Does Rousseaus Social Contract Sacrifice The Individual Philosophy Essay


This essay will begin from the premise that, far from advocating a collectivist contract of society and sacrificing the individual to such state, Rousseau's Social Contract establishes protective measures for the individual through the conception of the 'general will'. Firstly, an exploration of the content and main features of Rousseau's Social Contract will be undertaken, before a critical evaluation of its relation to the protection of the individual in society will be offered, principally through the notion of the general will. This essay will then reject opponents' claims that this inevitably leads to individual freedom being sacrificed to the community, as will it reject the argument that Rousseau's contractarianism is either illiberal or totalitarian. It will conclude by defending the perception of Rousseau's Social Contract as an advocate of liberal political society.

The will of the General Will

The evaluation at hand presupposes that Rousseau's Social Contract champions collectivism, or communitarianism, and in doing so rejects liberalism which places at its heart the autonomy of the individual. The thesis of such an argument is that through various measures, society as a collective usurps the ability for an individual to maintain independence or free will in the social contract. Yet this examination disregards both the historical context of Rousseau and the underlying purpose of Rousseau's work, which was to provide an explanation of the conditions in which, man being individualist by nature and simultaneously wanting the protection and advantages of living in a civil society, both of these can be achieved without the need for a loss of liberty.

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Rejecting this collectivist position, which will be countered in greater depth later on in this essay, it is important to explore the content and main features of Rousseau's Social Contract, to remind us that "a liberal political theory needs to concern itself not only with the identity of liberty, but also with identifying the conditions under which that liberty can be sustained" (Hampsher-Monk 1995: 275).

Thus, the Social Contract's central concern is to create a climate in which popular sovereignty is realisable, and Rousseau's lineage of work therein is logically concerned with strengthening the case for and to counter any potential challenges to it (V. Gourevitch 2003: xxiii). Popular sovereignty, for Rousseau, was the very basis for the protection of individuals:

the Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs. (Social Contract I: 7.5) [1] 

Inherent in Rousseau's conception of sovereignty is the general will, which governs the relations of all men, enforcing popular sovereignty and forming the foundation of Rousseau's theory:

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. (SC I: 6.9)

Simply put, the general will is the common good of all men, and yet this concept is precisely what provides protection of the individual, since Rousseau's conception is such that the individual and the collective are so entwined that they cannot be separated without returning to the state of nature. Yet, Rousseau does concede that particular (or private) wills of the individual do exist in so far that 'each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen' (SC I: 7.7). This presents a quandary: natural liberty and particular wills are one and the same by definition, but the very purpose of the Social Contract, 'to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, united himself all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before' (SC I: 6.4) proposes that a solution to reconcile the two must necessarily be presented. This is presented two-fold: firstly, Rousseau claims that the general will be naturally discoverable, by taking away the 'pluses and minuses' of particular wills, which innately cancel each other out, leaving only the general will as the sum of the differences (SC II: 3.2); secondly, for 'whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.' (SC I: 7.8) The latter account has frequently been the origin of the so-called 'totalitarian thesis', a popular assessment of Rousseau but which has been convincingly rejected by recent study and will be similarly critiqued later in this essay.

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Thus, Rousseau acknowledges, by virtue of admitting that particular wills do exist, that in the social compact, man does sacrifice his natural, absolute liberty. Yet, as will be argued, rather than sacrificing individual freedom altogether, the social compact offers something that cannot be attained in the state of nature - civil liberty; ultimately, this is far more favourable, and a truer, more secure, representation of individual autonomy. Rousseau outlines that self-love ('amour de soi'), reason and freedom are all fundamental features of human nature, and we have 'a basic interest in ensuring protection of our person and the goods we need to survive and live well' (Cohen 2010: 11). Similar to other social contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau's state of nature, that is to say the natural state of things before the social contract is conceived, offers absolute liberty on one hand, but no protection for rights on the other. Protection of rights offered in civil society, including the protection of property, is non-existent in this state; the social contract is Rousseau's response to those calling for the reconciliation of liberty and the protection of rights without sacrificing liberty of the individual, and here Rousseau differs from his contemporaries in that he advocates a different conception of sovereignty. Liberty in the social contract is exchanged, but this is not to say it is sacrificed, as Rawls states:

We gain the same rights over others as they gain over us, and this we have done by agreeing to an exchange of rights for reasons rooted in our fundamental interests, including the interest in our freedom. (Rawls 2008: 221)

Thus, the general will, being the will the community, appears at first to be antithetical to the interests of individuals. It is an abstract theory, but nevertheless exudes clarity of purpose, even if Rousseau does not definitively express how the general will is found. As has been touched upon, society, being inescapable without returning man back to his origins as a primitive being, is such that the community and the individual are permanently coexisting and interdependent. The general will - the will of the community - is thus to Rousseau a reflection of the common good, since all rational persons have in their very nature a concern for their self-preservation and freedom; they would thus be harming themselves to will something for the community (in which they are inextricably linked) that is distinctly separate from their own particular will. Consequently, the common good reflects an equal concern with the well-being of each person, and as a result an equal concern for individual autonomy, since all people share the very same conception of the common good (Cohen 2010: 15); 'the public interest and common liberty are synonymous with...personal interest and liberty.'(Boucher 2009: 278)

The Legislator

The Social Contract offers various measures through which the general will is made discoverable, or else enforced, as briefly mentioned above. Whilst forcing man to be free seems adversative to liberal political theory (which this essay argues that Rousseau follows), the institutions that Rousseau describes within The Social Contract are analogous to popular sovereignty and hence compatible with individual autonomy as we have seen. These include the institutions of a legislator, or law-giver, civil religion and censorship. Rousseau acknowledges that man does not necessarily know what he wants, or is best for him and so needs the guidance of wisdom and experience in the form of these institutions to aid the formation of the social contract. In particular, there is a need for a legislator to '[lead] to the union of understanding and will in the social body' (SC II: 6.10). This legislator would 'do so by reason of his genius, [and]… no less by reason his office, which is neither magistracy, nor Sovereignty' (SC II: 7.4). Thus Rousseau depicts a figure who is distinct from the sovereignty of the people and hence neither superior (a master) nor inferior to the community: he works in the interest of discovering the general will, and thus by deduction solely motivated by the protection of liberty and freedom of the individual.

Of course, by separating the legislator from the people, Rousseau is opening himself to claims of elitism, which are potentially at odds with the egalitarian 'free community of equals' (Cohen 2010: 10) that is the outcome of his conception of the general will. However, he counters these criticisms by making clear that 'he who holds command over laws ought not…to have it over men; or else his laws would be the ministers of his passions and would often merely serve to perpetuate his injustices.' (SC II: 7.4) This Montesquieu-esque separation of powers (who, along with Diderot, preceded Rousseau in coining the term 'general will' and who evidently influenced Rousseau's thought) safeguards the sovereignty of the people, and whilst the legislator is applicable to the community at large, Rousseau expresses its worth to individual autonomy rather than the collective authority:

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If we ask in what precisely consists the greatest good of all, which should be the end of every system of legislation, we shall find it reduce itself to two main objects, liberty and equality (SC II: 11.1)

Rousseau's 'civil concept of liberty'

It has been established that the social contract contrasts two necessities of human nature: the need for security and political authority (embodied in the social contract as the need for a political community) and the need for individual autonomy and liberty. Yet there must inevitably be a concession. One of the towering liberal philosophers of the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin, famously drew a distinction between 'two concepts of liberty', those of positive and negative liberty (Berlin 1958), and this is pertinent in its applicability in Rousseau's Social Contract. Whilst negative (absolute) liberty allows the individual full autonomy in the absence of external forces (coercive or otherwise), Rousseau concedes that to reconcile the two necessities a different conception of liberty is needed, and this Berlin called positive liberty: the freedom to, as opposed to freedom from, act with individual autonomy, protected by certain measures acting as safeguards. This, to Rousseau, was civil liberty:

What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. …we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title. (SC I: 8.2)

This is an important distinction to make, but not one that this essay believes forces a dilution of liberty. Berlin (1958) draws these two distinct concepts to further his argument that the only true form of liberty is that in a negative sense. Nonetheless, liberalism to a modern scholar associates itself with the protection of individual rights, such as those of proprietorship; this has been engrained in liberal theory, which arguably finds its origin in Rousseau's Social Contract. To Rousseau, the liberty that is afforded to man in the state of nature (being the liberty that Berlin favours) is detrimental to the human condition. On the other hand, under the social contract, man 'gains an equivalent for everything he loses' (SC I: 6.8). From this we might take that liberty under the social contract is a zero-sum gain; liberty is exchanged, but not lost. However, the benefit of civil liberty is that man gains 'an increase in force for the preservation of what he has.' (SC I: 6.8). Rousseau develops upon this by commenting that the right of first occupier, 'which in the state of nature is so weak' (SC I: 9.2), is respected by individuals and the community alike: 'possessors, being regarded as depositaries of public property, and having their rights respected by all the members of the State…, have, by a cession which benefits both the public and still more themselves, acquired, so to speak, all that they gave up.' (SC I: 9.6)

We might, over and above all this 'add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly the master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty' (SC I: 8.3). This is a striking statement, and of course not one that Berlin, among others, accepts. Berlin states that 'to coerce a man is to deprive him of freedom' (Berlin 1958: 6). Yet Rousseau's social contract is not coercive in this sense. Man does not accept the general will through the persuasion of authority, but because it is rational to do so as the general will is equally a manifestation of one's own true will. Rousseau does not deprive the individual of free will: far from it, he expects that in the social contract man will choose the general will with this very same free will of the individual. By man developing his 'moral' faculties through the conception of the civil state, Rousseau claims that justice triumphs over instinct, intelligence over stupidity and irrationality (SC I: 8.1). Thus, in forming a civil community (state), man develops an appreciation of the liberty of other individuals within that community, which is mutually protective; the moral intelligence that man formulates is of greater benefit to individual freedom and autonomy than his very same (absolute) liberty in the state of nature.

Collectivism and illiberalism

It is clear to see that myriad critics, among them Berlin, reject Rousseau's contract's protection of the individual, instead arguing that his strong conception of political community intrinsically works to oppose this. Berlin's extraordinary claim that Rousseau was 'one of the most sinister and formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought' (Berlin 2002: 4) certainly has great impact, a surprisingly ferocious attack on a theorist who had at his heart a desire to protect the freedom of human condition in society. Thus it is necessary to delve into Berlin's criticism further to understand his reasoning.

Berlin saw Rousseau's conjecture being particularly dangerous to liberty. In Berlin's view, Rousseau had associated freedom with self-determination, and self-determination with obedience to the general will. The notion of the general will, differing sometimes from individual (particular) wills, went against Berlin's conception of liberalism, for it alleged the existence of a common interest encompassing the interests of all men: an absolute, single set of rules for all, which Berlin saw as being a divergence from the pluralist tradition of liberalism. Rousseau also went some way to disguising man's true nature, as Berlin saw it, by conceiving man as a citizen being, rather than a lone, individual creature - an unrealistic transformation of human interest. Furthermore, Rousseau was said to have changed the concept of man's will from what he actually desires empirically, to a will that he ought, or should, desire, but may not through the nature of the human condition (Berlin 2002). Emphasised by his strong Calvinist influence, we could also add to this Rousseau's deeply-rooted sense of morality, a sense of right and wrong, and what it means to live a good (and bad) life, which we can take Berlin to object to on the basis of its limitation on individual choice and self-determination (ibid). Clearly, he sees the Social Contract as a largely illiberal thesis, quite at odds with Rousseau's stated intention (which has been argued is in the liberal tradition) and thus at odds with this essay's premise.

Yet Berlin's implicit claim that Rousseau stands against pluralism shows a lack of appreciation for his commitment to moral creativity, which we may equate to moral freedom. He discusses this to a greater extent in later works, such as on creativity within education in Emile (1762, translated 1911), yet expresses in the Social Contract that a view that 'moral freedom, then, once properly understood, is simply not possible outside of society… because that freedom is the capacity to fully exercise deliberative reason… And it cannot be realized without attaining skills attainable only within a social context' (Rawls 2008: 237). The logical sequence of Berlin's argument seemingly suggests that he favours an anarchic form of liberty, which clearly Rousseau opposes. Anarchic society, that is to say a society void of authority, would render man freer in an absolute sense, but render him unable to develop his moral faculties and thus a attain a higher form of individual liberty; perfect independence, so to speak, would, by this same standard, make desirable notions such as (conjugal) love, language, virtue and reason unobtainable (Neuhouser 1993: 384), which are all critical to full individual liberty.

We also find claims of Rousseau's illiberalism, and hence sacrifice of the individual to the collective, in later chapters of the Social Contract, particularly when considering his stance on civil religion. Certainly, his maintenance that the state and religion ought to be closely allied appears out of place in the context of modern secular liberalism, but equally indeed his support for a 'civil profession of faith, the articles of which it belongs to the sovereign to establish' (SC IV: 8.32) caused great controversy when the Social Contract was published, so much so that it caused Rousseau to flee from France and similarly prevent him from settling in Geneva (Boucher 2009: 276). His controversy arose however not from his defence of religious influence but from his assertion that 'Christianity of the Gospels' undermined allegiance to the political community (and thus, as we have seen, individual autonomy) which, in an era of religious piety, was destined to be rejected. Yet the supposed contradiction in Rousseau's profession of civil religion is that by apparently marrying civil society and a profession of faith, he strikes an illiberal chord, distinct from his earlier commitment to moral freedom and plurality of thought, which must equally apply to religion. However, to provide a defence of Rousseau's commitment to individual liberty, for indeed his conception of civil religion is not illiberal as some would suggest, it instead seems to form a reconciliation of several components: one, as 'sentiments of sociability' ('without which it [was] impossible to be a good citizen' (SC IV: 8.32)), religious belief played an important role in the everyday lives of a vast proportion of Rousseau's contemporaries; two, his civil religion aimed to reflect this - an attempt at unity of a community - and as such reflect an acceptance of the principles of the general will, behind an authority (the deity) with power over and above those conceived in the Social Contract such as the legislator; three, the need and desire for tolerance of a multiplicity of difference religious codes in society. It is perhaps the third component that provides the strongest argument for the rejection of illiberalism:

Now that there is and can no longer be an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others. (SC IV: 8.35).

The notion of religious faith is undoubtedly a personal one, an individual search for moral redemption and comfort, and Rousseau's acknowledgement of the need for tolerance of various religious codes is important in terms of the rejection of critics who claim he sacrifices the individual to the collective authority of the state. It is quite apparent from this statement that, as well in providing an adequate settlement between civil state and religion that meets the needs of every individual in society (reflecting widely held religious faith as well as his own), he dedicates himself to the support of the individual.

The origins of totalitarianism?

Alongside these illiberal criticisms, we must also consider those relating to the so-called 'totalitarian thesis' as alluded to earlier, for 'no sensible interpretation [of Rousseau] can put it to the side' (Cohen 2010: 5). Many scholars have developed critiques of Rousseau in emphasising his conception of collective authority and, from this point, 'stressed the continuity of the line that could be constructed from Rousseau… to twentieth-century Fascism' (Hampsher-Monk 1995: 270). Much of the basis for such, rather emphatic, claims centres upon his notion of the civil state in relation to the general will, or rather the enforcement of such, which differentiates the critique from the illiberal claim. 'Forced to be free' has become an infamous political metaphor for totalitarian tyranny, which although deriving from the Social Contract, has seemingly been adopted to mean far more than original intended. Totalitarianism undoubtedly has more to do with the restriction of liberty through the dictatorship of authority over society, which is in opposition to this essay's thesis. Indeed, to say Rousseau had totalitarian themes, consciously or unconsciously, is to attribute his theory to the endorsement of the absolute collective authority of the state, whereas of course his conception of the general will, backed by his various safeguards (such as the legislator), protects against such dangers. Hitler was not, to categorically oppose Bertrand Russell (1959: 660), an outcome of Rousseau.

Thus it is necessary to draw upon the arguments relating Rousseau to tyrannous authority to quickly dispel such ill-appreciation. It must be said that Rousseau's line 'forced to be free' does at first appear to be paradoxical, although to take this out of context is surely part of the issue. If we continue to read on, he tackles the issue of tyranny directly:

In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical and liable to the most frightful abuses. (SC I: 7.8)

He clearly has a concern for the potential implications of the general will but intends for the use of force to secure against personal dependence only as a means to prevent tyrannical abuses, not encourage them. Indeed, it is conceivable that a strong dictator could manipulate the community by coercing them to believe that what he claims is the general will is so, so it appears rather sensible for Rousseau to include such a practicality. As we know, he intended for the presence of law and legislators to protect against the misjudgement of the general will, so it is easily conceivable that Rousseau meant forcing to be free to mean the implementation of law, which of course is far less sinister than the thought of physical coercion that such a phrase may initially evoke.

Naturally, considerations must also be given to elements of the Social Contract given less prominence in this essay, such as Rousseau's advocacy of censorial tribunal and his distaste for partial or section associations. The idea of a censor acting for society collectively to protect public morality seems antithetical to the cause of individual autonomy yet Rousseau's conception differs from the sort of censorship that follows modern totalitarianism; he states that the role of the censor is to declare public opinion but we know that public opinion was not to be subject to any constraint. Rather than withhold permission to publish, Rousseau's censor was intended to ridicule actions which offended, by public consensus, the civic integrity of society (Hampsher-Monk 1995: 277). Thus, 'the censor worked only if the public shared his sense of political vice and virtue… it could not itself coerce or enforce' (ibid.). In light of this, the role of the censorship in the Social Contract seems rather less menacing in potentially inciting totalitarian rule. Likewise, the discouragement of partial association (SC II: 3.3), such as the invention of trade unions, must be viewed alongside Rousseau's remarks that 'if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal' (SC II: 3.4) which evidently shows a commitment to pluralism, a distinctly liberal trait and far from the affliction (as Rousseau would have surely thought of it) of overt collectivism. Furthermore, an appreciation of his enthusiasm for direct democracy and refusal of representative government which in fact signalled a loss of liberty, rather than a gain (Hampsher-Monk 1995: 276), show an unbridled task of protecting the individual in society, rather than sacrificing man to an omnipotent community. It is thus fair to say, as Maloy (2005) agrees, that the totalitarian thesis has now been discredited.

Historical Abstraction

In the course of this debate, it is easy to overlook the initial aim of the Social Contract to shed some light on the intentions of Rousseau. He was, first and foremost, writing to explore the conditions in which man could be free yet enjoy the commodities of political community. Abstraction of Rousseau's ideas, as so often is the case, to make comparisons with the expanded (or even evolved) political theory of collectivism (or its various guises just discussed) ignores both his fundamental concern of protecting each person and his goods and his influence on the progression of liberal thought. It is for instance easy to forget that the generation after Rousseau, as argued by Hampsher-Monk (1995: 268), saw unbridled individualism as the threat to society - 'and Rousseau as the expression of it'.

A liberal conception of Rousseau, although losing purchase in the nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, has never been extinguished, having been taken up recently by critics such as Macedo (1990), who claims that liberalism must necessarily include the respect of equal rights of others, the obedience to the impersonal rule of law and a concession to the public, common good: all of these features are strikingly Rousseauvian, and purposely so. He is, as has been argued, dealing with the essential liberal issue of individual autonomy at the heart of the Social Contract, and critics of Rousseau's commitment to liberty must acknowledge that they invoke, as proof of their arguments, the very criteria which generations of liberals have used to prove his liberal credentials (Hampsher-Monk 1995: 271). Perhaps the extent to which an historical abstraction of Rousseauvian ideas, to associate them with very un-Rousseauvian ones of absolute collectivism, is misguided is evident in the influence Rousseau had on that famously liberal event - the French Revolution. While some may disagree to his degree of influence, it is hard to deny that his ideas of popular sovereignty, political community, religious tolerance and republicanism (inherent in his conception of the citizen through the civil state) were visible in the Declarations des Droits de l'Homme and the succeeding first Republic of France. As McNeil (1945: 203) states, 'the 'logic of events' was on the side of those who were sure that France owed her Revolution to Rousseau, that the Contrat social was the lever which was used to overthrow "the enormous colossus of despotism."' Put simply, if we are to agree that the French Revolution was an altogether liberal revolution, and that Rousseau's ideas influenced it to some degree, we must inevitably deduct that Rousseau's ideas were conceptually liberal.

Concluding Remarks

This essay has demonstrated that, far from sacrificing the individual to the collective, Rousseau's Social Contract acknowledges the need for political community but remains steadfast in his understanding of the human condition - that is, the individualistic nature of man. The Social Contract is recognition of the necessity to protect inherent individual needs and, to this extent, it has been shown that the general will is the aggregation of all individual interests. If we accept that absolute, anarchic liberty is impossible in society, as Rousseau did, we must be willing to accept a solution that allows individuals the greatest possible freedom, whilst recognising the need for political authority in the civil state. Arguments to suggest a sacrifice of the individual to the collectivist element of his thought ultimately rely on his conception of political community, which is unavoidably a feature of liberal politics to the same extent. It has been argued that his ideas were neither illiberal nor totalitarian in their outlook and thus a rejection of Rousseau's collectivism being the stand-out feature of his work has been presented. Likewise, it has been shown that historical abstraction of Rousseauvian principles as conceived in the Social Contract does not respect his legacy as an altogether liberal philosopher, with the interests of the individual being the core tenet of his work. Therefore, to conclude in the words of the Social Contract itself (II: 4.10), 'when these distinctions have once been admitted, it is seen to be so untrue that there is, in the social contract, any real renunciation on the part of the individuals.'

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