one means well, but does not do well, harmful results are irrelevant. Rousseau argued, “Only the wicked person wants evil and premeditates it, the wicked person alone will be punished.”[11] Because of our natural goodness, he held that “there are moments of delirium, when men must not be judged by their action.”[12] During times of frenzy and chaos, there are moments of acceptable malfeasance so long as they are not premeditated. Only a person who deliberately commits an evil act is culpable: “[A] man is to be punished only for the faults of his will and that invincible ignorance could not be considered a crime.”[13] Rousseau’s natural goodness meant that his intentions were always noble, no matter the results.

So long as his natural goodness was guiding him, his self-confidence in his actions remained secure: “Never has the moral instinct deceived me.”[14] This confidence in his moral benevolence inspired his belief that as long as something made him happy or feel good, it was good. The same is true of negativity: If it made him feel bad, it was bad. As Dr. Carol Blum has suggested, Rousseau “repeatedly explained that his happiness depended on his union with goodness and, therefore, that anything that made him unhappy must be evil and false.”[15] His instincts told him that if it made him feel bad, it was corrupting his natural goodness and was therefore immoral. Dr. Blum continues, “With this as a sure foundation, he could judge the truth-value of any assertion… by an immediate standard: it either harmonized with his feeling of goodness or it threatened it.”[16] Rousseau’s confidence in his natural moral benevolence validated his belief that his emotional sensibilities were the true determinants of ethics.

Rousseau’s natural goodness was his moral compass. This moral compass directed him inward towards his feelings for moral assessments. He did not need to look outside for sources of morality:

Acts of consciousness are not judgments but feelings. Although all our ideas come from outside, the feelings that appraise them are within us, and it is through these feelings alone that we have knowledge of fitness or unfitness of the relationship between ourselves and the things that we must seek out or avoid.[17]

No longer, Rousseau proclaimed, must anyone look to their ancestors or teachers for direction. From now on, we only need to look inside and consult our feelings.

Rousseau’s most outspoken critic was Edmund Burke. Burke believed Rousseau’s ideology was “another form of hedonistic self-indulgence.”[18] Burke understood that Rousseau’s line of reasoning “enabled modern hedonism to disguise itself as a pseudoreligion…. It taught personal religion of social salvation through feeling alone.”[19]

Burke did not believe in the natural goodness of man, but instead believed human nature to be dualistic:

We must soften into a credulity below the milkiness of infancy to think all men virtuous. We must be tainted with a malignity truly diabolical, to believe all the world to be equally wicked and corrupt. Men are in public life as in private, some good, some evil. The elevation of the one, the depression of the other, are the first objects of all true policy.[20]

Burke believed that yes, men are capable of great good, but are also capable of great evil. He knew we must remain alert to the evil that lurks in the minds of mankind. Burke believed that inappropriately elevating the element of goodness in man and ignoring the evil in them would invite dire consequences. “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief.”[21] Believing in the natural goodness of man ignores the potential for evil, leaving the door wide open to the worst of possibilities.

Unlike Rousseau, Burke did not care as much about a person’s intentions, caring infinitely more about results: “They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.”[22] Results are all that count, no matter how good the intentions. Burke believed that judging a person on intentions instead of results was simply “a preposterous mode of judging.”[23]

Burke believed strongly that man should look outward to his ancestors as the source of conduct and wisdom: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”[24]

Burke understood that the individual’s own natural reasoning would never be as deep or profound as the wisdom of his ancestors, bequeathed to him through tradition and custom. He believed that looking inwards, as Rousseau advocated, would precipitate our demise. Burke understood that custom, tradition, and law were “a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice; it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral civil and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only over a long space of time.”[25]

Burke believed that a society’s mores and norms to be the accumulation of many generations, and therefore they contain the wisdom of the human condition. “The individual is foolish,” Burke posited, “but the species is wise.”[26] No individual can possess a sufficient amount of wisdom to supplant custom, prescription, and tradition.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notions are the source of how feelings became the basis of facts for contemporary liberals. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservative thought, countered that man’s feelings more often than not lead him astray, that his “passions forge their fetters.”[27]  Burke’s more realistic view of the two sides of human nature continue to guide conservative thought today. As long as liberals and conservatives hold differing views on the nature of the human condition, they will continue to argue over these ideas  of these men.

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[1] Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution by Carol Blum, Cornel University (1986), Rousseau, as quoted by Blum, p. 103.

[2] The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought by Arthur M. Melzer, University of Chicago (1990), Rousseau, as quoted by Melzer, p. 11.

[3] The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Ernst Cassirer, Yale University (1963), p. 88.

[4] Ibid.; Edmund Burke: Enlightenment and Revolution by Peter Stanlis, Transaction (1991).

[5] Cassirer, 1963, p. 112.

[6] Democracy and the Ethical Life by Claes G. Ryn Louisiana State University (1978), p. 14.

[7] Ibid., p. 13.

[8] Ibid., p. 145.

[9] Rousseau, as quoted by Cassirer, 1963, p. 51.

[10] Rousseau, as quoted by Ryn, 1978.

[11] Rousseau, as quoted by Blum, 1986, p. 81.

[12] Rousseau, as quoted by Blum, 1986, p. 82.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rousseau, as quoted by Ryn, 1978, p. 147.

[15] Ibid., p. 79.

[16] Blum, 1986, p 79.

[17] Roussesau, as quoted by Cassirer, 1963, p. 112.

[18] Stanlis, 1991, p. 187.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Edmund Burke and the Natural Law by Peter Stanlis, Huntington House (1986), Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, pp. 185-186.

[21] Edmund Burke (1791). Letter to a member of the national assembly, para. 8.

[22] The Conservative Constitution by Russell Kirk, Regnery Gateway Publishing (1991), Burke, as quoted by Kirk, p. 96.

[23] Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 179.

[24] The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and Birth of the Right and Left by Yuval Levin, Basic Books (2014), Burke, as quoted by Levin, p. 135.

[25] Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, 1986, p. 167.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Burke, 1791, para. 52.

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