Rousseau and the Cure for Cancer

December 1, 2011

Political Theory


Recently, a possible cure for cancer was discovered in Israel (you can read more about it here.) Cancer is defined as either

a. a malignant and invasive growth or tumor, especially one originating in epithelium, tending to recur after excision and to metastasize to other sites.

or

b. any disease characterized by such growths

The cure for cancer is something that people have searched for for years, and the idea that it may actually be in development is a startling and remarkable one. However, could a cure for cancer possibly have negative effects? According to Rousseau’s thoughts, this could indeed be a terrible discovery for the world.

According to Rousseau, the basis of all inequalities in this world is the progress made in society. This progress has allowed the state of nature (a good thing in Rousseau’s thought) to vanish and has left us in a world riddled with inequalities. Due to “perfectibility,” humans have been determined to develop as much as possible and this has led to a state of competition and a need to be superior to others.

The possibility of a cure for cancer is indeed a development that would entail an enormous amount of progress for mankind, but the cure for cancer could cause all sorts of other side effects. An increase in population would definitely occur as life expectancy would rise, due to the fact that cancer is one of the leading causes of death in today’s world. This rise of population would create an even larger pool of people and even larger inequalities. The poor have much larger family sizes than the rich, due to a need to have more babies to take care of their parents when they grow old. Another factor would be the cost associated with a cancer vaccine. Who would be able to afford this? Only the elite, most likely, at least in the beginning. This unfair advantage is driven by the inequalities that are created in our society, and by our innate need for perfectibility. Thus, due to the high rates of birth in poor areas, a rising amount of sicknesses, and the poor man’s lack of access to cures, there will be a rise in the amount of poor people and an increase in the rich. This can only signal one thing; even greater inequality than before.

Rousseau argues that man was healthiest in his state of nature and as man developed, so too did his weaknesses and laziness. As society developed and changed from the state of nature, the rich began to dominate the poor. The rich man convinced the poor man of his need to sacrifice a portion of his freedom for his own security. Rousseau even states “The most capable of foreseeing the dangers were the very persons who expected to benefit by them; and even the most prudent judged it not inexpedient to sacrifice one part of their freedom to ensure the rest; as a wounded man has his arm cut off to save the rest of his body.” The rich man has persuaded the poor man into giving up his own freedom and chance to succeed in the state of nature. The rich man, however, is the only one capable of foreseeing the problems that lie ahead, but has no concern as he is going to benefit from these problems. Yes, cancer may have become a major problem for health, but the rich man is able to afford the cure. In fact, since the poor man would not be likely to be able to obtain this cure for cancer, perhaps the poor man would die out and the rich man would continue to multiply. The survival of the fittest has turned into the survival of the richest. As the rich become richer and richer and the poor continue to sacrifice their personal liberties to the rich, the inequalities that are now present will grow even bigger. The rich man’s riches will not be as spectacular compared to the next man’s riches, and the competition will grow even stronger.

The evolution and advancements caused by the potential for a cure for cancer are enormous, and lead civilization further and further from the state of nature. Now, modern humans will be able to continue their laziness that has led them to the state ridden with cancer in the first place. If not for the evolution and competition, cancer may not even be an issue at all. The cancer vaccine will reward the inactive and competitive people that have led us to this current state of rising cancer rates and continue feeding the cycle of the poor needing to submit their own freedoms to the rich. The poor man will become an even larger piece of the rich man’s property, and will have no way of escaping the inequalities. The dependency of the poor man on the rich man is fueled by developments such as this cancer vaccine.

Alternately, as the poor man’s dependency on the rich increases, so too does the rich man’s own dependency: his dependency on doctors and medicine- the system. This dependency furthers the argument that progress leads to dependency and brings us further from the state of nature. When humans began to interact with one another and form relationships, the state of nature became unobtainable any longer. When man began to identify with others, he lost his ability to remain solitary and social interaction became more of a necessity than just a pleasure. These relationships led man to depend on the other in order to progress. Solitary man needs no progress as he has all his basic needs. It is only when the solidarity is broken that man sees a need for progress. This dependency on the system seems to be even worse than dependency on other people. Dependency on the system means that evolution and progress, which draw further from the state of nature, are the only way that man sees himself as able to survive.

What do you think? Would a cure for cancer, indeed, create an even larger base for inequalities that we have already seen? Is this progress a positive of negative thing? Is Rousseau right about his opinions on the relationship between the rich and the poor? Is our newfound dependency on others and “the system” bringing us further and further away from the state of nature that Rousseau imagines?

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