Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 9 – civil and uncivil religions

As someone who knows almost nothing about Durkheim, I can say with absolutely no confidence that Rousseau’s view of religion is proto-Durkheimian, in that the objects of religious worship (‘gods’) are ultimately symbols of society and the social contract. Hence, he says, “a God was placed at the head of every political society…[and]…there were are many Gods as peoples….the provinces of the Gods were determined…by the frontiers of nations.” To put it another way, religion is naturally political, dealing with power, authority, and loyalty.

Consequently, there are roughly three dangers that Rousseau seems concerned to avoid.

  • One is the existence of multiple intolerant religions within society, each holding its own laws, and its own judgements about people’s relative worth, higher than any broader social laws. In such cases they form parasitic, or at unhealthy, ‘sub-societies’ within the larger society, dividing and thus weakening it by internal conflicts.
  • The second is the conquest of society by such a religious group, i.e. the domination of a group with its own interests and principles, that rivals or overrules the political authority. This again weaken society by giving people two conflicting authorities, and usurping the legitimate governmental forms.
  • Thirdly, though, Rousseau is hostile to even ‘un-worldly’ religions, those which reject no political rules or authority, precisely because they teach their followers to disdain worldly things and focus their attention on the afterlife, or personal enlightenment, or other such goals. Such a religion (which he identifies as the original Christianity of the Gospels) undermines people’s committment to, and enthusiasm to defend, their society and its laws.

What Rousseau advocates instead is the toleration of all religions which 1) tolerate other religions (in particular, not claiming that all infidels will burn), and 2) are consistent with ‘the civil profession of faith’: the existence of a providential God,  “the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of sinners,” and “the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.”

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Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 8 – wealth, democracy, and the despised multitude

Ok, resuming this series after a short break. Today I want to talk about Rousseau’s approach to class and property; next post will probably say a bit about religion and censorship, and then the final one will be summarising and concluding and stuff.

Last couple of posts both argued that, according to his own principles, Rousseau’s democratic commitments should extend to all areas of life, and not just periodic legislative assemblies – and that despite this, he comes out strongly in favour of aristocratic government, for reasons that were left a little unclear. I believe that discussing the class politics of ‘The Social Contract’ will illuminate them.

Rousseau doesn’t talk much about economics or property per se – he discusses only the first principles (where property rights come from) and the last consequences (how class divisions impact political stability).

On the former topic, his account is not very remarkable – it’s similar to Locke’s or Kant’s, with individuals acquiring rights by their occupation, use, or production of things, and society then working to secure to them these property claims. Compared to Locke’s more famous account, he I think puts slightly stricter limits on how much each person can appropriate, and affirms more emphatically the right of society to interfere in private property under certain circumstances. But he never suggests that property per se is illegitimate or avoidable. (I’ve written a bit about these kinds of accounts, posts are here)

But the latter is more interesting. Consider, in particular, the extended discussion of the Roman Republic, in glowing terms, which he includes towards the end of the book. I’m qualified neither to comment on the actual Roman Republic or on the accuracy of Rousseau’s version of it, but what he sees fit to praise or condemn is very revealing.

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Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 4: the Infamous General Will

Rousseau asks ‘how can society, and the constraint it implies, be compatible with freedom?’

One response, which we might call ‘liberal’, is to divide the individual’s life into two domains, the public and the private, and be constrained in the former and free in the latter. This solution is not at all to be sneezed at – it may even be the best available. But you don’t have to be a fascist to suspect that splitting your life in half like this may not be ideal, and there are major worries about whether, and how, that split is drawn in the real world. Not only that, but it’s not clear how this approach deals with issues that are simultaneously political and personal.

So there are reasons to consider alternatives to this ‘liberal’ response, and I think Rousseau can to some extent be read as offering one. The essential proposal is that the constraint that society imposes is compatible with freedom, if the power that constrains comes from the subject who is constrained – if it is self-constraint.

To be free, it seems reasonable to say, is to act according to your own will. The sovereign, Rousseau says, is an ‘artificial and corporate person’, it has a will, what he calls ‘the general will’. This is “the balance that remains, when we take away from [individual wills], the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out.” What flows from this ‘general will’ is, for each individual, ‘their own’. Hence when they obey it, they are only obeying themselves – and, in that famous line, when they are coerced into obedience, they are being “forced to be free”.

This doctrine has come in for a fair amount of criticism, especially along the lines that it just confuses and obscures actual, literal, freedom, and thus justifies illiberality.

Now, I think there is certainly a lot we can criticise in Rousseau on this subject (and I intend to in coming posts). This ‘a lot’ includes:

  • How is the general will expressed – what political and social institutions actually tell us what is is?
  • How does the generality of the general will change over time – i.e. does the social contract have to just be made once, or renewed regularly, or what?
  • How does disagreement among members of the group affect the generality of the will – in particular, how sound is the distinction Rousseau draws between law (which deals with general cases in the abstract, and expresses the general will) and governmental acts (which deal with particular cases, and do not)?
  • What is the actual psychology of this act of collective identification, and what effects might this psychology have?
  • Why does Rousseau make certain of the actual claims he does, about for instance punishing rule-breakers, which seem contradictory or unjustified?

But I also think (once again) that there’s a kernel in what Rousseau is saying that’s worth getting at. In the next post or two I’ll hit him on the above points, but for now I want to consider the idea of the general will in relative isolation from messy reality.

What is the point of Rousseau’s talk of the general will? For this we need to examine the idea of ‘will’ and the idea of that social contract itself.

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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.”

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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?

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