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

April 1st, 2008


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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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