Around the time Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born, there were many philosophers with many theories already in existence. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were the pioneers of many theories. Other theories in existence was developed either as an offshoot of the first principles or as a criticism of them. The social contract theory is one of them because it has been said that it was as old as philosophy itself. Originally propounded by Socrates, the social contract theory is a view that every individual’s moral, political and other obligations have their origin in the contract or agreement between them to develop a desirable society for them to live in.
The social contract theory is widely referenced in the modern world today. After Thomas Hobbes and John Locke propounded their theories and criticisms, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is known as the best-known proponent of the theory. He had his views which he did not hesitate to publish in essays and books. In any case, here are some of this great philosopher’s thoughts on the social contract theory:
- Modern states have repressed our physical freedom: In arguing this point, Rousseau said a phrase which has become famous. It goes thus: “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” According to him, he believed that our birthright that we all have as individuals is the right to experience physical freedom. However, states have repressed this right in such a way that we have to beg for it. Despite the fact that they have limited this right, they do nothing to secure the civil freedom which is the sole reason we enter into civil society in the first place.
- Legitimate political authority can only come all the citizens: Since the states have repressed physical freedom, how then can political officials get their votes so they can rule the people? He solved this question by saying that if there is a legitimate political authority that will not be challenged by anybody in the society, then, there has to be a social contract agreed upon by all the citizens. This agreement is meant to be for their mutual and joint preservation and protection and not for just one person or a group of individuals.
- All the citizens in the society are called the “sovereign”: Jean-Jacques Rousseau so much loved the individuals in the society and wanted to avoid any situation where the powerful would trample upon the rights of the less privileged. In this light, he stated in his work that all the people in the society should collectively be called the “sovereign.” He further stated that the sovereign should be perceived like a person. Thus, each person has their interests in mind. They might be selfish in their interests, but when they all come together, they can reach a compromise. Hence, the “sovereign” would express what is known as the general will which aims for the common good of all in the society. Nobody will feel cheated.
- The general will finds its expression in the laws of the state: Since the general will is the opinion of all the people in the society, it finds its clearest expression in the general and abstract laws of the state. However, Rousseau believes that these laws must have been created early in the existence of that state by someone or a group of people who are impartial as it relates to the state. Such person or group of individuals does not need to be a citizen of the state either. The test for such laws is that they must ensure liberty and equality. The laws must also vary based on different people’s circumstances.
- He created tiers of government: Most states in the society today have different tiers of government. There is the level responsible for creating the laws, the tier for interpreting the law and the tier for executing or carrying out the rules. On this basis, Rousseau was of the opinion that the “sovereign” should be the legislative aspect of government. They would be responsible for making the laws. However, he indicated that states also need to have an aspect that would exercise the executive power.
- He stated and recommended the best type of government: Rousseau was very much in consonance with what had happened in the past and what was happening in the present. He stated the different types of government that exists. Some of them include but are not limited to democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and so on. He stated that states should adopt what suits them better based on their population. He recognized the fact that a monarchical system of government is the strongest one and it suits nations with a large population more. He stood his ground and maintained that an aristocratic system of government is still the most stable of all.
- He stated that the sovereign should endeavor to meet: The most crucial question is how will the sovereign express their general will if they don’t come together to discuss? Rousseau emphasized the importance of all the sovereigns meeting once in a while to deliberate on issues. That way, they would arrive at the best conclusion which is the general will.
- He recommended death penalty for those that violated the social contract: This might be one of the harshest views of Rousseau’s on the social contract theory, but it is also one of the most honest. He believed that the social contract should be honored and anybody who refuses to follow its principles should be sentenced to death.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on the social contract theory are perhaps the most important one because it gives clarity. He does not contradict himself in his views, and neither does he criticize any other philosopher. We have highlighted about eight points this brilliant philosopher thought about the social contract. How many more can you discover on your own?
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