Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract” – Part 1,

This is the book I mean. ^

I’m going to have to read ‘The Social Contract‘ over the next couple of weeks (well, re-read) and since it’s a short, interesting, and influential book, it seemed a good idea to do some posts on it while doing so.

This first post is concerned with only the 1st 14 pages, Chapters 1-5 of Book I. The topic in this part is a good one to start with, for it contains Rousseau’s argument for why it’s worthwhile to even consider the idea of a ‘social contract’, why that approach to political philosophy makes sense – something that has often been contested, from a number of directions. It ends with Chapter 6, in which the terms of the titular contract are laid out.

A lot of Rousseau’s energy here is devoted to criticism of particular opponents, and theories that to our ears sound bizarre – the right of the strong to rule, or the right of a victor in war to enslave the enemy, or the right of the biological heir of Adam to rule the human race. To an extent this is Rousseau being ahead of his time – he was part of a wave of ideas now so common-sensical that these rival views appear absurd.

But we might still discern, behind the particular targets, Rousseau’s argument by elimination. Political obligations cannot be based on force, he argues; nor can they based on nature. Nor again can there be such a thing as a slave-contract by a whole people. So what else can they be based on, but something like a contract or covenant?

Note that it is never doubted that there are political obligations – that is, that beyond rights and duties that relate to ourselves, or to other individuals, beyond obeying the law because it’s convenient, or voting to defend one’s interests or the interests of someone else, there are specifically political duties and rights, e.g. to obey the law because it is the law.

After all, if we agreed that nobody is born with political observations ‘naturally’, and also that none could be created by the use of force, we might conclude that there are none: that people should be just with themselves and with each other, but that official social units and arrangements are just a means to an end, something to work with, not to work for.

“But” Rousseau says, “the social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights. And as it is not a natural one, it must be based on covenants. The problem is to determine what those covenants are.”

Questions we might ask:

1) Is the social order really so ‘sacred’?

2) If it is, is it ‘natural’ in the sense Rousseau has in mind?

3) If not, is a ‘contract’ really the only alternative?

On 1. I’ll say nothing for now – in the other posts I’ll keep this option open, to see how it throws Rousseau’s claims into relief.

2. is more interesting. For political rights and duties to be ‘natural’ could mean many things but here it just means – do they arise in the natural course of things, without any conscious direction? That is, do we just ‘grow’ a duty to obey the law, the way we grow our adult teeth or our first hairs? More pressingly, do some people just ‘grow’ a right to command, and to back their commands up with violence – and if so, who?

In this connection, here is a fact worth observing: after only two introductory paragraphs, Rousseau’s first topic is the family, “the oldest of all societies, and the only natural one.” Against the long-standing claim that children have obligations, not just of love or care but of obedience, to their parents throughout their lives, Rousseau declares that children “remain tied to their father by nature only as long as they need him for their preservation.” When a child becomes independent in practice, they are also morally independent of any remaining duties to obey or ‘honour’ their father (as he is free of any responsibility to provide for them) – whatever relationship remains is a voluntary one.

This is calculated to break any attempt to deduce political duties from familial ones – such as the positioning of the king as a symbolic ‘sire’. It is a characteristically modern account of the family, undergirding a modern account of society. But it also presents a puzzle. How can a father, who apparently is the only parent, produce all of these children who he provides for? I’m no biologist but surely there’s something else needed – a very strange sort of man called a ‘wo-man’.

In the 160 pages of this book, there are three uses of the word ‘women’ – once to exclude them from a count of citizens, along with children, slaves, and foreigners, and twice to comment on their fertility and how climate can effect it. All uses of female pronouns, as far as I can tell, refer to nations – Rome and ‘her’ armies, etc. Strange, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, Rousseau might be granted this much: that the modern conception of the family he offers us seems preferable to the pre-modern one he attacks. And if that’s so – if a pattern of authority which develops in steady progression from the alpha-male of a monkey troop to the paternal rights of kings is rejected – then it looks as though political rights and duties will have to derive from something other than ‘nature’, if they come from anything.

Which brings us to 3. Must this ‘something other’ be a contract? Here we might pause to unpack definitions.

If political obligations derive not from something ‘natural’ then they derive, by definition, from some choice. It would be logically possible that this be a choice made by someone other than the people taking on the obligations – that I might somehow ‘sell’ someone else into obedience to a state. But then why do I have that right over them to begin with? So let us suppose it must be a choice made by the person themselves.

Now, this might be a choice to simply give oneself, to submit without demanding anything from one’s ruler in return – Rousseau devotes a lot of energy to refuting this option, which he says would be madness – “to speak of a man giving himself in return for nothing is to speak of what is absurd, unthinkable; such an action would be illegitimate, void, if only because no one who did it could be in his right mind. To say the same of a whole people is to conjure up a nation of lunatics; and right cannot rest on madness.”

So it seems to follow that whatever choice brings people under political obligations must be a recirprocal one – each part submits themselves to being bound, in exchange for binding commitments by others. And this, it seems, is just what is meant by a contract.

So the following conditional claim seems to be plausible: if there is any intrinsically political obligation (e.g. a duty to obey the law simply because it is the law, and not as a means to some end), then it must be traceable to a contract of some sort. In the coming posts I’ll see what turns out to follow from this.

But one outstanding issue remains, I think. Isn’t the whole idea of a social contract clearly false, or worse meaningless, incoherent? For a start, doesn’t it presuppose that people can enter into an agreement, prior to belonging to society – that they can, for instance, understand speech or make promises, without the socialisation that would give them these skills? I’ll try to say something about that in the next post.

One Response to “Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract” – Part 1,”


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