Rousseauís The Social Contract

Jean-Jacques Rousseauís The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762) is an analysis of the contractual relationships that may be necessary for legitimate government, and it is an explanation of how these relationships may combine principles of justice and utility. Rousseau argues that civil society is based on a contractual arrangement of rights and duties which applies equally to all people, whereby natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty, and whereby natural rights are exchanged for legal rights. The terms of the contract provide assurance that civil laws promote the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals or groups. If the contract is breached by a government which usurps the sovereignty of its people, then the people are no longer obligated to submit to that government and consequently regain their natural liberty.

According to Rousseau, justice cannot be defined as "the right of the strongest" (le droit du plus fort) or the power of some individuals to gain advantage over others. If justice were the same as the power to gain advantage over others, then the most powerful individuals would always be the most just and morally right. Moreover, if justice were the power to force an individual to yield to a particular demand, then there would be no obligation for an individual to comply with a lawful authority unless that authority had the power to force the individual to comply. Thus, the question of whether justice can be achieved in society may not depend on whether individuals can be forced to comply with civil authority but on whether individuals and civil authority can act in harmony with, and fulfill their moral obligations toward, each other. Moreover, there may be a moral obligation to comply with civil authority only if that authority is legitimate (i.e. if that authority is based on a fair and just agreement among the members of society).

In order to protect themselves and their property, individuals may agree to a contractual relationship whereby they combine themselves into an association for the benefit of all. By means of this contractual relationship, individuals agree to accept various duties or obligations in exchange for the benefits provided by social cooperation. Thus, a republic may be established on the basis of a mutual commitment between society and each individual, whereby society has an obligation to each individual and each individual has an obligation to society.

Each individual may have a particular will (volunté particuliêre) which is different from the general will (volunté généale) of the people, but the particular will of each individual may be forced to submit to the general will because of the obligations that have been defined for all individuals by the terms of the social contract. The general will is not the same as the will of all individuals, because it is not the sum of all individual private interests.1 Unlike the combined will of all individuals, the general will is concerned with the public interest rather than with private interests.

The sovereignty of a republic is manifested by the general will, and the sovereign is the same as the body politic, says Rousseau. Sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible, in that a republic which surrenders or divides its sovereignty is no longer a republic and can no longer represent the public interest of all of its citizens.

The general will always desires the common good, says Rousseau, but it may not always choose correctly between what is advantageous or disadvantageous for promoting social harmony and cooperation, because it may be influenced by particular groups of individuals who are concerned with promoting their own private interests. Thus, the general will may need to be guided by the judgment of an individual who is concerned only with the public interest and who can explain to the body politic how to promote justice and equal citizenship. This individual is the "lawgiver" (le législateur). The lawgiver is guided by sublime reason and by a concern for the common good, and he is an individual whose enlightened judgment can determine the principles of justice and utility which are best suited to society.

If a republic is governed by principles of justice and utility, then each person is required to surrender only as much of his natural liberty as is necessary for the republic to guarantee the protection of legal rights for all of its citizens. Equal citizenship in a republic may be established by means of a social contract, which is a declaration by the general will that civil laws will apply equally to all individuals.

Rousseau uses the term "republic" to refer to any society that is ruled by law or that is ruled by the general will of its people. A civil law is an act of the general will, says Rousseau, and the general will must be obeyed by all people. Thus, obedience to civil law is required of all individuals by the terms of the social contract. However, the institution of government is not a contract, but an act of the general will.

As a result of the social contract, civil laws are decided by a majority vote of the magistrates who are elected to represent the people. The minority which opposes the will of the majority must accept any acts of the general will, and it cannot refuse to submit to the general will without violating the terms of the contract. Accordint to Rousseau, the general will is the will of both the majority and minority, and if a minority of individuals does not approve of a law which has been approved of by the majority, then that minority must have mistakenly supposed that its own particular will was the same as the general will. The general will is not a selfish, unjust will and is truly concerned with the common good.

The social contract involves a total and unconditional surrender by each individual of his own natural rights in order to gain the rights of citizenship.2 There is no need for the sovereign authority to guarantee the civil liberty and legal rights of its subjects, because its interests are identical to those of the people as a whole.3 If anyone refuses to comply with the general will, then he or she may be forced to comply by the whole body politic (and may be "forced to be free").4

Many of Rousseauís statements may be criticized for their extreme and arbitrary nature. For example, he says that dictatorship may be necessary in order to restore public order when there is a civil emergency. He also says that censorship may be useful in order to preserve public morality and in order to prevent corruption of social values. Even more unacceptable is his statement that if the prince of a state declares that a particular individual must be put to death, then that individual should be put to death, because the terms of the social contract may be interpreted to support the argument that the life of the individual belongs to the state and not to the individual.5

Rousseau also advocates the establishment of a civil religion to which all citizens must adhere if they do not want to be expelled from the state because of noncompliance. However, he argues that this civil religion should be tolerant of any other religions whose doctrines do not contradict the duties of citizenship.6

Rousseauís concept of a "lawgiver" who can guide the general will is a self-contradictory concept that assumes that this individual would be given a semi-divine status in society. Such an individual would also have an absolute power to define the limits of civil authority.

Rousseauís concept of the general will may also provide inadequate protection for the rights of minorities, because he assumes that the characteristics of the general will are always to be found in the majority of individuals. He admits that if the will of the majority is acting in support of the selfish interests of a particular social class or group, then the will of the majority may unfairly deny the legal rights of an opposing minority.

Rousseauís basic argument for the social contract is also self-contradictory in saying that natural liberty is in conflict with civil liberty. Rousseau claims that natural rights are in conflict with legal rights and that the social contract guarantees protection of the civil rights of each individual only by alienating the individual from his or her natural rights. While arguing for civil liberty and equal citizenship on the one hand, he argues for the absolute power of the state on the other. While attacking the evils of tyranny and slavery on the one hand, he tries to mitigate the evils of dictatorship and totalitarianism on the other.

Many of Rousseau's arguments are based on his concept of "the state of nature." In the state of nature, no individual has legal authority over any other individual. Any power which an individual may have over another individual is established only by force or coercion, and this does not make force or coercion morally right. In "the state of nature," individuals are motivated only by their own selfish interests and by the desire to gain advantage over others. Rousseau maintains that "the law of nature" is the law of self-preservation and that individuals have no natural obligations toward each other. In the state of nature, individuals are motivated only by their own private interests and not by the public good.

However, Rousseau also argues that in "the state of nature" individuals eventually recognize that they must unite to protect themselves and that they must join together to protect their possessions from being misused or misappropriated by others. Thus, a social contract is necessary in order to protect civil liberty and in order to protect basic rights such as the legal right to property. The social contract is fulfilled by a surrender of natural freedom in exchange for a moral and social freedom.

In "the state of nature," instinct is the rule of conduct, but in civil society, justice is the standard of conduct. In the state of nature, the particular will of each individual has more power and authority than the general will of the people, but in civil society the general will of the people has more power and authority than the particular will of any individual or group of individuals. While social relationships in the state of nature are ruled by the particular will of each individual who seeks his or her own private good, civil society is governed by the general will of the body politic that desires the common good.


1Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated by Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 72.
2Ibid., p. 60.
3Ibid., p. 63.
4Ibid., p. 64.
5Ibid., p. 78.
6Ibid., p. 187.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Translated by Maurice Cranston. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968.

Copyright© Alex Scott 2004

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