Rousseau vs Self Interest and Progress

Topics: Democracy, Political philosophy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Pages: 5 (1529 words) Published: October 8, 1999
Rousseau vs. self-interest and progress

In The Social Contract, Rousseau asserts the idea of the people's General Will being the ideal governing force of the state. This idea is essentially the total alienation of each individual to the entire community, thus constructing the Sovereign. The collective body rules in the common interest, acting without individual bias or selfish concerns, to decide the laws that the Sovereign itself is to follow. However rightly intended, this concept is flawed because it requires people to put the community's needs above their own. Rousseau distorts basic human nature by committing the fallacy of assuming people value the common good over their own personal interest. Ideally, civic politics would be the most important thing to every citizen, but in reality it is almost impossible to make a unanimous decision without the influence of self-interest. The General Will has good intentions, but its spirit would better be carried out through a more feasible concept of democracy. Rousseau forms the Social Contract as a way to preserve freedom through self-government by eliminating individual self-interest, basing his theory on the optimistic assertion that society will voluntarily follow the General Will. However, self-interest is the catalyst of progress, and for a state to advance and prosper there must be a government, such as the modern form of democracy, that allows for more opposition and individuality.

The fundamental problem facing mankind, according to Rousseau, is that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."(Social Contract, 181) His "freedom" can only be attained when each man is independent and is not ruled by the private interests of any individual or group. Until this is accomplished, each person is still a slave to others and his freedom is forfeited. Man united form a civil society, but Rousseau is dissatisfied with the one they form. He feels the people are still oppressed and are only equal in that they have all degenerated into slaves to the despot. He recognizes the nature of humans and the governments that already exist, and "mean[s] to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be."(Social Contract, 181) His answer to the inquiry is The Social Contract, a complex system of government that will supposedly ensure freedom to all citizens.

In Rousseau's Social Contract, every citizen of a state consolidates to become the Sovereign; the collective executive of the government. However, he still retains his individuality, except when acting as the Sovereign he puts aside his own self-interest and rules according to the General Will. "Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody." (Social Contract, 192) This was a controversial but revolutionary idea, especially in the historical context in which he wrote. The monarchy ruled almost despotically in France and Hobbes' powerful Leviathan government was a popular theory. The radical idea that the individuals in a society could combine to rule themselves without a monarch contrasts sharply with all other ideas of governmental structure at that time. "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."(Social Contract, 192) Individual men make up the Sovereign, and the Sovereign in turn rules these same individuals. Rousseau believes this method works because the General Will of the people is known inherently by the Sovereign, because the people compose the Sovereign. Also, the General Will will always benefit society as a whole because "the Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither had nor can have any interest contrary to theirs."(Social Contract, 194)

Rousseau truly wanted man to be free, and his...
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