Jean-Jaques Rousseau: The Social Contact

Opening question and statement:

“I want to inquire whether in the civil order there can be some legitimate and sure rule of administration, taking men as they are, and the laws as they can be: In this inquiry I shall try always to combine what right permits with what interest prescribes, so that justice and utility may not be disjoined.” (Rouseau 55)

Most famous quote:

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (55)

This is  perfect example of how we don’t want you to write, but it is great writing nonetheless.

Does humankind belong to the rulers (one-hundred men) or do the rulers belong to humankind? (56)

Are some naturally superior and born to lead/rule and some meant to follow? (57)

“Aristotle was right, but he mistook the effect for the cause. Any man born in slavery is born for slavery, nothing could be more certain. Slaves lose everuthing in their chains, even the desire to be rid of them, they love their servitude, as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness. Hence if there are slaves by nature, it is because there were slaves contrary to nature. Force made the first slaves, their cowardice perpetuated them.” (57)

The right of the stronger

“The stronger is never stong enough to be forever master, unless he transforms his force into right, and obedience into duty.” (57)

Do monarchs have a right (divine right) to rule?

“all power comes from God, I admit it; but so does all illness. Does this mean it is forbidden to call the doctor?” (58)

“Let us agree, then, that force does not make right, and that one is only obliged to obey legitimate powers.” (58)

The key question is what makes a power/ruler legitimate, and Rousseau has a slightly more different concept of this than hobbes.

What would make someone alienate themselves i.e. give their freedom to a ruler?

“To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s quality as man.” (59)

It can be merely tranquility: “Life is also tranquil in dungeons; is that enough to feel well in them?”

Rousseau’s discussion of slavery (58-61)

His main point is that there can never be a right/justified convention of slavery, slavery is the mere exercise force

A convention must be mutually beneficial and recognizes both parties rights, slavery does not do this:

“ These words slavery and right; they are contradictory; they are mutually exclusive. Either between one man and another, or between a man and a people, the following speech will always be equally absurd. I make a convention with you which is entirely at your expense and entirely to my profit, which I shall observe as long as I please, and which you shall observe as long as I please” (61)


A multitude vs A society (61)

Before a people can give themselves to a king they must be a unified group

  • Even a majority vote is a convention
  • “Before examing the act by which a people  elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which a people is a people. For this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.” (62)

“each man’s force and freedom are his primary instruments of self-preservation, how can he commit them without harming himself,, and without neglecting the care he owes himself? This difficulty can be stated in the following terms. “TO find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force, and by means of which each, unity with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem to which the social contract provides the solution.” (62-3)

The terms of the contract are the same everywhere

  • “The clauses of this contract are so completely determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would render them null and void; so that although they may never have been formally stated, they are everywhere tacitly  admitted and recognized; until, the social compact having been violated, everyone is thereupon restored to his original freedom for which he remounced it.” (63)

Introduction of the concept of the general will

  • “Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” (63)

Individual will vs general will

  • Why are we obligated to act according to the general will when our individual will contradicts the general wil
  • “Indeed each individual may, as a man, have a particular will contrary to or different  from the general will he has as a Citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest; his absolute and naturally independent existence may lead him to look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will harm others less than its payment burdens him and, by considering the moral person that constitutes the state  as being of reason because it is not a man, he would enjoy the rights of a citizen without being willing to fulfill the duties of a subject; an injustice, the progress of which would cause the ruin of the body politic” (65)
  • “Hence for the social compact not to be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the following engagement which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each Citizen to the Fatherland, guarantees him against all personal dependence; the condition which is the device and makes for the operation of the political machine, and alone renders legitimate civil engagements which would otherwise be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most enormous abuses.” (65-6)

The transition from the state of nature to the civil state

“This transition from the state of nature to the civil state produces a most remarkable change in man by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and endowing his actions with the morality they previously lacked. Only then, when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulsion and right succeeds appetite, does man, who until then had looked only to himself, see himself forced to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations.”

“Let us reduce this entire balance to terms easy to compare. What man loses by the social contract is his natural freedom and unlimited right to everything that tempts him and he can reach; what he gains is civil freedom and property in everything he possesses.” (66)

Real Freedom

“Obedience to the law one has prescribed to himself is freedom.” (66)

Equality (Summary and Conclusion of Book I)

“I shall close this chapter of this book with a comment that should serve as the basis of the entire social system; it is that the fundamental pact, rather than destroying natural equality, on the contrary substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men, and that while they may be unequal in force or genius, they all become equal by convention and by right*” (68-9)

Good and bad Government

“*Under bad governments the equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to maintain the poor in misery and the rich in usurpation. In fact the laws are always useful to hose who possess something and harmful to those who have nothing: Whence it follows that the social state is advantageous for men only insofar as all have something and none has too much of anything.” (69 Footnote)

The general Will

  • “The general will alone can direct the forces of the State according to the end of its institution, which is the common good” (69)
  • The king can never legitimately against the general will and direct the forces of state according to his will or the will of any particular individuals

Individual vs General Will

They will never agree perfectly because “the particular will tends, by its nature, to partiality, and the general will to equality” (69)

Just for fun

“Truth does not lead to fortune, and the people confers no ambassadorships, professorships or pensions” (71)

General Will vs The Will of All

“From the preceding it follows that the general will is always upright and always tends to the public utility: but it does not follow from it that the people’s deliberations are always equally upright. One always want one’s good, but one does not always see it: one can never corrupt the people, but one can often cause it to be mistaken, and only when it is, doe it appear to want what is bad.”

“There is often considerable difference between the will of all and the general will: the latter looks only to the common interest, the former looks to the private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills; but if, from these same wills, one takes away the pluses and the minuses which cancel each other out, what is left as the sum of the differences is the general will.” (71)

Can we make sense of this idea?

Factions and the General will

  • “Finally, when one of these associations is so large that it prevails over all the rest, the result you have is no longer a sum of small differences, but one single difference; then there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that prevails is nothing but a private opinion.”
  • “It is important, then, that in order to have the general will expressed well, there be no partial society in the State, and every citizen state only his own opinion” (71)

The Common good vs. Individual Rights

“. . . to ask how far the respective rights of the Sovereign  and Citizens extend is to ask how far the Citizens can commit themselves to one another, each to all, and all to each.

From this it is apparent that the Sovereign power, absolute, sacred, and inviolable though it is, doe not and cannot exceed the limits of the general conventions, and that every may fully dispose of such of his goods and freedom as are left him by these conventions: so that it is never right for the Sovereign to burden one subject more than another, because it then turns into a particular affair, and its power is no longer competent”

“These distinctions once admitted, it is so [evidently] false that the social contract involves any renunciation on the part of individuals, that [rather] as a result of the contract their situation really proves to be preferable to what it had been before, and that instead of an alienation they have only made an advantageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious way of being in favor of a more secure and better one, of natural independence in favor of freedom, of the power to harm others in favor of their own security, and of their force which others could overwhelm in favor of right made invincible by the social union.” (74-75)

My summary: you are not sacrificing any rights in the social situation, it is really only through a social contract that you have any enforceable rights. In theory, pre-contract, you have a right to everything, but practically this amount to very little because no one can enforce their right to everything against everyone else’s right to everything.

However there is still the question of why it is that one cannot be made to give up one’s rights for the common good.

Although his answer rests on the claim that “there is no general will about a particular object. . . when I say that the object of the laws is always general, I mean that the law considers the subjects in a body and their actions in the abstract, never any man as an individual or particular action” (77)

So, it seems like Rousseau thinks the general will only determines rules/rights/etc that when followed by everyone lead to the common good for all. He seems to think of it in a similar way to a rule utilitarian.




Comparing Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant

Similarities with Hobbes

  • emphasis on state of nature and transition to social state from state of nature
  • By entering the social contract we give up our right to everything to gain a more limited but more secure set of rights

Differences with Hobbes

  • Rousseau doesn’t explicitly claim to derive all moral obligations from self-interest
  • At times Rousseau sounds more like Kant in talking about the role of reason in determining the content of our moral duties, and reason seems to encompass something more than prudence (self-interest)

Similarities with Kant

  • Individual Will is constrained by Duty/reason
    • “The first (the people) must be obligated to conform their wills to reason” (79)
    • “No doubt there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone.” (77)
    • Real freedom is obedience to a law one has prescribed to oneself
      • “So long as subjects are subjected only to conventions such as these, they obey no one, but only their own will (74)
      • “one need no longer ask . . . how one is both free and subject to laws, since they are merely records of our wills.” (78)
      • “the people subject to laws ought to be their own author” (78)
      • Morality as a system of free individuals with equal rights
        • “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” (55)
        • “This common freedom is a consequence of man’s nature. (56)
        • “To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s quality as man . . .” (59)

Differences with Kant

  • Rousseau very clearly uses the social contract as the metaethical foundation of his system, whereas Kant skips over the social contract and uses reason as the metaethical foundation of moral duties

In Kant we find the complete transition from self-interest based ethics (contractarianism) traditional morality based ethics (contractualism).

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