Jean-Jacques Rousseau's the Social Contract Term Paper

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract

In his book, the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains the relationship of the individual to society. He emphasizes the natural law of personal rights and sovereignty and argues that any government derives its legitimate power only from the collective choice of many individuals to allow government to act as a proxy for their personal exercise of those rights directly. For similar reasons, Rousseau opposed the concept of "rightful" ownership of slaves, especially those who did not choose to become slaves. He also questions the right of any person to voluntarily pledge his servitude to another person or institution if that choice also applies to his descendants because doing so violates their fundamental natural rights.

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According to Rousseau, legitimate governmental authority can only come from the voluntary will of many people, and those forms of governmental authority that derive their power elsewhere are fundamentally illegitimate. Rousseau acknowledges that allowing the collective will to establish rules that govern individual conduct might be a form of relinquishment of individual rights. He takes the position that this apparent contradiction is resolved by the fact that it is in the interest of every individual to give the power of social policy and rule enforcement to the government, because without some form of collective power, the individual cannot enforce any legitimate social concerns at all. Finally, Rousseau questions the legitimacy of some forms of democratic representation and suggests that affiliation or allegiance to sub-groups or representative political parties cancels out some of the main benefits of the principle of individual expression in political choice.

Rousseau on the Origin of Legitimate Power:

Term Paper on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's the Social Contract Assignment

Rousseau was adamantly opposed to the idea that might makes right, considering that a source of power that makes it impossible to ever define "right" and "wrong," since all that matters is the ability to impose one will over another. In Book I, Chapter 3,

Rousseau states:

Suppose for a moment that this so-called "right" exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. for, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word "right" adds nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.... Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers."

Rousseau on Slavery, Property Ownership, Personal Sovereignty, and Social Compacts:

Rousseau addresses the so-called "right" of slavery in Book I, Chapter 4.

According to Rousseau, there is no such thing as the right to give up one's natural rights by becoming a slave to an other for several reasons: first, because the concept of slavery, by definition, completely contradicts the very idea of rights; second, even if a person does have that right himself, nothing legitimizes his right to do so for his family or his children, because doing so automatically violates their rights:

The words slave and right contradict each other, and are mutually exclusive.

It will always be equally foolish for a man to say to a man or to a people: 'I make with you a convention wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I shall keep it as long as I like, and you will keep it as long as I like.' To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate... "

In refuting the right of any person to make that choice for others, Rousseau explains that the parental right is limited to certain types of decisions (such as during childhood) but that even parental rights are limited:

Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children:

they are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it. Before they come to years of discretion, the father can, in their name, lay down conditions for their preservation and well-being, but he cannot give them irrevocably and without conditions: such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and exceeds the rights of paternity."

Rousseau gives a third reason for denying the legitimacy of slavery by characterizing any voluntary choice to subjugate himself as madness, including the collective madness of any group or society of people who choose to do so, saying (also in Book I, Chapter 4) of the decision to become a slave, that:

the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind. To say the same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen; and madness creates no right.

To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts.... "

On the other hand, Rousseau strongly defended the value of the choice to give up certain rights to the collective will, for the express purpose of living in a society where each individual can benefit from the enforcement of his desires and his will through the collection of power into some form of government. According to Rousseau, (Book I,

Chapter 6) some voluntary transfer of individual rights to society is necessary because, people:

have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert. This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together... "

Again, Rousseau addresses the apparent contradiction of his positions on personal sovereignty, introducing the rationale behind the social compact:

as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self- preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself?... The problem is 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, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.... This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.... The social compact... reduces itself to the following terms: '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'."

In further explaining the beneficial handing over of individual rights to society,

Rousseau suggests (Book I, Chapter 7) that the legitimate exercise of social power by the collective will is the only possible way for the individual to guarantee that his own will is expressed in society, because the collective power ensures that:

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. 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."

Rousseau's views on the origin of property ownership rights (Book I, Chapter 9) suggest that we all have a natural right to whatever we actually need, but that this right is also limited to no more than what we need, and also further limited to other bases justifying one person's possession over property instead of another. To Rousseau:

The right of the first occupier, though more real than the right of the strongest, becomes a real right only when the right of property has already been established. Every man has naturally a right to everything he needs; but the positive act which makes him proprietor of one thing excludes him from everything else.... In general, to establish… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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