Tag Archives: Rousseau

Pondering the Fundamental Problem



The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

– Rousseau, The Social Contract

Rousseau identified the fundamental problem of political philosophy as finding the organization of the state in which all of its citizens are free.  Rousseau was an eighteenth century social contract theorist.  This means that he imagined how people might have lived in the “state of nature”, without any sort of society.  By using such a thought-experiment, social contract theorists pictured what sort of justification such people would have for forming a state, the general organization of society for using violence to change behavior.  Human beings find the state of nature lacking for some reason or another, and thus sign away some of their natural freedom in a social contract that creates a state for advancing the common good.

Most social contract theorists suppose that people in the state of nature have rights and duties that precede any organized society. Locke and Hobbes both argued that people have ‘natural rights and duties’ that condition the resulting social contract and the state that comes out of it.  Rousseau is unique in believing that while people have rights in the state of nature, they sign them all away in forming the civil state.  In return, they receive equal civil rights and duties, including those involving direct and universal participation in the state.  The state is governed by the general will (public-spiritedness, for the sake of this post) of its citizens, and so all remain as free as they would in the state of nature.

For now, I don’t want to worry about the general will.  It’s enough to say that citizens are free because they are the direct and collective authors of their own laws.  However, this is where the fundamental problem reduces to a difficult dilemma.  If each citizen is to be free in the civil state, then each must be the equal author of each law.  If that’s the case, then no law receiving less than unanimity would be legitimate, or at least most laws would have a lesser degree of legitimacy.  Unanimity is not practical, and Rousseau recognizes this.  The general will is supposed to solve this, but that concept remains philosophically contentious and mysterious.  I’m developing my interpretation of the general will, but I’ll save that treasure for another time.

Instead I will leave it at this: the fundamental problem of political philosophy reduces to this dilemma.  Either we have majority rule or consensus.  If we have majority rule, then the minority obeys the will of the majority.  If we have consensus, then a minority has the power to block the majority, and the majority does not rule itself.  Thus, either the minority does not always rule itself, or the majority does not always rule itself.

If the fundamental problem does reduce to this dilemma, then the problem becomes easier.  Clearly we would rather have the majority rule themselves rather than the minority prevent the civil state from functioning under unanimous rule.

News from the Agora

My birth state of Maryland abolished the death penalty today (May 2).  That marks the 18th state to abolish a barbaric practice of giving the state the power to end the life of its citizens.  Supposedly, the state can’t run a post office, but it is capable of determining who will live and who will die.  Let’s keep the post office and ditch the license to kill.

Rousseau and the General Will

The fundamental problem of political philosophy is “by what duty do I obey, and by what right does another command me?”  Most obedience is simply compelled by the threat of sanction, which ultimately reduces to the threat of force.  But that isn’t the question – threats may cause my obedience, but it does not receive my assent.  If we were to accept that the threat of force as the central principle governing society, not only would we not have a nice society, we would not have a society.  If the force of the stronger is the cause of obedience, then each member of society ought only to try to become stronger, until they have the greater force.  Human beings cannot, and mostly do not, live this way.  We live by reason and justification (“communicative reason”), even if we do not always succeed.  And when we engage in the process of reasoning, we are living by the Principle of Autonomy, for we are then regulating our behavior for ends to which we have assented.  Thus, the fundamental problem becomes recast as this: how can we reconcile the autonomy of reason with social power and political authority?  Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided us with the initial answer, what he called “the General Will.” read more »