Tag Archives: the social contract

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 rehabilitation; Hobbes’ 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’ 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’ authoritarian system.  Hobbes’ social program is innately static, but—unfortunately for Hobbes—society and life are not.  If one was to take Hobbes’ 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’.  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 too 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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Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and the Will of the People

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract may very well be the most fervently democratic work of all the early political treatises.  Rousseau follows in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and postulated a variant of the social contract theory; including a unique version of man’s early origin that sets out to negate Hobbes’s savage state of nature, and redefine the whole of political theory to align with his belief in populist governance—where true legislative power resides solely with the masses.

The Genevese philosopher opens his famous discourse with the words, “Men was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[1]  The diction used in this opening sentence is very important to understanding Rousseau’s entire philosophical position.  “Man was born free,” specifically stated in the past tense to indicate a contrast from mankind’s present state of existence.  This is then followed by the second part of the sentence, “and everywhere he is in chains.”  Notice now the switch to the present tense, is meant to describe our current condition.  To thoroughly explain the motivation behind Rousseau’s word choice here, one must dwell a little deeper into the man’s personal philosophy.

Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed that prior to the advent of social communities, man had resided on a plane that can be called the state of nature.  However, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau envisioned this state to have been one of harmony and peace, rather than cruelty and war, where each individual led a solitary life, with no infringement on his will by any other person [this is discussed in greater detail in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754]; hence the reference to man having been born free in the past.  Furthermore, he believes that it was mankind’s removal from this tranquil existence, through the forming of cities and nations, that has caused humanity to spiral into a perpetual mode of degradation, a trend that can only worsen as civilization progresses (since all progressions will only take humanity farther away from his ideal state of being); this degradation serves as our chains.

Yet, despite these claims of mankind having had once enjoyed a serene peace in his solitary state, Rousseau does acknowledge that at some point in the development of the human species the obstacles to men’s self-preservation became too great for the single individual to overcome.  Therefore, “the original state can then subsist no longer, and the human race would perish if it did not change its mode of existence.”[2]  The result was the implementation of the social contract, in which originally each individual puts his power in the common good under the supreme direction of the general will, but no single individual is put into a situation in which their person is subjugated by the will of another.[3]  Rousseau’s reasoning here is to establish the basis that any form of executive that seems to undermine the will of the public is by definition unlawful, because “those to whom the executive power is committed are not the masters of the people, but its officers.”[4]  Thus, the objective of all government ought to be to yield power to the people, whose collective will serves as the true sovereign of the state.

It’s not difficult to see problems with Rousseau’s logic, even if one agrees with his reasoning and conclusion.  Firstly, if mankind started out solitary, and this was his ideal state of existence, is it not more reasonable to propose that humanity ought to abandon communities altogether, rather than argue for a populist democratic rule?  The answer one can imagine Rousseau giving to such an objection is to maintain that man has been removed from the state of nature for too long to return, thus establishing popular democratic rule is a means to bring modern man as close to his perfect form as possible.  In fact, the sort of state that Rousseau is proposing seems to not be much of a formal state at all.  Instead, it can more aptly be understood as a social gathering, “The state which is thus governed needs very few laws; and when it becomes necessary to promulgate new ones, the necessity for them is universally understood.”[5]  Rousseau is convinced that as long as the general will of man is not stifled by authority, his naturally peaceful nature will create a symbiotic unity with the will of his fellow man:  “There is never any question of vote-catching or speech-making in order to make it a law to do what everyone has already resolved that he will do himself, once he is sure that others will do the same.”[6]  But again, the question can be raised why a people ought to bother having a state at all, if they can so readily reach a consensus simply by the merit of having everyone’s general will consulted, and made clear?[7]  Why bother with having a any sort of government?

Once again it is important to try and understanding the program Rousseau is presenting from the philosopher’s point of view.  Earlier he mentioned that conditions of life are so that man could not subsist in his state of nature forever, thus his consenting to the social pact to ensure preservation.  It is the nature of this contract that must be explored to understand Rousseau’s reasoning.  He states that, “there is one sole law that by its nature demands unanimous consent:  it is the social pact.”[8]  Therefore, the social contract (or “pact”) is the only obligation that any individual is sworn to, but is never subjugated by:  “If therefore when the social pact is agreed there are those who oppose it, their opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents it from being applied to them:  they are foreigners among citizens.”[9]  This is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s covenants, whose obligations are to be enforced authoritatively, if necessary; any person in Rousseau’s society can simply opt out of the community, if he so determines.

Now, one major point still remains to be addressed by Rousseau, what happens if someone who freely reside within the community, and has consented to the social contract, finds himself in the minority opinion of a particular issue?  Rousseau approaches the question by first stating, “a majority vote is always binding on all the others; that is a direct consequence of the contract.”[10]  However, this statement seems to be irreconcilable with Rousseau’s stance on the inability to subvert someone’s general will to that of another.  The philosopher tries to rationalize this objection away by replying, “The citizen consents to every law, even those that are passed against his opposition,”[11] because, “the constant will of all the citizens of the state is the general will:  it is through the general will that they are citizens and have freedom.”[12]  But this is now starting to sound an awful lot like Hobbes’ position that the sovereign, acting as the proprietor of the social contract, gets to enforce the rules of the covenants on the citizenry, except that in Rousseau’s system the masses collectively occupy the role of the sovereign, instead of just one ruler.  Moreover, the outcome will still involve the undermining of an individual’s will by another (in this case the majority).  Rousseau is not ignorant of this disparity, and attempts to sooth it by clarifying, “When an opinion contrary to mine prevails, therefore, it proves only that I had been mistaken, and that the general will was not what I had believed it to be.”[13]  But in what way is this not an example of one individual having to subvert their will to the will of others?  Saying that because you find yourself in opposition to the general will of the majority the only conclusion is that you’re mistaken on the issue, does not negate the fact that you are then being forced to undermine your solitary will to that of the community (lest you be deemed to have forfeited your citizenship [see footnote 9]).

The main problem Rousseau fails to consider in The Social Contract, is that in such an environment, there is no reason to believe that it will be the solidarity of the people’s general will that will govern the community, rather than fear induced conformity.  And in an environment like that, the difference between a system governed by a unified majority, and a system corrupted by the whim of an influential minority, is not as readily noticeable as one might think.  In fact, in cunning hands, the will of the people, can easily be swayed to serve the will of the few; and the people might be none the wiser about it.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. “Book I: Chapter 1,” Oxford University Press (New York: 1994), p. 45.

[2] Rousseau, p. 54.

[3] Rousseau, p. 55.

[4] Rousseau, p. 132.

[5] Rousseau, p. 134.

[6] Rousseau, p. 134.

[7] Rousseau, p. 135.

[8] Rousseau, p. 137.

[9] Rousseau, p. 137.

[10] Rousseau, p. 137.

[11] Rousseau, p. 137.

[12] Rousseau, p. 137-138.

[13] Rousseau, p. 138.