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

April 1st, 2008


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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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