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

April 1st, 2008


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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.


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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