Rousseau and the Social contract

The Social Contract is a book written in 1762 in which ‘Rousseau theorized about the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society, which he had already identified in his Discourse on Inequality’[1]. Whilst Rousseau makes a compelling case for a Social Contract this essay believes that his concept is too outdated and has too many drawbacks for it to be utilised in today’s world. This essay will first talk about how the thinker defined the concept; secondly, talk about how the concept is utilised in their theory. Thirdly, this essay will analyse the strength of the arguments and concept. Fourthly, this essay will analyse the weaknesses of the arguments. Fifthly, this essay will give its own judgement on the concept with a conclusion to conclude the essay.

Rousseau, at the start of the Social Contract says that ‘man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains’[2] and these chains must be a socially constructed convention in which Rousseau is trying to seek ‘the basis for a legitimate, political authority in which people must give up their natural liberty’[3].  Rousseau sets out ‘two conditions for a lawful polity and creates several clauses to ensure that they are carried out’[4] as argued by Smith and Berkow. First, there has to be no ‘relationships of particular dependence in the state and second, by obeying the laws, an individual only obeys himself’[5].  The Social Contract is Rousseau’s elucidation to the predicament of ‘legitimate authority’[6], the Social Contract is the ‘agreement with which a person enters into civil society… which essentially binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation’[7] and ‘this act of association creates a collective body called the “sovereign”’[8]. ‘The sovereign is the supreme authority in the state’[9] and its interest will encourage the common good which is known as the general will. The general will is defined as the ‘will of the sovereign, which promotes the common good’[10] and civil liberty is defined as an ‘obedience to the laws that one helps to design, by exchanging natural liberty for civil liberty, man attains basic humanity and morality’[11]. Natural liberty is defined by ‘a person is ability to do anything that he desires, which is limited by the strength of the individual and the resistance of others’[12].

Rousseau’s ‘central argument in The Social Contract is that government attains its right to exist and to govern by the consent of the governed’[13]. In the developed world this is not an extreme idea however, during the time of Rousseau, it was a radical proposition. The focus of Rousseau’s Social Contract has always been ‘on figuring out how to ensure that the general will of all the people could be expressed as truly as possible in their government’[14] with Rousseau’s aim being on figuring out how society can become as democratic as possible[15].  Furthermore, another aim of Rousseau’s Social Contract was to ‘determine how freedom may be possible in civil society’[16] but first we must decode the meaning of freedom in this context. In a state of nature we have no restrictions on our behaviour, but by submitting to the Social Contract ‘we place restraints on our behaviour, which make it possible to live in a community’[17] and through this we are able to think rationally. Moreover, in the Social Contract morality and rationality are only achieved ‘within civil society … and civil society (according to Rousseau) is only possible if we agree to the social contract’[18]. Thus, our morality and rationality are a greater reason as to why society offers peace and protection in a civil society. Contemporary examples of the justice component[19] of the Social Contract theory can be seen in the ‘Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War or the UN Declaration of Human Rights’[20].

One of the strengths of The Social Contract is its basis for a legitimate government[21]. In order to cease civil wars and bloodshed the idea of the Social Contract for Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke was the ‘make sure a government could be agreed upon by all citizens’[22]. Moreover, another strength of The Social Contract is the framework it provides for a society[23]. For example, the foundations of the American and French revolution[24] were the due to the ‘work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’[25].  In addition, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other theorist have created frameworks ‘that are fairer than current society’[26] and this fairness ‘comes from the fact that all people under a Social Contract framework would work towards a society where they or others would not be harmed from gross inequality’[27]. To an extent this can be seen in western nations, such as the UK where the NHS and the benefits system[28] are used in order to stop or reduce gross inequalities. However, others will argue that gross inequality has increased in western nations due to its capitalist system leading to the richest 1% owning half of the world’s wealth[29] as a recent study showed.

One weakness of Rousseau’s argument is that the rights of minorities will be affected by the general will. Rousseau essentially argues that the view of the majority is the general will and this leads to the tyranny of the majority where the voices of the minority will not be heard, which can set a dangerous totalitarian[30] precedent. An example of this happening can be seen in the Brexit vote where 52% voted leave and 48% voted stayed[31], yet the under Rousseau the general will would have been to leave the EU even though 48% voted against it. However, in other cases the general will does not get applied for example in the US general election where Hillary Clinton won  more than 1.2 million more votes than Trump[32] yet Trump is president and this goes against the general will. In addition, the general will ‘calls upon the people to think in terms of the common good’[33] and this in itself can be criticised because humans are complex and some, if not all, will think in terms of their own self interest. This is backed up by Rousseau himself, who concedes ‘that citizens may subvert the general will in favour of their particular will:’[34]’the general will is always right… but it does not follow that the people’s deliberations always have the same rectitude’[35]. Moreover, one of Rousseau’s statements argued that ‘we shall force them to be free’[36] and the forcefulness of Rousseau’s words negates the very ‘requirement that a contract be entered into voluntarily’[37] as argued by Smith and Jordon. Furthermore, Rousseau argues that under the Social Contract we can be human therefore the ‘contract is more important than the individual that agree to it’[38]and that the ‘sovereign and the general will are more important than its subjects and their particular wills’[39]. Rousseau even argues further that the sovereign ‘can act of its own accord’[40] leading to Russell and Berlin condemning ‘Rousseau as a totalitarian and enemy of liberty’[41]  and this is obviously another weakness especially as we are living in an age where rights and democracy are vital for a functioning state.

Rousseau’s Social Contract propounds many advantages such as providing a framework for fairer society, a basis for a legitimate government and providing the frameworks for revolutions in France. However, based on the essay’s analysis of the concept, Rousseau’s concept is too outdated in the 21st century and there are many major drawbacks of his concept. The biggest drawback is his idea of the ‘general will’ is the will of the majority which can set a dangerous totalitarian precedent as the voices of the minority will not be heard. In addition, Rousseau argues that those who dissent ‘from the one true will of the majority should be forced to be free or exiled or killed’[42] and this obviously weakens the concept of liberty. This can be seen in North Korea where if someone flees and gets caught they will either be sent to prison for all their life or get killed in prison[43]. The whole notion of the general will is flawed because Rousseau believed that humans should shun private interest for the common interest and this impossible due to humans being too complex. In addition, the civic liberty that Rousseau argues for does not value other liberties for example; private liberties can be suppressed if the will of the majority disagrees with it such as homosexuality.

To conclude, the Social Contract was written in 1762 where Rousseau tried to establish a political community. The Social Contract was Rousseau’s solution to the problem of ‘legitimate authority’[44] and the central argument of the Social Contract was that the ‘government attains its right to exist and to govern by the consent of the governed’[45]. The focus of the Social Contract was figuring out how to implement the general will as democratically as possible in their government. One of the many strengths of the Social Contract is that it is a basis for a legitimate government, also in order to stop civil wars and bloodshed the idea of the Social Contract for Rousseau was to make sure a ‘government could be agreed upon by all citizens’[46]. However, one of the many weaknesses of the Social Contract is the rights of minorities. Rousseau argues that the view of the majority is essentially the general will and this fails to take account of the view of the majority which can lead to the tyranny of the majority which is dangerous. However, in general the whole concept of Rousseau’s Social Contract is flawed and has no place in today’s western society making it useless.

Bibliography:

[1] En.wikipedia.org. (2017). The Social Contract. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Contract [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[2] Berkow, J. and Smith, A. (2007). The Social Contract Summary. Gradesaver.com. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-social-contract/study-guide/summary [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau.Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/socialcontract/characters.html [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

[8] Berkow, J. and Smith, A. (2007). The Social Contract Summary. Gradesaver.com. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-social-contract/study-guide/summary [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017]

[9] ibid

[10] Berkow, J. and Smith, A. (2007). The Social Contract Summary. Gradesaver.com. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-social-contract/study-guide/glossary-of-terms [Accessed 9 Dec. 2017]

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

[13] Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau.Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/rousseau/section2.rhtml [Accessed   19 Dec. 2017]

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau.Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/socialcontract/section1.rhtml [Accessed   19 Dec. 2017]

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Neidleman, J. (2012). The Social Contract Theory in a Global Context. E-International Relations. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/2012/10/09/the-social-contract-theory-in-a-global-context/ [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017].

[20] ibid

[21] Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). The Advantages of a Social Contract Theory | Synonym. Classroom.synonym.com. Available at: https://classroom.synonym.com/the-advantages-of-a-social-contract-theory-12083467.html [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

[22] Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau. Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/socialcontract/characters.html [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[23] Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). The Advantages of a Social Contract Theory | Synonym. Classroom.synonym.com. Available at: https://classroom.synonym.com/the-advantages-of-a-social-contract-theory-12083467.html [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

[24] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017). French Revolution | Causes, Facts, & Summary. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/event/French-Revolution [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[25] Ibid

[26] Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). The Advantages of a Social Contract Theory | Synonym. Classroom.synonym.com. Available at: https://classroom.synonym.com/the-advantages-of-a-social-contract-theory-12083467.html [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

[27] ibid

[28] nidirect. (2017). Understanding the benefits system | nidirect. Available at: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/understanding-benefits-system [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[29] Neate, R. (2017). Richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, study finds. the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/14/worlds-richest-wealth-credit-suisse [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[30] Stone, Robert (2013). Rousseau’s General Will: Totalitarian Perception Of a Virtuous Ideal. Available at: http://punzel.org/Ephemeris2013/Stone.pdf [Accessed 9 Jan. 2018]

[31] BBC News. (2017). EU Referendum Results. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[32] BBC News. (2017). US Election 2016 Results. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/us2016/results [Accessed 7 Dec. 2017].

[33] Life Examinations. (2017). Rousseau’s Idea of “General Will”…Conducive to democracy?. Available at: https://lifeexaminations.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/rousseaus-idea-of-general-will-conducive-to-democracy/ [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[34] Life Examinations. (2017). Rousseau’s Idea of “General Will”…Conducive to democracy?. Available at: https://lifeexaminations.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/rousseaus-idea-of-general-will-conducive-to-democracy/ [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[35] Rousseau, The Social Contract in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Vol. 4, p. 147.

[36] Gradesaver.com. (2017). The Social Contract Criticisms of Social Contract Theory. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-social-contract/study-guide/criticisms-of-social-contract-theory# [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[37] ibid

[38]Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau.Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/socialcontract/section1.rhtml [Accessed   19 Dec. 2017]

[39] ibid

[40] ibid

[41] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” The Proper Study of Mankind, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). Bertrand Russell, “Rousseau,” The History of Western Philosophy, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).

[42] Ricky1871’s Blog. (2017). A Critique of Rousseau’s A Social Contract. Available at: https://ricky1871.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/a-critique-of-rousseaus-a-social-contract/ [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[43] En.wikipedia.org. (2017). North Korean defectors. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_defectors [Accessed 18 Dec. 2017].

[44] Berkow, J. and Smith, A. (2007). The Social Contract Summary. Gradesaver.com. Available at: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-social-contract/study-guide/summary [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017]

[45] Wokler, R. (1995). Rousseau.Sparknotes.com. Available at: http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/rousseau/section2.rhtml [Accessed   19 Dec. 2017]

[46] Fitzpatrick, M. (2017). The Advantages of a Social Contract Theory | Synonym. Classroom.synonym.com. Available at: https://classroom.synonym.com/the-advantages-of-a-social-contract-theory-12083467.html [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

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