Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 2 – does a contract make sense?

Following my last post, in which I started reading ‘The Social Contract’, I said I’d deal with some arguments for thinking that the whole social contract idea, even if it is (as I cautiously suggested on Saturday) necessary for the conclusions Rousseau wants, is just stupid and not worth taking seriously. There are two specific points I want to consider.

The first, and quite simple criticism, is just the following three claims:

1) A social contract implies some kind of voluntariness;

2) There is no appreciable voluntariness in the genesis of any actual societies;

3) Whether something is voluntary makes a big difference.

I think this might be a good point against Locke or Hobbes, both of whom use social contract accounts to justify governmental systems fairly similar to really-existing ones, but Rousseau need not be tied to the defense of any particular aspect of the status quo – indeed, ‘The Social Contract’ is something of a break from his dayjob of whining about how society has corrupted us and made everything worse.

So I think this criticism can be deflected by resolving to first examine Rousseau’s claims about what, hypothetically, would make a society just, without any prior assumptions about the relation to any real world cases.

The second, and deeper, criticism is something like this: not only has there never actually occurred a ‘contract’ between pre-social individuals, but there never could. To enter into any kind of agreement requires capacities (e.g. language, planning, recognition of others) which only arise in the process of socialisation. We are ‘always-already’ social beings, and if we try to imagine ourselves, even hypothetically, as prior to the society we inhabit, we’ll be left imagining unrecognisable, feral, speechless beings with hardly any resemblance to who we actually are.

I’m not going to argue with this psychology or sociology, it’s probably true. But I don’t think that Rousseau needs to deny it. If ‘The Social Contract’ was a scientific work, trying to describe the arising of a phenomenon, then yes, it would need to suppose contracting parties entirely unsocialised. But it’s not – it’s a study of how the “sacred right which is the foundation of all other rights” “might be made legitimate.”

Consequently, all it needs to presume is that people might enter the ‘contract’, however literally understood, without already being part of such a legitimate and sacred society – without being subject to that strong sort of political obligations. They might nevertheless know other people, and have relationships with them. They might be very sociable – but not as members of an intrinsically-valuable group. The sort of group, for instance, for which one could feel ‘patriotism’, must come into existence by free decision.

Critics of Rousseau, especially of a conservative bent, would at this point probably object something like this: if you’ve already been socialised – if you’ve already built up so many relationships, and received so much from society, and been so created by society, surely you are already bound to it by ties of obligation – such as, for a start, an obligation of gratitude for raising you. Imagining people as free individuals able to choose whether or not to ‘enter’ society by a ‘contract’ ignores this, and is thus artificial at best, ungrateful and selfish at worst.

There are two replies I think Rousseau could make. One would be to go back to what he says about the family, taking ‘the father’ as a stand-in for these relationships more generally. Rousseau’s claim here is two-fold, I think: firstly, that familial obligation are balanced, so that the parental obligation to care for children is balanced by the children’s right to respect their parents, and secondly, that these obligations (because they’re balanced?) Come to an end around puberty.

Extrapolating from this, we might imagine Rousseau saying that whatever obligations one acquires as a result of the socialisation oen receives will tend to cancel out and come to an end when one becomes independent. But I’m not sure how good this response is. After all, individuals often continue to ‘receive benefits from society’ for much of their life; it seems like it may make sense in some cases but not in all.

So (finally) there’s the other reply, which Rousseau doesn’t give explicitly, but which I think can be reconstructed from what he does say. This is that critics who say “in order even to be able to speak or make promises (and hence to enter contracts) an individual must receive extensive benefits from society” are actually abusing words – for no benefits are provided by “society”. There are benefits of various degrees (not to mention harms and burdens!) provided by various people, but ‘society’ does not yet exist’.

Most members of ‘society’, after all, I have never met – is my ‘society’ to be defined by everyone who lives on the British Island? Everyone who speaks English? Everyone I met? Everyone who is officially a subject of some sort of sinister cabal with its HQ in Westminster? Everyone in Europe? To give any such answer would seem arbitrary – unless it was based on a free decision.

Here I think Rousseau may be on stronger ground. If, rejecting any essentialist cultures or racial definitions, we accept that most ways of grouping people together are ‘arbitrary’, then the only way to make them real is to make them ‘really arbitrary’, i.e. make them depend on a real ‘arbitration’, a real choice.

(Perhaps my love of etymology got in the way of clarity there. What I mean is – there is no simple ‘fact’ of which group of people forms “a people”: any such grouping must depend on a free choice [it is ‘arbitrary’]. This choice culd either be third-person [I decide that you, you, and you, are a real society, regardless of what you think] or it could be first-person [I decide for myself which society I belong to]. In the first case, it would be contradictory – everyone in the world might group people differently, and we would need a further ‘arbitrary’ choice to say who gets to decide. The second case, where people decide for themselves, thus seems like the only sensible answer.)

So, in conclusion, I think Rousseau’s case is just about defensible – as the same very conditional conclusion I drew on Saturday: if society is be a real, intrinsically valuable whole, something more than the sum of its parts, something grounding irreducible obligations and rights, then, in Rousseau’s words, “we must always go back to an original contract”.

Should we want society to be such an intrinsically valuable whole, such a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts? That is a good question, which should be borne in mind as we consider more specifically what Rousseau says of this contract.

One Response to “Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 2 – does a contract make sense?”

  1. Q Says:

    ‘If we accept that ways of grouping people together are arbitrary, then the only way to make them real is to make them depend on an arbitration; a real choice.’
    This sentence is beautiful.

    If we replace ‘ways of grouping people together’ with ‘morals’, for example, it remains accurate, and, for me, the main importance of the book.
    Your paragraph about the problem of everyone deciding this, or then needing a decision about who gets to decide, and a decision about who gets to decide that (ad infinitum), also applies to the justification of universal morality.

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