Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory And The Perils Between Law and Freedom
In my last part on social contract theory, I will discuss aspects of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) musings on modern man’s quest to balance the want of freedom with the need of community.
Rousseau’s social contract design begins with the theme of alienation. He was aware that man’s survival was based on his need for society’s forums of interdependence, one where man has the moral qualities to view fellow man as partner as opposed to that of competitor in order to build an assembly of shared interests. The main social function of such a society is grounded in man’s ability to impart his own best interests as the defining feature in the governance of fair and equitable laws.
He noted society’s ability to corrupt man into an unrelenting creature of self-preservation, one that corrodes the progression of human communication due to the primacy of greed and selfishness. Rousseau wanted to look into what makes people lose communication with one another. Did we have communication in the primordial state of nature? Or was communication assessed to be a moral imperative for survival with fellow man? Rousseau says that man in his (primordial) natural state did not speak nor was able to make moral judgments. Locke contends that man was able to make decisions for himself and was able to know what he wanted. But in a primal state how was man able to decide for himself? Does man in the state of nature have the innate capability to know what is good for him or is that a quality learned by experience in an existing environment?
Rousseau claims that both Locke and Hobbes did not take their study of the state of nature far back enough. In Hobbes’ design man was already in a warlike condition. One should question how this occurs? Are we naturally predisposed with the genetic framework to develop personality traits that help us survive in a bellicose environment?
In Locke’s design man was already a social creature whom understood each individual was endowed with the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Where did this enlightenment come from? Man saw that his property is solely his and no one else’s. How did he know that he had this right? Seeking to defend this principle one can conclude that he does not need fellow man to survive because the competing interests of fellow man endanger him. If the state of nature exists where there is no political authority to govern disputes, it makes one wonder if warlike man is freer in the state of nature or does he become more isolated by his need to selfishly preserve his survival.
Rousseau pushed those theories back and concluded that there was no communication between man and his fellow man. In this ‘beginning of state’ there is no society, only empathy without reason. In both Hobbes’ and Locke’s design, man in the state of nature did not have empathy, but only qualities that they named as innate instead of learned. Rousseau contends that man cannot be socialized without events that write on him. He calls this the primordial state.
In Rousseau’s social contract theory, he builds upon the essence of the primordial man. Within his design, he says that one can obtain a political entity by observing the primordial society and how man acts, thus giving way to how man is in his natural state and creating the basis for a political order. The agreement into a social contract is based upon natural empathy and not upon the need to deter warlike behavior as in Hobbes.
Locke’s design can be presumed dangerous because agreement is not based upon sympathy but upon the necessity to protect one’s own innate treasures of life, liberty, and property. One may assume that the acquisition of such natural rights is actually a culling of selfish needs and/or desires. But in Rousseau’s design, man does not see the necessity for selfish gains because he does not judge. If man realizes he already has his three necessities why would he care about the liberty of his fellow man? If the liberty of the other man is a threat, the only protection is to have membership with him in a community. This is the behavior of a socialized man. Rousseau is trying to get us to question where that judgment comes from. He says that a man in the primordial state is not self-centered, greedy, ambitious, or cruel. But that man learns to be these ways by how nature writes upon his soul.
Within Rousseau’s social contract design he says that it is vital that the arrangement being made will not destroy the positive qualities of man. He saw that Hobbes and Locke had already framed the nature of man as greedy and ambitious. Rousseau felt it was important to challenge the notion of the unruly man in the state of nature and set him outside the framework of the social contract. This is to impart the necessary conditions for man to assume the moral obligation of consenting into a social contract.
Rousseau argues that a virtuous society is held together by the nature of the collective will corresponding to the needs and wants of the individual, acting as a backbone for the institutional makeup of state-based systems and allowing for the impartiality of justice as delegated by individuals whom hold collective interests. Rousseau argued that primordial man would be synthesized with fellow man into civil society in order to create a community where man will not be in a warlike mindset when running into fellow man. The collective will is to become the agent of the individual will in order to facilitate the conditions for societal equality. If the individual will is in tune with the general will, conflict arising from self-interest is minimized due to the interests of the collective coalescing to serve as the body of the law, thus providing protection against the degradation of freedoms by individual agents.
An important part of his theory asserts that when man is in the community and acting within the general will, he did not come as alienated. Man came as one who must belong in the community because of his primordial nature and because man’s empathy allows him to have a sense that he is a part of the species. The will of the community can then become the spirit of the law in order to protect individuals against the allure of social discord. A consensus of the population’s will is to provide structure to authority. The collective is as much the author of the law as it is the body of the law.
In reviewing Hobbes and Locke’s design for social contract theory, man does not consider himself a part of the species but an individual who must preserve his assets and be on guard. A new notion set by Rousseau in his social contract theory is that when a man is a part of the whole community, he is a part of something bigger than himself and is in issuance of legitimacy by his fellow man. In promoting the general will, one is prescribing to the boundaries of the social contract. By trusting his freedoms are well served in a community of interests, law is put into creation and is given legitimacy to grant protection for one’s life, liberty and property. This in turn leads to the formulation of state-based institutions that are wholly created to protect the interests of one’s natural rights, thus truly embedding the essence of democratic rights.
The community has a life because each individual gives it life. Since the community and individual are one entity, they have similar goals. Alas, Rousseau does warn us of potential dangers to the formulation of healthy political institutions. If interests within the community become fractured, a subset of interests (say based on the interests of the rich) may override the general will and use the state to apply an upper hand for (unequal) beneficial gain in an artificially stratified society. How man is socialized is essential in the development of equitable interests and is determinate of vice or virtue within the framework of what is deemed as ‘the law.’ This is important because political arrangements will build upon a community’s concept of justice and the application of submission to its declarative principles. If the socialized man is full of greed and ambition, the political entity will be filled with selfish desire. To avoid this, we must understand that the community does not posses the sovereign; it is the individual as imbued with natural rights, free from the desire of want and the scorn of need.
If following Rousseau’s model for the development of a social contract, we can begin to unravel the complexity of democracy and how societies rise or fall under the weight of their own institutions. If the state is used to propagate the interests of one group of people over another, the general will of the collective is broken down into competing orders, one where law is power and power is the guide of collective interest. This inevitably corrupts the social contract and perverts society into a tyrannical and/or authoritarian state, fortified by state institutions and deriving its power by the behest of the rule of law: that of we the people. Within the scope of democracy, it is important to understand the condition under which one’s freedom is being served. Are our rights being granted to us as a result of collective interest? Or is democratic representation (as understood as the general will) being used as a mask to facilitate interests for the benefit of state-based authority? If our individual rights have become secondary to the authority of the state, it may become easier to answer these questions.