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The Concept of A Flourishing Life in Aristotle’s Politics & Nichomachean Ethics

June 18th, 2010 Comments off

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In Politics, Aristotle argues that to lead a flourishing life, it is imperative that all free men embrace their responsibility in the political system, thereby protecting the interests of their personal lives, social class, and community, as well as instilling virtue in oneself through civil servitude and leadership. Consistent with this theory is the notion, as described by our political philosopher, that inherent human nature holds men to the conviction that they should participate in governmental proceedings, as he finds, “soul and body are the basic constituents of an animal, the soul is the natural ruler; the body the natural subject. ” (8). In this statement, one can decipher that Aristotle believes that each citizen rules in how the city-state is governed through a democratic system and is ruled by obeying the laws and keeping allegiance towards the governing body. In the opening pages of Book I, Aristotle produces a strong declaration about those who do not wish to take part in politics, “…human is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else super human…for someone with such a nature is at the same time eager for war, like an isolated piece on a board game. ” (4). As the collection of political theory progresses, Aristotle examines the necessity of an established community, governing body, social hierarchy, and inter-household status ranking in living a perfectly joyous and happy life, however we first must decide what exactly constitutes this supposed “flourishing life” in ancient Greece.

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According to Aristotle in his prior publication, Nicomachean Ethics, happiness in lifestyle far surpasses the simple explanation of a contented emotion, but however, rely much more on success and fulfillment in the political world, thus necessitating involvement governmental affairs to the happiness of every free man. In modern society, most would consider happiness as coming from physical pleasure or honor, but as Aristotle insists, this is only due to an imperfect view of the good life. Predominantly, the concept of Greek happiness, which a flourishing life entails, is a much more public matter than how it is viewed by twentieth century philosophers. In ancient times more so than now, a Greek individual’s identity was extremely closely linked to the city-state to which he belonged to; thus, happiness was closely connected to the success and fulfillment achieved during public service. Moreover, happiness was not viewed as an emotion in the private sector, but more importantly a reflection of a person’s position within a city-state. Additionally, Nicomachean Ethics discusses the belief that because everything in nature exists for a specific purpose, the end goal of human existence (the specific purpose of human life) is happiness. Aristotle acknowledges a contrast between the means of attainment and the ends, ultimately happiness, of attainment. He states that men pursue happiness and rational activity for the sake of enjoyment, where as they will seek out wealth and health simply because they feel these acquisitions will bring them happiness. He will go on later to define this determination by stating, “…there are three groups – external good [wealth, reputation] goods of the body [health, sensual pleasure], and goods of the soul [wisdom, virtue] – surely no one would raise a dispute and say that not all of them need be possessed by those who are blessedly happy. ” (191). However, Aristotle places more importance upon the goods of the soul, since they are the ends themselves and the former types of good are the means at which acquiring the latter. Following up on this idea, Politics examines how to best secure these ends of happiness for the citizens of a city-state, which predominantly involved political activity, beginning with the construction of a community.

To begin the quest for obtaining a flourishing life, one first established a community in which to become actively involved, known in ancient Greek terminology as a poleis or city-state. The interests of the city-state and its citizens were one and the same, both to attain happiness in affairs, and therefore, conflict between individual liberties and the laws of the city did not often occur. As Aristotle expresses in his opening statements, “every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good). ” (1), and as our author views it, one cannot lead a happy life without community engagement, as an individual will not fully realize the nature of their political being separated from the city-state. In asserting that man fails to fulfill his ultimate purpose when he disconnects from the state, Aristotle argues that life has no value outside the walls of a city-state.

The formation of a community is a natural phenomenon based on the principles of rational speech, reproduction, education, and religion. Once human beings were able to develop a language, they had a strong desire to interact with one another, and thus social groups and later political entities were founded. These assertions are echoed by Aristotle in saying, “Those who cannot exist without each other necessarily form a couple as [1] female and male do for the sake of procreation, [2] as a natural ruler and what is naturally ruled for the sake of survival. ” (2). An organized system of reproduction to best ensure the success of offspring needed to be devised in this ancient Greek society, as Aristotle constructs, determining that women should not be married until they are eighteen years of age and men should not be wed to these women until they have reached their thirty-sixth birthday. In modern times, a marriage license is required to surpass the problems that ancient Greek citizens had to enact laws to overcome, such as the marriage between cousins and a proper age to marry. Education, and even determining what subjects should be taught, also needed to be a collective endeavor. He believed that the city’s educational system will largely forecast the character of its future citizens and therefore asserts that it is preferable to enroll children in public education over private tutoring. A fundamental aspect of the state governments of the United States is just the topic, and overall, to every society, education is determined to be a very crucial political concern. Men also need leisurely activities, such as sports and music, to live to the fullest, and thus, for the sake of a flourishing life, it is ideal for humans to live in groups with common interests. As Aristotle puts it, “For it is by seeking happiness in different ways and by different means that individual groups of people create different ways of life and different constitutions. ” (204). In the creation of a city-state, Aristotle comments that all citizens should know each other and that the population should be “surveyable”, to reinforce the common aims of the community. Standardized religious practices and the public construction of temples in the worship of Gods were also public domain, as it would be nearly impossible for every citizen to have access to the proper altars and temples without publicly funded religious sites. In all these social aspects of life, reproduction, leisure activities, education, and religion, a functioning government must be held responsible and therefore, a community was formed to distribute money and duties across its populace.

Before an individual can become active in a political life, and thus achieve the all-important definition of happiness as described by the Greeks, one first must determine who should be given access to the government in terms of a social hierarchy. When deciding who should take part in political affairs, the author clearly separates the people who are necessary to the city, including slaves, and those who are essential members of the city. Aristotle is not concerned with giving every individual the access to the operations of the government because he does not consider their input to be valuable, rationale for excluding slaves. Slaves, he insists, are like property, and therefore, cannot comprise a city. He cites a fundamental difference in slaves and freemen in governmental affairs in saying, “For ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, they are also beneficial, and some things are distinguished right from birth, some suited to rule and others to being ruled. ” (7). Only freeborn citizens have the capacity to become leaders because only they would have the time to pursue education and leisure activities, and thus be well rounded and knowledgeable for government involvement. Our political theorist also makes distinctions along the lines of origin and age in stating, “Nor is a citizen a citizen through residing in a place, for resident aliens and slaves share the dwelling place of him…like minors who are too young to be enrolled in the citizen list or old people who have been excused from their civic duties, they must be said to be citizens of a sort, but not unqualified citizens. ” (65). Similar are the requirements in the United States to either naturalized if not born in this country and to eighteen years of age to participate in elections. By setting parameters for which individuals can participate in politics, Aristotle attempts to preserve what he believes a qualified social ranking of free men.

Aristotle concludes that the goal of the community as a whole is to achieve as much unity as feasibly possible, and thereby, protecting the interests of all citizens; however, Aristotle maintains that different people must make different contributions, fulfill different roles, and fit into distinct social classes to ensure that the city-state will be self-sufficient. Class division is important in maintaining a proper social order, but there seems to be a place for each free class in government participation, whether it be through leadership or simply voicing an opinion. Certain of this principle, he states, “A city-state is excellent, however, because the citizens who participate in the constitution are excellent; and in our city-state all the citizens participate in the constitution. ” (213). Aristotle suggests that the middle class is most vested in the success of a political entity in stressing that it is the least susceptible to factionalism, self-interest, and hatred of other classes. Both the rich and the poor, on the other hand, are more likely to conceive of justice and equality selfishly. He declares that a population of farmers would make for the best democracy, as they must work hard and are well spread apart, preventing the group as a whole from spending too much time involved with governmental affairs. Alternatively, he proposes that the population least conducive to democracy would be made up of mechanics, shopkeepers, and laborers because they are crowded within the inner city, and therefore could take an active role in politics leading to mob rule and violent overthrows. By involving all classes in the political system, Aristotle nearly achieves the prospect of a flourishing life, centered upon happiness in political participation, for every group of natural-born free men.

Once the standards of citizenship have been determined, it is next necessary to determine how a government should be operated and maintained in order to maximize the number of individuals who can become involved. Aristotle suggests that a governing body must include all citizens and govern in the common interest, and that the laws be well constituted and directed toward the general good. Contrasting many political philosophers of his day, our author insists that a collective populace is wiser than an individual expert and an overall better judge as to whether people are being well-governed. In descriptions of each practical type of government, Aristotle concludes, “For tyranny is rule by one person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and democracy is for the benefit of the poor. But none is for their common profit. ” (78). In an oligarchy, influential and high standing offices should be reserved for the wealthy, yet the poor should still be able to hold infer employment in the functioning of the government. Additionally, wealthy officers are obligated, in this system, to perform significant public service in order to hold office, thus deemed worthy of leadership by the poor. Civic government consists of three main elements: the deliberative, the executive, and the judicial. The deliberative elements involve public matters such as foreign policy, enacting laws, judicial cases in which a severe penalty is involved, and the appointment of public officials. The executive branch of Aristotle’s government holds public order and takes responsibility for governing and issuing commands. Finally, the judicial element passes rulings on matters of private and public interest. Aristotle recommends that the ruling party always be wary of lawlessness, never try to deceive the masses, treat everybody well and fairly, especially those outside the constitution, cultivate a state of emergency so that people will not attempt a revolt, prevent in-fighting between nobles, ensure that property qualification for office remains proportionate to the wealth of the city, be careful not to confer great promotions or significant withdrawals of honor too suddenly, be wary of a class that is on the rise, and give power to the opposing class or the middle class, prevent public office from becoming a source of profit, and offer special consideration to the rich in a democracy and to the poor in an oligarchy. In all aspects of the prescribed varieties of government that Aristotle examines, the focus and motive remain the same: to create a political entity that will best suit individual citizens for a flourishing life.

In relating the ideas posed by Aristotle to the modern definitions of government in the United States, many political issues and dilemmas come to mind that obstruct such a flourishing life. As Aristotle suggested, “Nowadays, however, because of the profits to be had from public funds and office, people want to be in office continuously, as if they were sick and would be cured by being in office. ” (77). This has become increasingly so in the maturation of our nation as well, while congressmen and presidents fight to stay in office for as many terms as possible to ensure the push of their political agenda, often influenced by interested groups and top campaign contributors. Another problematic situation that the U. S. government has encountered since the birth of our nation is the decrease in individual participation in government. In ancient times, all citizens were required to contribute in some way to the government. Assemblies of citizens made decisions in governmental bodies that were similar to the law courts and city councils that few Americans take part in today. In ancient Greece, these lawmaking assemblies would rotate membership to ensure that every citizen could serve a term, however, the only institution which mirrors this rotation in modern day is jury duty. Without required participation in the government, many individuals in society wish to seek no part in it, and therefore, do not fulfill their civic duty or live in the criteria of happiness Aristotle maintains is essential.

Aristotle advocates a lifestyle involving political activism as a means of achieving a happy and flourishing life, by first detailing the necessity of establishing a community, defining a social hierarchy, and instituting a governing body in which every free man should take part. In arguing the need for politics in an individual’s well-being, he pronounces, “Some people think that ruling over one’s neighbors like a master involves one of the greatest injustices, and that rule of a statesman, though it involves no injustice, does involve impediment to one’s own well-being. Others think almost the opposite, they say that an active political life is the only one for a man, since the actions expressing each of the virtues are no more available to private individuals than to those engaged in communal affairs and politics (194). Political bodies make education, leisure, organized religion, and marriage possible, many of which compromised ancient issues reflected in modern dilemmas. Without politics, possible chaos and obviously a decreased level of interaction and social harmony would occur; therefore, it is in the best interest of the community and of the individual, to partake in government.

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Redefining Property Rights through Value Creation (and an Attempt at Grounding Claims to Natural Resources by “First Comers”)

April 29th, 2010 No comments

Any theory of ownership must always answer the challenge of how initially unowned things can come to be justly owned. Intuitively, the world-ownership hypothesis—that a person may appropriate any number of un-owned resources in the world as long as some conditions are met—faces the objection (among others) that it seems like an arbitrary deviation from an equal-share hypothesis, which would entitle one to an nth of those un-owned resources. This, however, is merely an intuitive claim, reflecting more of an intellectual discomfort rather than a clear picture of the origins of entitlements.

While we have yet to settle on any such picture, other intuitions can present us with a different picture. Israel Kirzner’s article, “Entrepreneurship, Entitlement, and Economic Justice” (1978) provides us with an excellent intuition as to how else these entitlements could come about, through appeal to the idea of value: the chief reason why we gain our entitlements to property is because we have created an economic value in it.

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Hillel Steiner’s Original Rights and Just Redistribution (Summary)

May 2nd, 2009 No comments

In Original Rights and Just Redistribution, Hillel Steiner attempts to answer three questions: to what sorts of things do we have original property rights?; how do we distinguish these sorts of things to which we have non-original property rights?; and finally, who counts as being one of ‘us’ with these rights? He begins with the concept of self-ownership: for someone to have any rights at all, he must not be part of another’s bundle of possessions. After establishing that laboring within’s one domain produces products within one’s domain, he asks how initially unowned things outside of one’s domain becomes justly ownable. He concludes that our equal original property rights entitle us to an “equal share of (at least) raw natural resources.”

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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[Readings come from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Part II, Sections I & II]

Locke’s Theory of Acquisition

Nozick’s goal in this section of AS&U is to, in his words, “introduce an additional bit of complexity into the structure of the entitlement theory. ” To do this, he uses as a starting point Locke’s approach to justice in property acquisition—namely, that ownership of an object originates in one’s mixing of labor with that object. Nozick then proceeds to ask the standard gamut of questions calling attention to some difficulties in Locke’s theory of acquisition, like whether dumping a can of tomato juice in the ocean constitutes “mixing one’s labor” with the ocean. Essentially, the questions seek the strict boundary between what constitutes a mixing of labor sufficient for just acquisition and what does not. Under the Lockean notion of acquisition, it seems that one naïve interpretation would say that improving upon an object entails full ownership of the object. Of course, as Nozick points out, if the stock of improvable unowned objects is limited, this view is unfeasible. He uses the appropriation of a grain of sand as an example of one’s appropriation removing another’s liberty (as Hohfeld uses the word) to act on a previously unowned object, but intuitively suggests that this particular removal is not problematic. The central concern, he says, “is whether appropriation of an unowned object worsens the situation of others. ”

Here, Nozick introduces a principle aimed at addressing that notion, which he terms “Locke’s proviso”: that an appropriation must leave ‘enough and as good left in common for others. One version of the proviso, if applied consistently, would make all past appropriations disallowed under Locke’s proviso once a single person’s situation were worsened by an appropriation. Nozick interjects that this argument actually depends on how stringently the proviso is interpreted. Further, he asks whether persons in a world where there are no more “accessible and useful unowned” objects are indeed worsened, citing numerous empirical considerations favoring private property vis-à-vis its satisfaction of the proviso. The difficulty of the argument, however, lies in answering the question “Lockean appropriation makes people no worse off than they would be how? ” Nozick says answering this question lies beyond the scope of his work; he suggests that discovering the baseline could begin by estimating the general economic importance of original appropriation (say, by the percentage of income based on natural resources rather than human action). He closes with a note that these questions not only must be faced by advocates of private property; all theories of property (like collective property) must still, too, provide a theory of property rights legitimately originate.

The Proviso

Nozick starts off by assuming that any reasonable theory of justice must have some sort of proviso similar to a weak version of Locke’s. In short, if the position of others no longer at liberty to use an appropriated thing is worsened, a permanent bequeathable right to that thing can not be conferred by any valid process. The emphasis on the mode of worsening is important here, as the proviso does not encompass other modes of worsening, like worsening due to more limited opportunities to appropriate or “worsening” of one seller by another due to an appropriation leading to more market competition. Nozick also suggests that compensation of the appropriator to those whom he is worsening can satisfy the proviso.

Nozick then shifts the focus to justice in transfer, asserting that any theory of just acquisition must account for justice in transfer. Quite centrally, he posits, “If my appropriating all of a certain substance violates the Lockean proviso, then so does my appropriating some and purchasing all the rest from others who obtained it without otherwise violating the Lockean proviso. ” Unlike the earlier argument in which the original appropriation violated the proviso as well as the appropriation which actually left a person worse off, it is only the combination of the original appropriation and the later transfers that is sufficient to violate the Lockean proviso.

Next, Nozick argues that one’s title to his holding includes the “historical shadow” of the proviso; namely, the title-holder may not transfer it into an agglomeration that violates the proviso, nor may he use it in a way that violates the proviso by making others worse than their baseline situation.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 2)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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Thus, one may not only not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and charge what he pleases, but he also may not charge what he pleases if it just so happens that circumstance destroys all other watering holes. Nozick briefly deviates for a moment to clarify that the owners’ rights are not eliminated in these cases, but simply “overridden to avoid some catastrophe” (not, however, in some ad hoc way, but internal to the given theory of property).

Delving into further exposition, Nozick asserts that someone owning the entire supply of something necessary for others to remain living does not always mean that appropriations leading up to this ownership left some people in a situation worse than the baseline. In service of this assertion, he cites the case of a medical researcher who finds an effective treatment for a disease but refuses to sell it except on his own terms; the researcher does not violate the proviso because he did not appropriate the chemical materials he used in a way that, through causing scarcity, violated the Lockean proviso. Ultimately, this demonstrates that the Lockean proviso is not an “end-state principle”; the structure of the situation that results is not relevant, but the nature of the actions taken to reach that result is. Following this, Nozick puts forward his belief that a free market system would not actually come into conflict with the Lockean proviso, making the “empirical historical” claim that people’s concern for the possibility of the proviso’s violation above other possibilities is only due to the effects of previous illegitimate state action, ending his exploration of the “complication in the entitlement theory introduced by the Lockean proviso. ”

Nozick then moves on to address what he earlier labeled “the negative argument”: “the use of the claim that people don’t deserve their natural assets to rebut a possible counterargument to Rawls’ view. He has us consider the following counterargument to Rawls (“E”):

1. People deserve their natural assets.

2. If people deserve X, they deserve any Y that flows from X.

3. People’s holdings flow from their natural assets.

Therefore,

4. People deserve their holdings.

5. If people deserve something, then they ought to have it (and this overrides any presumption of equality there may be about that thing. )

Because Rawls would rebut this counterargument by denying the first premise, the connection between natural assets being morally arbitrary and the statement that distributive shares should not depend on natural assets is clearer. Here, Nozick attempts to show that the concept of “desert” needn’t be present in an argument of this sort for it to properly follow. He starts with a new counterargument, “F”:

1. If people have X, and their having X (whether or not they deserve to have it) does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) right or entitlement to X, and Y flows from (arises out of, and so on) X by a process that does not itself violate anyone’s (Lockean) rights or entitlements, Then the person is entitled to Y.

2. People’s having the natural assets they do does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) entitlements or rights.

The argument would then proceed to argue that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor and to what others voluntarily give or exchange with them. Nozick, quite succinctly, phrases his objection to holding equivalence between desert and entitlement:

It is not true, for example, that a person earns Y (a right to keep a painting he’s made, praise for writing a theory of Justice, and so on) only if he’s earned (or otherwise deserves) whatever he used (including natural assets) in the process of earning Y. Some of the things he uses he just may have, not illegitimately. It needn’t be that the foundations underlying desert are themselves deserved, all the way down.

Thus, since people can be described as entitled to their natural assets even if they can not be labeled as deserving of them, then an argument parallel to argument E with ‘are entitled to’ replacing ‘deserve’ throughout will be valid. Returning more explicitly to Rawls, Nozick then implies that Rawls’ argument is in a bind. Recognizing people’s entitlements to their natural assets could be necessary to avoid a strict application of the difference principle that would entail even stronger property rights than wealth-redistributive theories usually yield.

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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 3)

April 30th, 2009 Comments off

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Nozick cites Rawls’ counterargument that he avoids this dilemma, “because people in [Rawls’] original position rank the principle of liberty as lexicographically prior to the difference principle, applied not only to economic well-being but to health, length of life, and so on. ” One of Nozick’s footnotes calls our attention to the discussion of collective assets later to further this objection.

Continuing, Nozick professes his inability to find a cogent argument to help support that variations in holdings caused by variations in natural assets ought to be eliminated or minimized. He connects the idea of the “moral arbitrariness” of natural assets to Rawls’ construction of the original position by pointing out that there must be an argument to “shape” the original position to exclude natural assets from the participants’ knowledge (i. e. there must be a justification for the veil of ignorance). Nozick argues that if a particular feature being arbitrary from a moral point of view is sufficient to fall under the veil of ignorance, then those behind the veil of ignorance should know nothing about themselves, because each of their features (like rationality, the ability to make choices, having a life span of more than three days, having a memory, ability to communicate) will be based on morally arbitrary facts (that the sperm and ovum that made them were genetically composed in a particular manner). However, Rawls’ construction of the original position has persons know some of these things.

At this point, Nozick stops to qualify his argument. He calls our attention to an ambiguity in the statement that “a fact is arbitrary from a moral point of view”: in one sense, it could mean that there is no moral reason why a fact ought to be; in another, it could mean that a fact is of no moral significance and has no moral consequences. Nozick states that rationality is not morally arbitrary in the second sense. Nonetheless, if rationality escapes exclusion for this reason, it now has a “partner in guilt”—natural assets—which must also escape exclusion for that reason. Thus, an entitlement theory similar to Rawls’ that holds that entitlements arise from or are at least dependent on such facts is called into question.

“Collective Assets”

Later in the book, Nozick aims to tackle Rawls’ seeming notion of “collective assets,” specifically referring to the idea that “everyone has some entitlement or claim on the totality of natural assets (viewed as a pool), with no one having differential claims. ” He argues that a theory separating men from their talents, assets, abilities, and so on can only be adequate if one “presses very hard on the distinction between men [and those things],” noting that whether any conception of a coherent person remains when this distinction is made is an open question. Further, he states that talents and abilities are an asset to a free community, and are not part of a constant sum game, then asking whether extraction of more benefit is what justifies treating natural assets as a collective resources, leaving open the question of what justifies the extraction.

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A Brief Summary of Michael Otsuka’s “Self-Ownership and Equality, A Lockean Reconciliation”

October 19th, 2008 No comments

Michael Otsuka’s position, as outlined in “Self-Ownership and Equality,” puts him fairly strongly on the left.  This is because he advocates an egalitarian position which he hopes to put forward as not incompatible with self-ownership, as Cohen would like to argue. He puts forward the thesis that equality of access to welfare between individuals of differing capacities to derive welfare from their resources can theoretically be achieved through an egalitarian distribution of initially unowned worldly resources, as a matter of contingent fact. In that regard, Otsuka is not a hard-left end-all egalitarian, but is by far the left-est of the authors in Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics (Peter Vallentyne) I’ve read so far; namely, Robert Nozick (who is undoubtedly similar in his “Lockean” libertarian approach, and who Otsuka borrows from a little bit but obviously contradicts on some important points), Hillel Steiner, and Phillip Van Parijs. The course of his article is as follows, briefly.

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

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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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)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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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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