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Heroes and Henchmen: The Lost Tale of the Individual

February 20th, 2009 No comments

John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) is a majestic tale of a prophecy, a king, his wizardly guardian, and the many heroes of his quest. This makes for awesome battle scenes, no doubt, as well as slow-motion 80s sex scenes that always involve the presence of a fire place, fire pit, or 30-plus candles, and bad 80s hair. A byproduct of battle scenes, and sex that eventually leads to more battle scenes, is a lot of dead people.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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At the foundation of modern moral justifications for the establishment of a coercive state is the voluntarization of that coercive power – in other words, the implication that obedience to governments is in some way chosen and thus morally binding. The philosophical construct that has come to embody this approach is described by the term “social contract. ” Though the works of important philosophers like Hobbes and Locke employed a version of the social contract, the work which came to inhabit and popularize the phrase was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential 1762 treatise, Du Contrait Social (“The Social Contract”). –more–>Summary (where not specified, statements are written in the voice of Rousseau)

In Book I, Rousseau begins his exploration of politics by pondering the source of the legitimacy of political authority. He rejects that its source is found in nature, because such a position implies the inherent natural superiority of the rulers over the ruled, though the superiority that may exist is only sustained by force. In turn, he argues that force is not the basis for legitimacy either: the idea that “might makes right” is nonsensical because it can not imply that the less strong “ought” to follow the stronger, since who is stronger is always determined by who triumphs. There would be no political authority since those who can do, will do. Instead, legitimate political authority is based on a kind of “social contract” created between society’s members. Unlike the argument of Grotius, which proposed a kind of covenant between king and people based on “a right to slavery,” one’s freedom can never be surrendered in a fair exchange. Furthermore once freedom is surrendered, then all rights are forfeited which eliminate any demand for something in return.

Why should such a contract ever be necessary? In short, there comes a point in the state of nature at which society must be formed in order for mankind to survive. The social contract’s purpose is to resolve the problem of how to bind people to each other without infringing upon their freedom, and it does this by requiring the unconditional surrender of the individual’s freedom to the whole community. The important implications of this definition are that the contract will impose the same conditions for all, creating no interest for one person making the conditions difficult for others; there will be no rights that remain that stand in opposition to the state, because the contract is formed unconditionally; and finally, because each person enters the contract on equal terms, no person loses their natural freedom. The ultimate reduction of the social contract can be described thus: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ”[1] The new entity, the whole, that is formed as a result of this contract comes to be known as the “Republic” or “body politic,” or, depending on the context, the State, the Sovereign, or the Power. Those who formed the contract come to be collectively known as the people; when sharing in the sovereign power, citizens; and in being under the laws of the state, subjects. The contrast between nature and civil society is important here: though in joining the contract we lose the physical freedom to act upon our personal appetites, we gain liberty via the limitations of reason and the general will being placed upon our behaviors.

In book II, Rousseau’s conception of the state begins with the idea that society functions in correspondence to the interests that people hold in common. Hence, the ultimate end of any state is “the common good. ” Acting on the general will expressed by the Sovereign is the only way to achieve this common good. Incidentally, the general will can never coincide with a particular will.

The expression of the general will ultimately takes the shape of law. Law must be made by the people as a whole (i. e. made by the sovereign) and applicable to the whole. But how can the people, especially a large number of them, jointly create a set of laws? Rousseau proposes the lawgiver: an intelligent and selfless individual who will create laws in an unbiased fashion, who lies outside the authority of the Sovereign. However, Rousseau himself admits that “Gods would be needed to give men laws. ” Furthermore, what will compel people to follow the laws? Besides textbook coercion, such as the death penalty for those who break the law and thus break the social contract, Rousseau suggests that an appeal to the supernatural origins of laws (much as Moses claimed that the Ten Commandments were given by God) is one way of convincing men to follow them.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 2)

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The end of Book II consists of Rousseau’s exploration of the kinds of circumstances under which law is most effectively made, specifically in reference to the people for whom the law is to be made, and the nature of those laws. For example, he explains that states are ideally small-to-medium-sized: small enough to be effectively manageable, but large enough so as not to be overrun by neighboring states. The creation and implementation of laws must be timed perfectly, as a people may not yet be ready to be guided, or may have become prejudiced and resistant to the positive changes brought about by good laws. Also, the state in which laws are being established must be in a condition of at least relative peace and plenty, because of the temporary vulnerability and instability caused by a period of laws being implemented.

The goal of any system of law is reducible to two ends: liberty and equality. Here (chapter 11), equality is understood to mean not the complete absence of differences in wealth, but the absence of such differences that would damage the balance of citizens in the state: “but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. ” Overall, the general criteria for how laws ought to be made depend on circumstances that differ from people to people and place to place.

At the beginning of Book III, Rousseau explains the executive powers of government in terms of will and strength:

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i. e. the will which determines the act; the other physical, i. e. the power which executes it… The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. [2]

The government is, importantly, to be distinguished from the Sovereign; in fact, confusion of the two is dangerous. The government deals with particulars (decrees) while the sovereign deals with the general (laws). Somewhat similar to the contract in Hobbes, the government itself is not a party to the social contract; somewhat different from Hobbes, this is because the government is an intermediary body that is created by the general will and can be freely disbanded by the general will.

As to possible forms of government, there are three primary kinds: democracy, when all or almost all the citizens are magistrates; aristocracy, where less than half are magistrates; and monarchy, where few or one are magistrates. However, there is not one universally superior form of government. In the previous chapter, Rousseau notes that the larger the population of a state, the fewer magistrates there should be. Hence, large states are best suited to monarchy, medium to aristocracy, and small to democracy. Though he personally preferred democracy, Rousseau expresses ambivalence toward democracy as well as monarchy. While he explains his concerns about monarchy’s dangerous efficiency and potential for corruption, he also claims, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. ” Only small states with simple and unambitious citizens could remain stable under democratic rule. Overall, though simpler forms of government are preferable to Rousseau, he suggests that mixing forms of government may dissipate the powers of the government relative to the Sovereign.

The Sovereign can maintain itself by meeting in periodic assemblies. Though an impractical demand on the face of it, ancient cities such as Rome managed to do it to some degree. The assemblies are critical because within them, all citizens are as powerful as the magistrates. Because of this, the government may take actions to dissuade such assemblies, which over time may erode the freedom and authority of the Sovereign. At this juncture, Rousseau makes sure to point out that sovereignty can not be represented: “…The moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. ”

As part of a set of entailments of the general will, the latter half of Book IV expresses some specific ideas Rousseau has about the state. In some cases, dictatorship is necessary to avert the collapse the state, though the dictator does not represent the people or the laws; the dictator only acts in accordance with the general will so long as the avoiding the collapse of the state is in it.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 3)

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The establishment of a censor’s office is also put forward, as the vanguard of public opinion. Because public opinion is connected to public morality and virtue, and those are connected to law, the censor’s office upholds the laws by influencing public opinion. Finally, Rousseau recommends that people be free to pursue religion as they please so long as it does not conflict with public interest, but also recommends that they be required to adhere to a civil religion with essential qualities: belief in the existence of a just god, belief in the afterlife, faith in the sanctity of the social contract and its laws, and emphasis on tolerance to reduce civil strife.

Critique

The most obvious problem in Rousseau’s argument is the mostly unaddressed question of how the general will is to be determined. In a world with no gods and only men, there is no ultimate and authoritative arbiter of truth and justice. Evidence may stand on one side, but there is no guarantee of an impartial and fair supreme force that binds persons to the correct judgment. This is a phenomenon that applies to all things, even the physically tangible and empirically observable. When it comes to something very abstract and complex like the general will, the problem is amplified further as evidence one could possibly appeal to for his position is necessarily indirect and intuitive at best (see: epistemic critique), lending greater power to those of stronger expressive faculty. [3] Of course, that the determination of physical fact or right and wrong is subject to this uncertainty is not an objection, since this can be leveled against any theory. However, what is questionable is the insistence that every person must be subjected to a violence-backed decision making process that may often not agree with their own judgments. If this poses a problem, there is really no way out: Rousseau makes it clear that The Social Contract is not there merely as a suggestion for those who accept it; it is intended to be a factual and categorical description of human nature and the good society. Thus, even if we accept the general will as real, the question is still left open as to whether the general will is best achieved by organizing society into government as outlined in The Social Contract.

Another development of interest in this particular work is that Rousseau insists on a sharp distinction between nature and civil society, holding that the latter is not part of the former and is instead “artificially” created. This is essentially connected with his notion that “this [the social contract’s] act of association creates a moral and collective body composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will. ” In other words, Rousseau makes the metaphysical claim that the Sovereign forms a whole greater than the sum of its parts, essential to the idea that the state can not only solve problems that individuals could not possibly solve voluntarily amongst themselves, but that there is a goodness which always supersedes the good of the individual. “Artifice” enters the equation here: once society organizes along the lines of the social contract, civil society becomes possible where it was not possible before. This is critical to Rousseau’s argument, because it is the means by which the individual is given an ethical demand to consent to the social contract and all its entailments, or, conversely, the means by which force is ethically justified against the individual.

Problems with the Social Contract as a Moral Obligation

Without this metaphysical and meta-ethical foundation, Rousseau’s argument would be a non-sequitur the moment he leaps to the conclusion that one has a rational obligation to participate in forming the social contract. The social contract’s “resolution” of the problem of binding human beings together is suspect: Rousseau holds that the freedom of individual human beings is maintained by entering them into a contract on equal terms that imposes “equal” conditions on them. However, this is only so because of Rousseau’s definition of freedom, which downplays freedom of action in nature as largely meaningless due to unenforceability, reflecting the somewhat Hobbesian notion that such freedom is trivial compared to civil liberty, which is the guarantee of lesser freedoms always being protected by the community. More importantly, Rousseau places a great deal of significance upon his idea of moral liberty, which is the freedom from one’s appetites attained by obedience to “self-prescribed” laws.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 4)

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Certain questions must be asked: is joining in the social contract a necessity for moral liberty? Are equal terms and conditions in the letter equal for every individual? Does a man who is self-sufficient and who produces a surplus always stand to gain by entering into an obligation which can often require sacrificing a disproportionate amount of his property on behalf of others? What about someone who produces art or otherwise expresses himself in a way that would result in his censoring under the general will? Rousseau seems to presuppose a set of “right” values with relation to virtue, one’s opinions, etc. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but this certainly presses Rousseau to provide us with a convincing account of these values which holds as objective. The argument here rests on the validity of his answer.

Epistemic Critique

These objections are virtually trivial in comparison to the most critical problem with Rousseau’s work and works of a similar breed. Generally, they envision the existence of things which lie beyond empirical observation and meaningful rational analysis: in the case of Plato, it was the forms; with Hitler, it was the goodness of the Fatherland and the intrinsic deservingness of the Aryan race; in Rousseau’s case, it is the general will. In testing these theories, we can only observe a world in which people act as though those things exist, and another in which they do not, and then compare results. Yet by what standard do we gauge these results? For what are we exactly testing? For The Social Contract, we can not gauge it by pragmatic standards, because doing so would not be in accordance with Rousseau’s true theory, which states that the good is the general will. Yet we can never directly experience a form, magical Aryan goodness, or the general will. Lacking any epistemological reason to accept that such a thing as the general will exists, we have no other reason to accept it except, perhaps, as a “noble myth” which serves some other end (order, respect for tradition, etc.

The Dangers of Rousseau

Put in a historical context, Rousseau’s ideas can be said to be responsible for much bloodshed. On one hand, it may not seem fair to say that Rousseau himself was directly to blame for the brutality that ensued in the name of his or at least a mockup of his ideas. However, personal blame is not the thrust of the criticism of Rousseau’s ideas whose ideological cousins often result in death and destruction nor is it at all important. If not specifically attributable to Rousseau, many ideas similar to his have been at the root of acts of violence around the world, whether in the form of civil war between factions, or the more subtle “civil war” of members of the state against its citizens. When an analytic light is shined upon the work of Rousseau and similar works, that this occurred is not surprising.

When goodness is placed outside the realm of the empirical and the rational – as when the concepts of state, the people, etc. are made primary, ignoring the instances from which they were derived – the currency upon which morality trades becomes spiritual and intrinsic, generating similar phenomena to those of religious beliefs: martyrdom, persecution, atrocity, or otherwise a climate of self-proclaimed just violence. In such a situation, the nature of goodness is not accessible to everyone, but only to the “enlightened”: the philosopher kings, the popes and bishops, or the politicians. There is no scientific reason to believe that these human beings have a sixth sense that gives them greater access to such knowledge, yet they are perceived to have it. What phenomenon is capable of explaining how biologically similar human beings can be elevated to separate moral categories in people’s minds when there is no evidence to believe that it is the case? There is one lying in plain view which has pervaded most instances of human conflict, especially of this kind: the exercise of power. Rousseau’s theory lends itself to such a world; for this assertion we have not only the immediate evidence from the French Revolution and its many succeeding Republics, but the indirect evidence of the millions of lives ended by collectivism.

Instinctively, one may object that Rousseau believed that every person composing the Sovereign must play a role in the determination of the general will. Still, so long as there are both disagreement and forceful commitment of all participants to the decision ultimately rendered, the problem persists.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 5)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The category of the “enlightened” simply shifts from the popes and politicians to some arbitrary proportion of the people, be it a plurality, a majority, or a supermajority. The point remains quite the same: democracy without unanimity is just as much an exercise of power as is philosopher dictatorship, popery, or decree.


[1] Book I, Chapter 6. P. 9.

[2] Book II, Chapter I.

[3] Perhaps this objection is a commentary on Rousseau himself.

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