Rousseau: Social Contract Theory

Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Philosopher of Geneva, was popularly known as the great philosopher of Geneva. In his book, Social Contract, he began with the important quotation that Man is born free but Everywhere he is in chains. In his work, Rousseau explains the nature of political authority and legitimacy. Rousseau, in his state of nature, explains that people were happy, they had freedom. People were happy because they were acting according to their wishes in a state of nature, and people were getting a lot of resources due to less population. Due to increase in Population in the state of nature, leads to a shortage of resources, Which causes a state of nature into a state of war. To prevent this, people entered into a Contract, which is known as a Social Contract.

Meaning of Social contract and key Thinkers-

Social contract theory has evolved over the time of the period by key Thinkers. Social contract theory originated in ancient Greece but the theory itself gained prominence during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): According to Hobbes, it is a contract of all with all, its means it is applicable to all. To escape this violence, individuals rationally agreed to give up a significant amount of their freedoms to a sovereign ruler. This sovereign had absolute power, and citizens were obligated to obey. This wasn’t about protecting natural rights, but about achieving security and basic survival.

John Locke (1632-1704):
People came together through a rational agreement to form a government. This government’s purpose was to protect their natural rights. The key point here is consent. People consented to give up some freedoms (like absolute power over enforcing their own rights) in exchange for the government’s protection of their core rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778): To create a just society, people entered into a social contract to form a “general will.” This “general will” wasn’t simply the sum of individual desires, but rather the common good for all citizens. The government derived its legitimacy from upholding this general will.

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory

Before Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke, these two Philosophers had provided their theory on Social Contract. These Two Philosophers’s Social Contract Theories began with the State of nature and Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory also started with the State of nature.

Jean Jacques Rousseau on State of Nature

According to Rousseau, the State of nature was the state of bliss. People had freedom and happiness. People had the right to act according to their wishes. Rousseau believed that man was a noble savage in the state of nature. It was because the man had two qualities- freedom and pity of compassion. He added another point that man was not civilized and was not living a settled life in the state of nature. He also pointed out that people were equal in the state of nature and there was only natural inequality but no conventional inequality.

Rousseau supported the state of nature because there was less population and less abundance. There was full of resources. No need for labours. People had natural liberty and they had freedom to draw anything from nature according to their needs.

But The state of nature turned into a state of war. It was because increase in population, which led to the depletion of resources and brought demand for resources. Due to this, conflict started happening in the state of nature. people were unable to enjoy their natural rights and liberty. For that reason, people were unable to act according to their wishes. To overcome this problem, people became rational. They started learning production by using labours to fulfill their requirements. and this concept brought private property to the state of nature. The concept of private property brought inequality in the state of nature. It also brought dependency and a desire to have more property than others. Now people had no natural feeling of compassion. they had feelings of envy and became competitors of each other. So state of nature had turned into a State of war. To solve this conflict and to enjoy natural freedom, people entered into a Social Contract.

Rousseau: Social Contract Theory

Before entering into the Social Contract, people were not happy, unable to enjoy their natural freedom and there was inequality in the state of nature. They had two choices, one is to stay in the state of nature, which was not possible. The second is to change the system and this was possible for them. So they entered into a Social Contract.

Change in the System
To be happy and to enjoy freedom, people made some changes in the system.

(1) Rule by Laws- To be free from conflict, people decide to follow the laws, and all peoples will be ruled by the laws and laws will be made by themselves.

(2) Participation in law-making- To be free in a real sense, they decided that they would participate in the law-making process with their real will.

Now people will enter into a Social contract and they will act according to their real will.

Rousseau on Will and General Will

Rousseau was a Geneva philosopher and made a significant contribution to Will and General Will. He is also considered the first thinker to give ideas on Will and General will in the 18th Century. He mentioned it, in his work The Social Contract, and he distinguished it from individual wills and desires.

Rousseau has given importance to the individual will and general will, because of the well-being of humans. He has distinguished between two aspects of an individual’s will:

Actual Will (volonté particulière):

  • motivated by immediate self-interest
  • Represents Lower self
  • Motivates one to act according to desires
  • Actual will is transient, unstable & inconsistent.
  • differ from individual to individual

Real Will (volonté générale):

  • Motivated by ultimate collective interest.
  • Represents higher self.
  • Motivates one to act in accordance with reason.
  • Real will is stable, constant, and consistent.
  • Common to all members of the community.

Man can be free if he overcomes his actual will and follows the direction of his real will. But individual/man is imperfect. At times he may not be able to distinguish between his real will and actual will. This problem is solved by transition from Real will to General will.

General will of Rousseau

The sun of real will of all will become General will, a point of all members Convergence of real will of the community.

Now, through Social Contract, General will of the Community will be decided. Now people will act according to laws, made on the basis of general will which is the summation of everyone’s real will. It means people will follow laws made by themselves. So, people will be able to enjoy freedom and happiness. Following General will is like following oneself. So, people are as free and happy as they are in the state of nature.

Sovereign Power and Government

Rousseau in his book, the Social Contract, argued that sovereign power, or the authority of the state, must ultimately reside with the general will of the people. he also makes a clear distinction between sovereign power and the government. He states that Sovereign power and government should be kept separate. According to Rousseau, individuals are free and equal in the state of nature. However, this state of nature is not suitable for individuals because of the conflicts and inequalities. Therefore, individuals should enter into a social contract and surrender their some of freedom to the community in exchange for protection and the benefits of an organized society.

In his work, the Social Contract, Rousseau makes General Will, the Sovereign. Laws will be made by the people on the basis of General will. Rousseau makes clear that, the sovereign power should represent the general will of the people, which is the collective expression of what is best for the community as a whole. He has given importance to direct democracy and the participation of individuals in-laws the making process to ensure that the sovereign power truly reflects the common good.

Rousseau was against the forms of monarchy and aristocracy. Because he saw that this form of government was oppressive and disconnected from the will of the people. He, on the contrary, argued for a more democratic and involving form of government where the ruling power is exercised by the whole community instead of a small elite group.

The Role of Government and Size of State

Rousseau’s view on the role of government and the size of the state was influenced by his ideas about the social contract and the general will. According to him, The primary duty of the Government was to protect and promote the common good, as determined by the general will of the people.

Rousseau favoured a small and decentralized state, that is directly accountable to its citizens. He considered direct democracy rather than monarchy and autocracy. According to him, in the small size of the state, citizens participate actively in the decision-making process and have a direct say in the policies that affect them. In his ideal society, people ruling themselves without authority or a distant and unjust government.

Rousseau was against the large state, because, in the large state, there will be centralised state and monarchy. Here he saw the inequality, corruption, and domination of the few over the many. He believed that smaller, more localized forms of government were better able to reflect the interests and values of the community, and to maintain the spirit of liberty and equality among its citizens.

Reception of The Social Contract

The Social Contract was illegal in France during the time of its publication which made Rousseau have to leave the country to avoid the imprisonment. However, what truly led to the uproar was not Rousseau’s views on freedom and sovereignty, but his chapter on civic religion.

However, The Social Contract first resulted in the reactionary movements. Later, it became the source of the political reforms and revolutions, especially in France. The work was against the idea that kings or queens were appointed by God to rule and legislate, and believed that only the general will of the people had the right to legislate.

Criticism of Rousseau on Social Contract Theory

There are some important criticisms of Rousseau’s Social Contract theory-

  • The State of Nature: Rousseau, in his State of Nature, mentions that people are free, enjoying freedom and absolute rights. But critics argue that this is unrealistic. There is a lack of evidence for such a type of state of nature, and some argue that our natural state may be more Hobbesian, characterized by competition.
  • The Social Contract Itself: Some people consider the notion that a single, defining agreement forms society to be fictitious. Societies do not change overnight; they change gradually over time. And how could everyone, especially the latecomers, have given their genuine consent?
  • The General Will: Critics argue that the general will of the individual is not easy to determine, and they state that determining the general will of each and everyone will be difficult. The “general will”—the collective will of the people—as defined by Rousseau is vague. It may lead to tyranny of the majority.
  • Individual Rights: John Locke has given importance to rights, but Rousseau has given importance to rights in favor of the collective good. When people enter into the Social Contract and surrender their rights to the community, what protects them from an overbearing state?
  • The Force of the Contract: Critics argue that the Social Contract is not for everyone. If someone is not interested in entering into the contract, they have no option. So after entering into the contract, the individual may not be happy. Rousseau’s social contract forces individuals to enter into the Social Contract, which some people do not agree with.

In simple terms, Rousseau’s social contract theory states that the authority of a government comes from the consent of the people it governs. He believes that everyone should have a say in how they are governed, promoting equality and freedom for all. While his ideas have sparked debate and criticism, they have also influenced how we think about democracy and the role of government in society.