Rousseau's Natural Rights Term Paper

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Political Science

Rousseau's Doctrine of Natural Rights vs. Liberal Political, Social, and Economic Theory

The great philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the foremost proponents of the theory of the Social Contract and of ideas concerning the basic nature of human society.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Term Paper on Rousseau's Natural Rights Assignment

According to Rousseau, human beings were born neither good nor evil; rather it was an individual's self-interest that determined his or her actions, actions that might be deemed either positive or negative in the eyes of others. As individuals acted naturally in their own interest, larger societies would be plagued by the conflicts that grew out of the conflicting demands of individual women and men. Rousseau proposed to solve this problem by a variant of the social contract - an ostensible agreement between the various members of society. For Rousseau, this entailed the submission of all individuals to an all-pervasive "general will" that represented the good of all. This general will would be enforced by the aggregate of public opinion and act as a control on private passions and desires. Necessarily, such a concept also entailed the destruction of the impulse for self-interest. Self-interested acts - personal freedoms that conflicted with those favored by the general will, or general good - would have to be suppressed. In this sense, the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau contrasted strongly with those of other thinkers, such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and Immanuel Kant all of whom viewed humanity in far-more individualized terms. Both Locke and Smith believed firmly in the absolute existence of private, or personal, property. As owners of land and commodities, men and women exercised control over their own destinies within the larger context of human societies. These differences in fundamental belief led also to variant interpretations of the ideal forms of government and economic exchange. Rousseau's theories would form the basis for the various forms of socialism, while Locke's ideas would contribute much to the development of forms of representative democracy; ideas that would become the basis for capitalist theory in the hands of Smith. Kant furthered the cause of individual liberty, and the universality of the right to pursue one's own happiness, by giving that argument a firm grounding in moral philosophy. For Kant, human beings were rations creatures, and it was that reason that shaped their private goals and public interactions. Most fundamentally, Rousseau differed from Locke, Smith, and Kant in his conviction that, for the good of all, the will of the individual must be subordinated to the general will of society as a whole.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was particularly concerned with what he perceived to be the differences between humanity's existence in a "state of nature" versus the human condition under civilization. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, published in 1754, he sought the origins of present day inequities in basic, natural human behaviors. Differences in wealth, power, and position were, he thought, the natural results of competition between self-interested individuals for the necessities of survival. In this respect, people were hardly distinguishable from animals. They struggled against their environment and competed against each other for such basic needs as food and shelter. Human beings developed new techniques to procure these necessities. They developed the arts of civilization because these skills helped each individual to better survive the fierce competition for resources:

As the human race increased, so did its problems. Differences in terrain, soils, climates, and seasons might have forced men to adopt different ways of living. Barren years, long hard winters, and scorching summers that despoiled everything called for a new industriousness.

Over time, the use of these new elements conditioned men and women to perceive of some things - and some people - as better than others. Some were stronger, others weaker; some better, some worse; while others were simply more important or less important.

A hierarchy grew up among formerly independent individuals according to who could better employ these tools. Some even discovered that they could best survive, not by exercising these skills themselves, but by managing or controlling those individuals who could - thus was civilization born.

However, civilization brought with it a whole new set of problems. By combining together to provide for their individual welfare, men and women found that they surrendered a considerable amount of their own personal freedom. As Rousseau states in the Discourse on Political Economy and the Social Contract,

Now as men cannot generate new strength, but only unify and control the forces already existing, the sole means that they still have of preserving themselves is to create, by combination, a totality of forces sufficient to overcome the obstacles resisting them, to direct their operation by a single impulse, and make them act in unison.

Cohesion equals the application of force or compulsion. Since human beings are individuals they view any combination of individuals as merely a means to serve their own personal ends. Coercion must be used if these disparate individuals are to act for the benefit of other individuals, and for the group as a whole. What Rousseau discovered in the idea of the Social Contract was a means to preserving individual happiness within the context of the necessary group. In accepting the General Will, the individual woman or man accepts the benefits of mutual cooperation along with the restrictions that such cooperation must impose. One surrenders some privileges in exchange for the greater security provided by group action and cohesion. If people do not pool their resources in times of adversity a few may survive, or none may survive. but, if all work together, hopefully most will survive. The same goes in the event of an attack on a region. Fighting individually, all might perish in the face of the onslaught, but working together, the attacker might be beat back, and the majority continue to live and thrive. In Rousseau's opinion, the restrictions imposed by the General Will through the Social Contract are limitations on individual liberty for the general welfare of every member of the community - "The undertakings that unite us to the body of society are binding only because they are mutual, and their nature is such that in fulfilling them our efforts for others are efforts on our own behalf also."

The General Will is sovereign as it exercises absolute control over all members of the group. A government imposes things on its people, whether they are good for the community or not. but, when the people itself is sovereign nothing can be imposed that is not for the good of the community and which does not reflect the General Will and the common good. In fact, says Rousseau, the sovereign and the government are in continual opposition to each other, therefore; the only good government is one that consists of universal democratic representation because, only in such a case can the General Will be permitted its fullest expression.

In contrast, John Locke argued that individual men and women did indeed possess certain things apart from the General Will. According to Locke, property was privately held, and could not be taken by the state, or any other entity purporting to act in the name of the general welfare. People were essentially rational creatures. They want what is best for themselves and for their community. They need not be unnecessarily restrained from pursuing their own personal ends. Locke believe that the best form of society was a commonwealth governed by a representative assembly, the purpose of which would be the guaranteeing of the individual's natural rights within the context of the larger community. As Locke describes it,

First, it is not, nor can possibly be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people; for it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person or assembly which is legislator, it can be no more than those persons had in a state of nature before they entered into society and gave up to the community; for nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself or over any other, to destroy his own life or take away the life or property of another.

Unlike Rousseau, who saw the community as absolute, Locke saw it as a kind of mediator - a "super-individual," that represented all individuals. The government of the commonwealth would possess no more power over any given individual than that individual possessed over herself or himself. The community would guarantee the individual property rights of its individual citizens, and strive toward allowing each and every woman and man to achieve maximum individual prosperity. One need not subordinate one's own needs and desires to those of the community. The only concern would be if the achievement of one's own goals meant the trampling on the rights of another. Individual freedom could co-exist with the rights of others. Indeed, in his Letter Concerning Toleration Locke makes the point that though many things may be sins in… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Rousseau's Natural Rights" Term Paper in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Rousseau's Natural Rights.  (2007, November 11).  Retrieved January 22, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Rousseau's Natural Rights."  11 November 2007.  Web.  22 January 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Rousseau's Natural Rights."  November 11, 2007.  Accessed January 22, 2021.