The Social Contract Theories of Hobbes and Rousseau: A Critique

[This post makes references to two previous analyses on the social theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which can be found here, and here, respectively.]

Social contract theorists, like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, aim to systematically establish the basic components that warrant the formation of human communities, giving rise to the creation of governing entities, all through an initial set of covenants a people agree to enter into, in order to strengthen their prospects for individual self-preservation by being members of a greater society; this is the social contract.

Although, Hobbes and Rousseau diverge greatly about the framework and mode of governance that is to ensue from the social contract, both agree that absent of such a pact, the individual is transported back into what can be called the state of natureTo Hobbes, this is an anarchic, cruel, savage, existence where no law or peace can exist, and a perpetual state of war is the norm (hence, giving man, as a rational animal, the incentive to enter into covenants with his fellow as a means to avoid such a dire reality).  Rousseau, on the other hand, takes a much gentler view of the state of nature.  He agrees with Hobbes that in this state man is left to a solitary existence, but instead of viewing this as a savage realm, he sees it as peaceful and ideal, where the general will of the individual was not subverted to the will of any other persons.

These fundamental disparities proposed by the two philosophers are of secondary concern to this critique, since my focus will be to show that both thinkers have failed to account for the exact means by which modern communities exist in relation to the state of nature they present as their starting premise, and therefore, have failed to give credence to intellectual integrity of social contract theory.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proposes a social system build on covenants between individuals, which subsequently form what he calls the commonwealth (i.e. society).  In this model, justice is defined as performing the agreed on covenants, thus injustice is naturally that which is counter to the established covenants of the commonwealth.  And this is to be enforced by an authoritarian sovereign, acting as proprietor of the said social contract.  Hobbes maintains that the incentive individuals have to hold to the laws of the covenants, is their desire to avoid the savage state of nature that they are bound to be banished to, in case they fail to live up to the social contract.  However, there is a problem here that Hobbes fails to demonstrate; namely, what grants the premise that a failure to perform the social covenants will automatically place one back to the state of nature, at all?  For example, in all social communities possessing established laws (i.e. covenants), there more than likely exist individuals who, at times, break these laws (i.e. fail to perform their covenants), but are not definitively banished from the community itself (i.e. the commonwealth).  Almost always, perimeters exist within the community itself that deal with the criminal perpetrators, and still allow them to retain their citizenship status within the society.  In fact, the judicial systems of much of modern society operate on the basis of punishment, yes, but also rehabilitations; Hobbes’s social contract does not give measure to this latter, important, aspect of criminal justice.  Instead, he wishes to place all breaches of social covenants on an equal plane of offense, which ultimately renders his social contract as impractical by definition, because it will be unable to adapt as issues and concerns that are bound to arise as society progresses.  Unavoidable technological, social, and political advancements will mean that with each passing generation, individuals will be born into covenants that they did not consent to, whose decrees do not pertain to their cultural orientations, but are nevertheless judged by the merits of an archaic framework with little relevance to their modern lives.  Thus, for any political model to survive the test of time, a means of amending the initial covenants must be put into place from the start.

Furthermore, Hobbes’s insistence that the enforcement of the covenants is to reside with an authoritative sovereign also fails to take into account the ever-changing demographic that occurs within the parameters of a populace, and does not give a proper account of why individuals born after the initial covenants were made–and therefore did not consent to empower the ruling sovereign as the proprietor of their commonwealth–ought to be subjected to decrees authorized prior to their existence.  As already stated, the next generation will not necessary agree with the initial pact that created the social contract, thus new covenants will be required every few decades, but this by definition subverts the entire point of Hobbes’s authoritarian system.  Hobbes’s social program is innately static, but—unfortunately for Hobbes—society and life are not.  If one was to take Hobbes’s account of the state of nature, and incorporate it into his proposed social system, the end result would be a constant calamity of communal covenants, being erected and floundering with the passing of time.  And, perhaps, such a view of society is historically defensible, but it not the sort of stable commonwealth Hobbes was arguing for.

In The Social Contract,Rousseau’s argument rests on even flimsier premises than Hobbes’s.  The state of nature Rousseau depicts—peaceful, harmonious with nature, man’s ideal state of being—renders his entire proposal for setting up a proper society and government (even a popularly democratic one) redundant, since if one was to accept his account of the state of nature, the philosopher’s real task ought to be to argue for the dissolution of government and society as a whole.

Rousseau proposes that man entered into the social contract, because the conditions of his solitary state (though peaceful, and ideal) were insufficient in ensuring the individuals self-preservation; therefore, he formed into communities to strengthen his chances against the forces of nature within the safety of the group, while still retaining his general will (and without subverting the will of others).  But Rousseau’s entire basis for this premise sounds like a case of special pleading; why did man have to form a pact with other men, if his existence prior to the advent of communities was peaceful, and fruitful?  If he has already enjoyed the greatest freedom possible absent of an established society, what reason is there to argue in favor of keeping any social order, whatsoever (even one that is largely run as a direct democracy)?  Also of note, Rousseau mentions that any individual who wishes to leave the social contract is free to do so at his/her discretion.  Hence, if we follow the reasoning Rousseau outlines for us, these individuals leaving the social contract would be returning to the state of nature, where they will have peace and be free.  So, once again, what was the purpose of entering the social contract, where one’s general will is capable of being conformed to the will of the community?  The philosopher’s failure to address these questions concerning the most fundamental aspects of his argument makes his entire prose suffer as a result, and gives no good reasons as to why his proposals should be taken seriously.

Rousseau’s entire program would be much more coherent if he had given a more thorough rationale as to why man actually benefits from societal life, in contrast to a solitary one.  But to do so would, of course, undermine all the previous work in his Discourse, where he affirms that man is innately a solitary being.  (That, however, is a critique for another post, on another day.)

The problems with social contract theory, in general, is that it places to much emphasis on man’s conscious entrance into communal life, when in reality, a much more cohesive account can be made for the idea that we–by large–do not actively consent to any covenants, or social contracts, but are instead born into them.  Rather than forging social communities, we extend and modify those that we have.  Hence, the relatively slow (millennia long) progression of human civilizations.  No clear account can be given of what the initial spark was that caused sophisticated communities to emerge, but there is no reason to speculate that it must have involved a great deal of conscious sophistication on behalf of the individuals involved; remember, the original purpose of the most mundane of habits can be forgotten, and transformed into the most innate and sacred of customs within a stretch of only a generation, or two.  Thus, to attribute too much forethought to the habits of our ancestors, would be a grave submission of reasoning.  Time erodes all matters, but along the way it can also modify and sharpen things into something more pragmatic and tasteful, than how they initially began.


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