The Social Contract | Study Guide

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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The Social Contract | Main Ideas


The State of Nature, Equality, and Liberty

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believes certain concepts and activities taken for granted in modern life are not natural to human beings. These include property, inequality, and law. In the state of nature, human beings are free and equal. They are free in that they can do what they want, and they are moral equals in that no one person's liberty is superior to another's. This freedom is essentially freedom from the coercive effects of a civil society governed by one or more people who do not have their subjects' best interests in mind. Moreover, people are free from the arbitrary requirements of society. Expectations to conform to societal norms and contrived needs create psychological dependency and make people vulnerable to domination. That dependency is not limited to the weak and poor, it is also created by luxury and wealth.

Freedom in the state of nature is not, however, absolute. It is restricted by the imperative of self-preservation and, more generally, instinct and desires. These desires or passions generate real and perceived needs. Real needs are those that ensure survival, such as food and reproduction. Perceived needs are generated in a society. These will include things such as friendship and property.

A legitimate civil society will preserve at least an approximation of natural freedom, which is largely concentrated in the general will. By focusing on the good of the whole, the artificial needs that create dependence and inequality will not arise.

Rousseau still has to reconcile what appears to be a potential conflict between the individual will and the general will. His accounts of the general will and sovereignty offer a synthesis. Although sovereignty can override the individual will, there is no inconsistency, to the extent that this will is also a part of the general will and the general will is formalized in the Sovereign.

Rousseau is also criticized for apparently maintaining inconsistent positions on the nature of society. At times he seems to favor communitarianism, and at other times, liberalism. Both are arguably reconciled by the source of the general will that aims at the common good. To the extent that an individual's will does not interfere with the common good, there is no impediment to individual liberty. Moreover, what makes the general will possible is the assumption that what is common to each individual is the desire for liberty, self-preservation, and security—all of which the Sovereign is meant to articulate in law.

Civil Society, Government, Law, and the Common Good

Civil society is the opposite of the state of nature. The formation of civil society, Rousseau contends, has its origins in the family. Led by the father, whose love for his children inspires his desire for their best interests, children eventually gain their independence. Mapped onto a civil society, the common good becomes the aim of the general will, and the general will preserves civil freedom through enacting law. Law, in turn, is applicable to the populace, not individual citizens as such.

It is the government's role to implement laws. Rousseau does not specify which type of government a civil society should adopt, though he has a preference for aristocracy. His neutrality on this issue is based on his view that there are myriad variables that make one form of government preferable to another. The most common forms, however, are monarchy (single rule), aristocracy (small group rule), and democracy (large group/societal rule).

It is worth reiterating a distinction Rousseau makes between the Sovereign and the government. The Sovereign is the body politic, the collective legislating voice of the citizenry. The government is not the Sovereign. It does not represent the people but instead ensures that their voice is heard by enforcing law.

Sovereignty, the General Will, and the Will of All

Sovereignty is the general will. The general will is the voice of the citizens. In their hands, all social power is vested. The purpose of the Sovereign is to secure freedom and equality for all. Fulfilling this role is what gives the Sovereign moral legitimacy. According to Rousseau, the general will is an infallible voice of the public good, and it is the Sovereign's obligation to protect it. While the general will organizes the form of government and creates laws, for example, it is neutral with respect to the particularities; its sole aim is the public good. The general will is, effectively, an idea. It is formalized and embodied by sovereignty and the political body that assembles to debate and legislate.

Rousseau distinguishes the general from the collective will, which facilitates understanding the former. The collective will is simply the sum of individual wills, in all their particularities and differences. There is no unifying of such disparate wills, even if they are collected in factions. Hence, the general will, which has one aim on which all can agree, serves, essentially, as a single will.

Individual Freedom

According to Rousseau, individual freedom is one's natural state. This freedom is preserved and protected by the social contract. It is also balanced against an orderly society in which the good of all is protected. So, from the standpoint of the Sovereign, the imperative is that the individual will be one and the same as the general will—or at the very least, the individual will cannot usurp the general will. One's private interests cannot be taken to be the interests of everyone else. The power of the Sovereign guarantees a domain of freedom—indeed, equal freedom for all—under law. Apart from participation in sovereign affairs, individual freedom is not brooked by political authority.

Parliamentary Assembly

Rousseau distinguishes between the Sovereign and the government. Government is separate from the people, because it must maintain both its impartiality and legitimacy. The Sovereign, as a body, is the collective of all citizens. The government is the administrative arm of the state. As the executive branch, it executes and administers the laws generated by the Sovereign.

When the citizens come together in the "People's Assembly," laws are proposed and voted on. Their task is to determine "whether it does or does not conform to the general will, which is theirs." By casting ballots, each expresses their opinion. The "tally of the votes yields the declaration of the general will." Rousseau is adamant that there be a physical assembly; that is, that citizens appear to propose and vote on law. Moreover, these assemblies must be regular.

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