Rousseau’s The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762) is an analysis of the contractual relationships which may be necessary for legitimate government, and is an explanation of how these relationships may combine principles of justice and utility. Rousseau argues that civil society is based on a contractual arrangement of rights and duties which applies equally to all people, whereby natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty, and whereby natural rights are exchanged for legal rights. The terms of the contract provide assurance that civil laws promote the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals or groups. If the contract is breached by a government which usurps the sovereignty of its people, then the people are no longer obligated to submit to that government and consequently regain their natural liberty. According to Rousseau, justice cannot be defined as 'the right of the strongest,' or the power of some individuals to gain advantage over others. If justice were the same as the power to gain advantage over others, then the most powerful individuals would always be the most just and morally right. Moreover, if justice were the power to force an individual to yield to a particular demand, then there would be no obligation for an individual to comply with a lawful authority unless that authority had the power to force the individual to comply. Thus, the question of whether justice can be achieved in society may not depend on whether individuals can be forced to comply with civil authority but on whether individuals and civil authority can act in harmony with, and fulfill their moral obligations toward, each other. Rousseau also argues that there may be a moral obligation to comply with civil authority only if that authority is legitimate (i.e. based on a fair and just agreement among the members of society). Rousseau argues that, in order to protect themselves and their property, individuals may agree to a contractual relationship whereby they combine themselves into an association for the benefit of all. By means of this contractual relationship, individuals agree to accept various duties or obligations in exchange for the benefits provided by social cooperation. Thus, a republic may be established on the basis of a mutual commitment between society and each individual, whereby society has an obligation to each individual and each individual has an obligation to society. According to Rousseau, each individual may have a particular will which is different from the general will of the people, but the particular will of each individual may be forced to submit to the general will because of the obligations which have been defined for all individuals by the terms of the social contract. The general will is not the same as the will of all individuals, in that it is not the sum of all individual private interests.1 Unlike the combined will of all individuals, the general will is concerned with the public interest rather than with private interests. Rousseau explains that the sovereignty of a republic is manifested by the general will, and that the sovereign is the same as the body politic. Sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible, in that a republic which surrenders or divides its sovereignty is no longer a republic and can no longer represent the public interest of all of its citizens. While Rousseau argues that the general will always desires the common good, he also admits that the general will may not always choose correctly between what is advantageous or disadvantageous for promoting social harmony and cooperation, because it may be influenced by particular groups of individuals who are concerned with promoting their own private interests. Thus, the general will may need to be guided by the judgment of an individual who is concerned only with the public interest and who can explain to the body politic how to promote justice and...
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