Saturday, 12 July 2014

Rousseau's “Social Contract”

From the famous opening line: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” we deduce three things: Rousseau loves paradoxes, he loves freedom, and he is nostalgic for the freedom man enjoyed before he became a member of society.

The second line: “Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.” Another paradox! Rousseau is reminiscent of the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu and perhaps he was even inspired by the philosophy of the Tao. The emperor who thinks he has power over everything is in fact the slave of everything, like a rat on a treadmill running desperately just to keep still. But why a greater slave? Perhaps because the oppressed know they are enslaved. Society’s bonds are part of their everyday experience. The oppressor by contrast may not realize it.

The third line: “How has this change come about? I do not know.” Rousseau first defines what his purpose is not before going on to say what it is. It is not genealogy. That task will be taken up a century later by Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals”.

The fourth line: “What can render it legitimate? I believe that I can settle this question.” Thus ends the first paragraph of Rousseau’s “Social Contract”. His purpose is what makes society legitimate despite the loss of freedom it entails. As he writes in the final paragraph of the whole work, it is to “lay down the principles of political right and attempt to establish the State on its foundations” and he concludes by saying that though he might have originally contemplated discussing external relations between one people and another: “law of nations, commerce, right of war and conquests, public rights, alliances, negotiations, treaties etc.”, these were beyond his limited scope. This is interesting in light of Nietzsche’s answer to how the social relation came about as being a consequence of external imposition in the first place. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s subject as we said is not speculative history nor external relations, but the current legitimacy of forms of authority internal to a society.

The structure of Rousseau’s work, like his first paragraph, is four-fold, and while seemingly disorganized conceals a hidden structure noted by Hilail Gildin. Following the introductory chapter to book one, the first four chapters concern false views of political authority, whilst the remaining four chapters establish its true foundations. The first six chapters of book two treat the sovereign as the source of law, the remaining six the legislator as its creator. The first nine chapters of book three discuss the institution of government, and the remaining nine how government might be prevented from usurping sovereign authority. The first four chapters of book four concern assemblies of the people, and the next four concern other public institutions besides the popular assemblies.

We focus primarily on the first book. What makes a moral obligation legitimate? Moral obligations are not secured out of prudence as might be the case in a state of nature under threat of force. By definition, legitimacy is not based on force. Nor is it custom based on psychological contentment because “man born in slavery” might not know better, “loving servitude as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness”. Turned into pigs by Circe, they lost the desire to be changed back. Nor is it ordained by God, because of the unknowability of divine will, and loss of faith in any authority who might claim to know it better. Nor is it grounded in nature because its truth or falsehood, though not dependent merely on contentment, does rely on consent. What we are left with is legitimacy as a secular concept based on something more than psychological contentment or natural law, as a covenant. Since it cannot be to God, it must be between men.

Any covenant alienates the individual will either partially or wholly, and either to a part or to the whole of society. This gives four possible kinds of covenant. He rejects any kind of total alienation of the will to some person or group of people because “to deprive your will of all freedom is to deprive your actions of all morality”. Without personal accountability, any talk of legitimacy is vacuous. A master-slave relation can never be legitimate even if voluntary. Slavery, far from terminating a state of nature, intensifies it: the covenant is only as valid as the force that enforces it. Hobbes’ convention to Leviathan fails on this count. Even partial alienation to a person or government is a paradox because it alienates to a legitimate authority that part of one’s will for which one is no longer morally accountable. So any alienation must be to a whole. The original aggregate of individuals can only consent to be governed if they become a whole, a people, a unity.

Rousseau also rejects the possibility of partial alienation to the whole. This appears a rejection of inalienable rights beyond the purview of society. One reason he gives is because of the impossibility of managing conflicts when these rights conflict and so the inevitable breakdown of such a society into either anarchy or tyranny. The covenant must completely alienate the rights of each member to the community as a whole. Since the covenant is by consent, any member may always withdraw from it in exchange for the restoration of their natural rights, but doing so means withdrawing from the possibility of making any moral claim, for example if they think society’s punishment is unfair.

Thus Rousseau conceives of the social contract: a contract of association between all members of a society which simultaneously generates both a moral community and sovereignty. Each individual has a dual role both as active participant in the sovereign process and perfectly obedient to its law. This law is legislated by the sovereign body of all people according to the general will and executed by the government they appoint. But what is the general will? The risk is that it becomes merely the will of a majority. Rousseau attempts to preclude this, as well as the usurpation of sovereign legislative power of the people by its government. Following John Noone, we may enunciate some of the terms of Rousseau’s social contract (scattered throughout his work):

1) All citizens have a voice in the popular assembly, none may lawfully be excluded. (§1.6; §2.2; §4.1)
2) Sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible. (§2,1; §2.2) The assembly cannot bind itself, much less future generations. This precludes legislation in perpetuity. (§1.7)
3) Except for the original contract which is unanimous, the majority will is binding, the necessary size of majority subject to legislation. (§4.2)
4) The assembly of all citizens is a permanent assembly that meets regularly at arranged times, elects magistrates and appoints or dismisses government according to the general will. (§3.13; §3.18)
5) The life and property of all members of society are subject to the sovereign body and its laws. (§1.9; §2.5)
6) Legislation is limited to areas of common concern. Any proposed legislation must first be voted on to determine if it is a common concern, and secondly if it is a common good. (§2.4)
7) Only those laws are binding that are universal and impersonal, not singling out a person or group for special treatment, favourable or unfavourable. (§2.6)
8) Citizens are to vote not according to personal desires, but on the basis of their estimation of the common good. (§4.2)
9) Sovereignty may be suspended in an emergency, but for a very limited time period.
10) A civil creed that includes tolerance of all faiths not subversive to peace. (§4.8)
11) Goals according to a pre-existing general will that all the members of society commit to.


In particular, note that the social contract is not a contract between the people and their government. This is a popular misunderstanding. Rousseau was especially critical of contract theories of government because they alienate the individual will to but a part of society (government) which he had already rejected (except for very limited time periods in case of emergency). Rousseau conceives of legislative authority remaining always with the people, so that government could be dismissed at any time if that were the general will.

In contrast to Locke who believed in the inalienability of property rights, and that any contract needed moral agents to begin with, Rousseau’s social contract is what makes its members moral citizens in the first place “substituting justice for instinct as the guide to conduct”. Duty becomes meaningful for the first time, so also legitimacy. On the face of it, this seems like the grossest nonsense, because it precludes morality and duty as conceived by reason, conscience or natural law. We will see however that the morality of the covenant arising from Rousseau’s social contract aims for something different, something encompassing and empowering individual and natural morality. In Buddhist terms, the social contract is the foundation for the moral being (Buddha), the moral law (Dhamma) and the moral community (Sangha), but the latter is deemed essential for the first two to find expression. There is something quite insightful in seeing these three as inter-dependent, yet by making moral law dependent on the community, what if the community is wrong? Are there not moral ideas or feelings that transcend time and space? Rousseau, following Locke, rejects innate ideas but not innate feelings. He writes in “Emile” that God has given him “conscience that I may love the right, reason that I may perceive it, and freedom that I may choose it”. Reason is not a sufficient source of moral obligation, so man must be endowed with the affective capacity of conscience to feel obliged, but he must also be motivated. This is the role the social contract plays. It is the motivation of reciprocal obligation which Rousseau seems to believe is necessary for the moral sentiment to bear fruit, that gives man “freedom” to do good.

John Noone’s explanation of what Rousseau means by freedom goes some way towards deciphering both the idea of a contract giving freedom, and also the kind of morality (that of the covenant) that occupies Rousseau. There are three kinds of freedom for Rousseau: natural freedom, political freedom and freedom to act from one’s own conscience. The social contract clearly restrains natural freedom, and leaves conscientious freedom alone, that is freedom to do good from individual conscience, independent of any obligation. However, it enforces political freedom. The idea of obliging freedom seems paradoxical. But political freedom is based on equality. Law must regulate everyone equally, universally and impersonally, and not lead to inequality. Thus Rousseau’s idea of obliging political freedom should be understood as obliging equality, so people are free to act according to their reason and conscience without being disadvantaged for doing so. Put this way, morality is strictly political morality, a duty to fellow citizens that reciprocates a corresponding duty of others to oneself. To recall Rousseau’s noble aim:

To find a form of association which defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by which each uniting with all yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before. (§1.6)

Freedom is the cornerstone of Rousseau’s philosophy, but freedom in harmony with the general will. If not, then it would harm others’ freedom. Does the social contract succeed in its noble objective? In theory, Rousseau thinks so, but in practice he requires a wise legislator, like the prophets of old under the guise of divine authority and even then the course of history never did run smooth. Rousseau does recognize this — he is a pragmatic realist.

Though his philosophy is not historically or empirically sound and though dogged with speculation, there is behind the seeming disorder a certain coherence. Whether the social contract that emerges is workable we leave to human imagination, but is it even theoretically viable? One criticism that comes to mind is that it seems to subordinate morality for its own sake to morality for the sake of the community. Another is that while procedurally sound, the commitment to substantial content in the form of the civic creed and social goals risks betraying something of the freedom for society to define these for themselves. A third is that morality emerging from community runs the risk of being restrictive to that community so community identity could come to be defined negatively in terms of other communities. In truth, community is a nested concept of family, tribe, city, country, even religion, but it is one kind of community which Rousseau believes must take precedence to avoid conflicting loyalties. One possible remedy to all these criticisms is a combination of Kantian autonomy of the individual will that chooses its communitarian commitments and a theological idea of regarding the covenant to any one of these communities not as end in itself, but as a means of training the will to subservience to divine will under the universal community of all beings.

While Aristotle and the medieval scholastics had extolled the virtue of a pre-existing natural law (Dhamma), Rousseau is the philosopher of the community (Sangha) and Kant would later favour the autonomy of the sovereign being (Buddha). Each tries to improve on their predecessor, but in reality Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are all necessary and all inter-dependent. In the perfection of one, the other two will also come into fruition. For example, the participants of Rousseau’s social contract will need to be autonomous judges of morality in order to elect officials and make decisions while the wise legislator will need to bear consideration on what are the underlying natural virtues of their particular society in order to create suitable laws. However, in the face of widespread social inequality, Rousseau’s emphasis on communal solidarity as his starting point seems well-placed. For all those passionate about freedom and equality, his
Social Contract will continue to be a source of inspiration.

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