Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Social Contract (Book I)

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In book one of the social contract, Rousseau attempts to explain how a society can be created in which everyone has the safety of being in a political society, but still keeps all of his rights and liberties. He thinks absolute monarchy, like Hobbes suggests, is illogical, because men would never give over the right to their own life to someone else. Instead, he says that people can make a pact with each other so that they all rule equally over the political society. This makes everyone safer, since they control the force of a whole group of people, instead of only being a force on their own. He argues that the rule of the sovereign can’t be against the interest of the people, since the people are the sovereign. He also argues that if an individual tries to shirk his responsibilities, he can be ‘forced to be free’ (i.e. forced to live up to his civil responsibilities) by the rest of society.

Chapter 1 – The subject of Book I
“Man was born free and he is everywhere in chains.” The aim of the book is to explain how this can be made legitimate.

Chapter 2 – The first societies
Man’s first law is for his own preservation. The family can be seen as a model for a political society – each person only gives up his freedom when he sees an advantage in doing so. Hobbes suggests a system where people are like herds of cattle, with a leader taking care of them only to devour them. Hobbes argues that leaders are superior to their subjects just as the shepard is superior to the sheep. Even Aristotle said that men were not born equal, and that some men were by nature leaders and others, by nature, slaves. This is not true. If slaves remain in slavery, it is only because that is the only existence they’ve ever known.

Chapter 3 – The right of the strongest
It doesn’t make sense to say that strength or force makes a person right. In this case, what is morally right would constantly change as one leader is replaced a stronger person takes over by force, now becoming the ‘rightful’ leader. In this sense, cause and effect are reversed, so by taking power makes you right, rather than being right giving you power. If a robber with a gun tries to take away my wallet, his force makes me give over my wallet. However, if I could think of a way to hide my wallet from him, would I be wrong in doing so? Clearly not – obedience is only owed to legitimate powers. Might does not make right.

Chapter 4 – Slavery
Since no one has natural authority over anyone else, and since force does not bestow a right to power, legitimate authority among men can only exist based on covenants. A person can’t choose to put himself into slavery, because he would have nothing to gain by giving up his life in this way. It could be argued that a despot gives his subjects civil tranquility, but what if his oppressive rule is worse than civil strife? Dungeons have civil tranquility, but they are not desirable places to be. A covenant that gives one person absolute power and another absolute obedience is illogical and void.

Some argue that the right of slavery comes from the right to kill the vanquished in a war – if the victor chooses not to kill the vanquished, he can take them as slaves instead. However, the right to kill the vanquished cannot be derived from the state of war. The war is between countries and things, not between men. Men fighting a war have a right to kill defenders while they are armed, but once the battle is over, and one side has surrendered, the winner has no more right to take their lives. A war should be won with the least amount of destruction possible. There is no ‘right to massacure.’

Therefore, the right of slavery is void – it is unjustified and nonsensical. Whether between one man and another or between one man a and a whole people, it would always be absurd to say: “I hereby make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it so long as I wish.”

Chapter 5 –That we must always go back to an original covenant
There will always be a difference between subduing or enslaving a multitude and ruling a society. No matter how many people a despot subdues, the relationship between them remains one of master and slaves, not a people and a ruler. His private interest is always distinct from the public interest. Grotius suggests that a people can give itself to a king. But even the idea that a people can make a decision as a group supposes some kind of agreement among that people existed before they submit to the king. Even the decision to use majority rule to decide things presupposes some type of agreement among the people.

Chapter 6 – The Social Pact
How can a person form an association in which all are united that will defend the person and goods of each member using the collective force of everyone, but also under which the individual can remain as free as before and obey no one but himself? The answer is the same everywhere, either tacitly or officially recognized. Each person has to give up all of his right to the community – this makes everyone equal, with no one having rights that others don’t. However, since no one gains rights over him that he has not also gained over others, he has gained the equivalent of what he has lost. He thus acquires more power to protect what he has. Once this articfical body is crated, it can act as one body, and can be known as a city or a republic. Each person in it is a citizen, because he shares in sovereign power, and also a subject, because he is under the laws of the state.

Chapter 7 – The Sovereign
To the subjects as a whole, the sovereign body can never pose any danger. Since the sovereign is formed completely of the individuals who compose it, it is impossible for it to have any interest contrary to theirs. Therefore, the sovereign doesn’t need to give guarantees to its subjects, because it’s impossible for a body to want to hurt all of its members. However, this is not true of the relation of a subject to the sovereign. An individual may have a private will contrary to the public will. He may try to get the rights of a citizen without paying the duties of a subject. If this behavior became common, it would ruin the body politic. Therefore, if a person refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to do so. Essentially, he shall be forced to be free.

Chapter 8 – Civil Society
By leaving the state of nature and entering civil society, a man uses justice as a rule of conduct instead of instinct, and his spirit is elevated. Though he loses the right to take anything that tempts him, he gains the right to civil liberty and legal property. The limit of his natural liberty was his own physical power, but civil liberty is only limited by the general will. His natural possessions where only based on force or on being the first occupant, but his civil property is based on a legal title. Furthermore, in a state of nature, you are a slave to your appetite, but in society, you are obedient to a law you’ve proscribed to yourself, which is freedom.

Chapter 9 – Of Property
When a man enters the political society, his land enters with him, so that it becomes the property of the sovereign rather than just a private possession. This makes the land more secure, since it is now protected by the entire state, and not just one man. However, in the view of other states, a state still only has ‘the right of first occupant.’ The right of first occupant is legitimate under three conditions: 1) the land isn’t already inhabited by somebody else, 2) a man only takes as much as he needs for subsistence, and 3) that he doesn’t just declare its his land, but actually works and cultivates the soil. Without these rules, a person could just declare any piece of land belongs to him. When Balboa stood on the shore of South America and declared it was now owned by the King of Spain, was that enough to dispossess all the current inhabitants and exclude anyone else’s right to the land?

The social pact, rather than destroying natural equity, substitutes a moral and lawful equity for the natural physical inequality of men – men become equal by covenant.

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