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Rousseaus Statement Of Being Forced To Be Free Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1555 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Evaluation of Rousseau’s claim that being forced to obey the general will means “being forced to be free” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28.6.1712, Geneva- 2.7.1778, Kingdom of France) is probably one of the most significant thinkers and philosophers, who have influenced people’s behavior and their minds. Not only his ideas and thoughts affected legal, political and social thinking during his life, but also were timeless and many statesmen or politicians got new inspirations from his work. Rousseau’s ideas result from his belief that every state power has its origin in people, which gave birth to many declarations of human rights and civil liberties, as well as to a great number of other documents. Moreover, Rousseau gave a great importance to nature and human’s feelings, and he held the view that “man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains” which means that humans are naturally good; it is the institutions of civilized society which make humans evil. On the other hand, Rousseau, as a huge supporter of a social contract theory, which is considered by him as the source of state’s legitimacy, criticizes social inequality, despotism, and feudal relations. Rousseau, as being an important social contract theorist, believes that people are the ones who are makers of law as well as the subjects of law, and therefore the people’s sovereignty is guaranteed by the society’s contract which is created. In his work, Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (1762), he elaborates the concept of general will. I would like to focus in my essay on the problems of general will, especially on Rousseau’s statement that people could be forced to obey general will in order to be free and whether this idea is still democratic, or not.

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First of all, it is important to realize that Rousseau’s thoughts rises from his view that people in the state of nature (men in their natural conditions) were not corrupted, but moral, innocent, and will with natural freedom were their only assets. Through science, technology, social institutions and especially private ownership people became morally corrupted, damaged, and selfish. Nevertheless, Rousseau does not assume that this society should be abolished completely. Rather he sees cure to his Discourse on Inequality (illegitimate contract) in the Social Contract (legitimate contract) because he fully understands that return to the state of nature is simply not possible. By legitimate contract Rousseau means that the legitimacy is not possible if the sovereignty is not kept by the people and “the sovereign must therefore be identical with the citizens themselves.” Furthermore, Rousseau emphasizes mainly equality as the most important key for the social contract and he claims that society cannot by limited only in the way of social contract or agreement because this would create a very formal society. Therefore, he comes with the concept of so called general will, where “each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” and simultaneously, the main purpose of why establishing the general will is so important for the society is that in the general will “there is an objective common good, distinct from the particular interests or wishes of the individuals composing society” which means that common interests of people in the society are superior to individual interests because only through this action the whole society can benefit. Also, in order of having social contract theory working, people must give up their natural liberties, but they will gain moral or civil rights instead. The general will is one of the main ideas which Rousseau made in his social contract; on the other hand it also brings certain issues to the surface.

Generally, the participation of active citizens in creating laws which is in the general will necessary, is seen as a very democratic way and this is the reason why Rousseau is considered by many as a father of theory of a direct democracy. Of course, by creating the laws, citizens are obliged to obey these laws because “to be general, the will must both come from all and apply to all” and “by this act is created a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the society has voices, receiving from this same act its unity, its common “I”, its life and its will. This body is the republic, called by its members the state when passive, the sovereign when active. The partners are collectively called the people; they are citizens, as participants in the sovereign authority, and subjects, as under obligations to the laws of the state.” What Rousseau claims is that citizens could only be free in this state, not outside the state because the state’s will is equal to the will of its citizens. Therefore, this eventuates in the equality of all the citizens and no one could ever have more benefits from the social contract than the others because this contract involves everyone equally by exactly the same measure. According to Rousseau, the general will is always right and there is no need to have the general will unanimous in order to preserve its generality. On the other side, it is essentially to count all the votes because every formal elimination of votes breaks the rule of generality. As a democratic thinker, Rousseau creates a paradox to his democratic beliefs by saying that “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.” The Rousseau’s paradox rests in his view that people could be forced to obey the general will at all the time which is often seen by many as a totalitarian belief, not a democratic one. However, this enforcement of people to unconditionally obey the general will is actually not enforcement in its usual meaning because the only purpose of the general will is a common good of all and therefore, a person who refuses to obey the general will simply does not know his own good and from this reason he could be forced to obey. This is why Rousseau is still mainly democratic because people could be forced only to actions they agreed on in the general will as a whole and moreover, he “does not talk about being forced to commit free acts but of being forced in respect of acts which jeopardize (the state or condition of) freedom” which is not considered as controversial at all. As a most common example of free act which very easily ends in an unfree condition is addiction (to drugs, alcohol, and others). Unfortunately, the greatest problem of the general will arises when people realize that they do not actually know what is good for them in the reality. As the concept of the general will is built on the idea of common good, there is no one who will decide what is actually good and right. We know what people want but we do not have any certainty that this, what they want, is really good for them. As we look for example on democratic parliamentary elections, there is a winning party with the majority of votes but we are not sure that this party is really the best choice for us. As the winning party is chosen by the general will of citizens, the party’s will is the will of its citizens. As a result, forcing citizens to be free often means to force them to blindly obey the one winning party which actually makes obedience our only right. This could regrettably lead to totalitarian consequences.

Nevertheless, it is very important to mention a fact, that Rousseau actually does not define what the general will is. Even though he defines what expels the general will, and what is its function, Rousseau considers the term of the general will rather abstract. This leads to opinion, that he dedicated his social contract theory to smaller homogenous states and especially to Geneva where he was born because it is not possible to apply his principle of direct democracy in much bigger states where modern processes are more complicated. Moreover, it is not very clear what the conditions of problem’s generality are, in order to become a subject of the general will.

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In conclusion, Jean Jacques Rousseau undoubtedly belongs to philosophical icons of Enlightenment Era and Rationalism and not just because his thoughts were by many boisterously welcomed but also because they were by many perseveringly rejected. In each case, it is important to go back to his ideas because Rousseau, although he was a self-taught person, created a theory which is discussed all over the world even nowadays. Even though we could find in his theory many paradoxes and problems, definitely there are also very interesting and enriching thoughts for today’s modern society. And despite the probably strongest Rousseau’s claim that “if the general will vanishes completely, the society ceases to exist”, it was Rousseau’s idea of people’s sovereignty which changed the understanding in some parts of democratic institutions.


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