Critique Of Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Political Philosophy

The Critique Of Social Contract In Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Political Philosophy


1.0                          BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY

1.1                         GENERAL INTRODUCTION

Jean – Jacques Rousseau is a Swiss writer and a philosopher. Among his multiple achievements is his magnus opus, the social contract or principles of political Right (1762). According to some thinkers these works constitute the first outstanding attempts to translate the spirit of romanticism of the early eighteenth – century Europe into political doctrines.




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His doctrines are very influential. Hence, his work, the social contract is believed to have inspired the 1789 French revolution. His doctrine provides the foundation for the theory of popular sovereignty. As his major work indicates he is a   social contract theorist. Like the other social contract theorist in outlining basic political teachings, he follows a pattern of distinguishing between the political man in state of nature and in the state of civil society. In the social contract, Rousseau declares that:

Man is born free and he is everywhere in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others and still remains a greater slave than they.1

Man’s natural liberty was lost in the civil society and man though born free is everywhere in chains. Rousseau proposes a solution with his theory of social contract. The social contract is a kind of association whereby every member voluntarily agrees to place himself and his possession under the direction of a sovereign. This contract is the fundamental principle underlying a civil society; this principle helps to overcome the lawlessness of absolute license and assures liberty, because people willingly adjust their conduct to harmonize with the legitimate freedom of others. What they lose by the social contract is their “natural liberty and unlimited right to everything; what they gain is civil liberty and a property right in what they possess.”2 Also Rousseau asserts that this association defends and protects the person and his goods. Thus, each uniting himself to all, obeys nevertheless only himself and remains as free as before”3. The Solution to this, is that, every person gives himself entirely to the community with all his rights and properties. Since in social contract, every member voluntarily agrees to place himself and his possession under the direction of a sovereign; who then is the sovereign? For Rousseau the sovereign is neither an individual member of the association, but an embodiment of the entire association. This suffices to say that all members of the association constitute the sovereign. Therefore, when one submits and obeys the sovereign he obeys himself. Rousseau describes this association as:

A form of association which  its main objective is how to defend and protect with the whole common force the person and the goods of each  associate and in which each while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone and remain as free as before4

Accordingly the association will be guided by the general will which is the absolute norm of conduct for all the members. It is always right, it can never be wrong and always for the good of the individual members of the association. In other words, every individual member of the association must bring his own will in conformity with the general will. Thus, it is only when the individual brings his own will in line with the general will that he becomes free. Consequently, to refuse to obey the general will is to refuse to be free. Anybody who does not want to be free, Rousseau says should be forced to be free by being compelled to obey the general will which is his own authentic will. In the same vein social contract includes the readiness to submit to the general will or be compelled to do so.

Therefore, the state of nature, for Rousseau was peaceful until the introduction of private property but the remedy is sought in social contract where the action of human beings acquires a moral character. Human beings cannot observe the state of nature because “we are acquainted only with man in the society’5 we are to take man as we know him and then abstract from him all the supernatural gifts and those faculties, which he can acquire only in the course of long process of social development. This is the original or primitive stage of man. Rousseau argued that man were happier and morally better when they were in the state of nature. Still in this state, man knows no evil, he was innocent. One is free to be what his instinct wishes without any fundamental restriction, that is, no law, no authority and each person is the judge of his own actions. “In the state of nature, man was guided by two sentiments; self-interest and pity, and having no moral obligations with others he could not be good or bad, virtuous or vicious”.6  Men in this state have no mutual relations stable enough to constitute either the state of peace or the state of war, and they cannot be naturally enemies. The chief concern of man in the state of nature is self-preservation. Rousseau believes that man in the state of nature is potentially rational, making partial use of reason.   In other words, Rousseau disagrees with the Hobbessian scheme of thought which recognizes human freedom and right to everything in the state of nature but such an uncultivated freedom landed man into trouble, hence, the emergent anarchy and insecurity where man are wolves to themselves (homo homini lupus). Thus, a remedy was sought in the contract. John Locke agrees with Hobbes that natural rights existed in the state of nature but the social contract or the commonwealth was not invented as a leviathan of all, but it came up as a good umpire to maintain order in the distribution of property. These and many more ideas of Rousseau in the social contract with the required critical exposition are what we are going to look at in this our on-going discourse.


1.2                          CLARIFICATION OF TERMS

Dating from the earliest recorded history man has had a natural instinct to live in association with others, still such an instinct needs to be nurtured and ordered. Individuals and the society or state alike seek perfection, and the highest good according to Aristotle and Plato, should be sought in the state. Hence man remains always a political animal and can only realize himself fully in a well organized political state. This yearning has led man to involve several methods, theories and systems aiming at the Ideal political state in human history.

However, Rousseau as a political theorist has tried to give us his own view of the ideal political state for better human society. Now let me explain in a nutshell some of the political terms in Rousseau’s philosophy while more elaborations will be given to them with many more terms as we move on with the discussion.

The social contract according to Rousseau is a kind of association whereby every member voluntarily agrees to place himself together with his possessions under the direction of a sovereign. The state of nature is a period of great peace and happiness. Men were free and equal in this state and were subject only to the law of nature. Man knows no evil here, he was innocent and one is free to be what his instinct wishes without any fundamental restriction. According to Rousseau, the sovereign is neither an individual member of the association, but an embodiment of the entire association. This suffices to say that all members of the association constitute the sovereign. The general will is the unified will of all members of the society, which aims for the common good of all and expresses the real interest of the society at large.


The present work is an overview of the numerous theories of implementation in the rehabilitation of the human society, with particular reference to the social contract theory. It is an adventure into the defragmentation of the fragmented human society. This has initiated a level of human inequality, thus, hampering a peaceful co-existence in the state. It aims at sifting the model political doctrines of this avant-garde theorist. Meanwhile, it is intended to espouse some relevant principles of political rights as inherent in Rousseau’s thesis.

1.4          SCOPE OF THE STUDY

Analytically, the scope of the study comprehends theory and application, and mindful of Rousseau’s vast contribution and discussion in philosophy, we limited the scope of this study to his synthesis of good government from self –government that is obtainable in the state of nature. His key concept to this realization is the General Will, which is also achieved through the instrumentality of what he termed the Social Contract.

1.5          METHODOLOGY

The work is expository and critical, major treatises in the book. The social contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau shall be exposed and evaluated. The work is divided into five chapters. Chapter one explains the background, aim, scope and method of the study. Chapter two deals with literature review. In chapter three, some of the most essential principles of political right were highlighted, articulated and espoused. Chapter four contains the evaluation. The conclusion of the whole work is conveyed in chapter five.



From ancient period onward, social contract theory was considered as one of the issues as far as the formation of a state or society is concerned. It is for this reason that many political theorists have formulated and defended a variety of conceptions of social contract. It may be pertinent to have a cursory look at a few of these general conceptions before delving into what some of these philosophers have to say.

Webster’s third New International Dictionary of the English Language defines social contract as “an agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and serves to regulate the relations of the members of a society with each other and with the government”1. Thus, for the author of this book, agreement is the main issue involved in a social contract.

The above view is supported by Encyclopaedia of philosophy which states that “a social contract view maintains that certain basic duties and institutions are grounded in an unanimous agreement among all society’s members.”2 The idea that political relations originate in agreement or contract has been expressed in general ways. For example in Plato’s Republic, Glaucon suggests that “justice is but a fact among rational egotists.”3 For New Catholic Encyclopaedia, social contract is “a concept used variously to explain, on consensual grounds, the origin, limits, conditions and purposes of political authority and obligations.”4

From all these conceptions we could draw the conclusion that agreement is the essential issue involved in social contract theory. The social contract theory postulates a tacit agreement between the government and the people and the institution of a political society by means of a compact among individuals. The theory of social contract became significant during and after the middle ages.


In his books, De Cive and The Leviathan, Hobbes began his political theory by painting a picture of a life in the state of nature which is the condition of people before the advent or coming into being of the state or civil society.


In the state of nature, all humans are equal and equality here means that people are capable of hurting their neighbours and taking what they judge they need for their own protection. Thus, the weakest may sometimes overcome the strongest. In that state, whatever satisfy somebody’s appetite is for him good and he would pursue it, even if it entails taking away life.

Men in pursuit of their hope and desire for their end may become enemies, in hatred and wars. “So that in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: First, competitions; second, difference; third, glory.”5 Thus, in the state of nature, there is always “war of everyman against everyman”6   (bellum omnium contra omnes.) By war Hobbes meant not actual battle but more of the disposition or inclination. Also, in this condition, there is no permanent ownership of anything by anybody; whatever anybody could grab was his own for as long as he was able to retain it. More so, Hobbes says that in the state of nature there was

No knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society … and the life of man was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. 7

According to Nwoko, “ in the state of nature, there is no morality, nothing is unjust, no common power, no law, no right, no wrong”8.But there are passions that also incline man to peace in this state of war, such as the fear of death, desire to live better and security ;in other words, the struggle for survival. Then to achieve these, reason suggests peace as sine-qua ­non (necessary) for the achievement of these inclinations. Thus, people enter into agreement or contract to establish peace and order. The contract by which people leave the state of nature to enter into a civil society is an agreement between individuals. Firstly, the parties involved in the contract are individuals who hand over their rights to the sovereign and the citizens. Therefore, the sovereign has absolute power to govern and is not a subject to the citizens. This is against Locke’s and Rousseau’s view of sovereign, who they said is not absolute. He must rule in accordance with the general will. Secondly, since Hobbes states that the sovereign can either be “this man or this assembly man”, it implies that the sovereign cannot be identified with any particular form of government. But whatever the kind of government he had in mind the important thing is that he saw the transfer of rights to the sovereign as both absolute and irrevocable.

According to Hobbes, there are two ways through which one can renounce one’s right: “Firstly, by simply renouncing it; secondly, by transferring it to another person.”10 This transfer of one’s will to the sovereign implies that the sovereign’s will and judgment represents the will and judgment of all citizens. Since the sovereign is absolute, any of his iniquitous acts, is left between him and God, and not between him and citizens.


In his Second Treatise on Government Locke begins his political theory as Hobbes did, with a treatment of the state of nature. But the state of nature as portrayed by Locke differs from that of Hobbes. Hobbe’s state of nature is a state of chaos, of war, conflict and lawlessness. According to Locke the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom and equality. There is no subjection in this state, “though this is a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license….”11   Also people in the state of nature were acquainted with the moral law. Due to the fact that the law teaches all men that since we are all equal and independent, “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”12 This natural law is not only law of self-preservation but the positive recognition of each person’s value by virtue of his status as a creature of God. The natural law is the natural rights with the correlative duties. Locke emphasized the rights to private property in his state of nature.

This is in contrast with Hobbes, who said that the right to private property is only after the legal order has been established. But for Locke, the right of property precedes the civil state because it is grounded in the natural moral law. Now, what justifies the ownership of property? Locke simply puts it that it is labour. Since one’s labour, is one’s own whatever one changes from its original state by his labour will automatically become his. This is because his labour has mixed with his commodity. Thus mixing one’s Labour with property turns a common property into a private property. To what extent could one acquire property? Locke says,

As much as anyone can make use of property to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belong to others13.

By property he means “lives, liberty and estates.”14 It is true that people know moral law but due to indifference and neglect, they may not develop the knowledge of it. Also, when one wants to decide a case, he does that to favour himself. Therefore, it is necessary to have written laws and judges to decide cases. It is for the achievements of these that people create political society. To prove the politically inalienable character of human rights, he placed the political society on people’s consent. Thus, people consent to have laws made and enforced by the society. They also consent to be bound by the majority, since, “it is necessary the body should move that way whether the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.”15  With this, Locke rejects absolute monarchy. Locke’s view of the sovereign is quite different from that of Hobbes. For Hobbes, the sovereign is absolute, but for Locke, though there must be a supreme power it must be placed in the hands of the legislature.

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Furthermore, he encouraged the division of powers, so that those who make laws do not execute them. Even the legislature has no absolute power. So, the people have the right to remove the legislative when they can no longer fulfill their functions. Locke went further to give the conditions when the legislative can be dissolved. First, when it is overthrown; second, when there is internal alteration of the legislature. “Whereas Hobbes placed the sovereign under God’s judgment, Locke stated that the people shall judge”.16 Hobbe’s state of nature is a state of chaos, war and conflict while in Locke’s view, the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom and equality. According to Thomas Hobbes, the sovereign has an absolute power and is not a subject to the citizens while in both Locke’s and Rousseau’s view, the sovereign is not absolute.


Just like other political theorists, Rawls posited a hypothetical situation known as original position, which is of course not an actual state of affairs. His idea of original position is similar to that of Locke and Rousseau’s social contract except that he is under no illusions that the original position was ever a reality. The essential feature is that “no one knows his place in society, his class, position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like”.17 Principles of justice are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. This is to make sure that “…no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances”.18

Rawls had in mind a situation in which no one is able to favour his own particular condition. Therefore, the principles of justice are resolved under a fair condition. The reason behind Rawls’ adoption of these principles is to annihilate those principles that any rational person will accept, if he or she knew certain things that are irrelevant from standpoint of justice. The two principles are as follows:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.19

In the first principles, everyone is expected to have equal basic liberties or the person may end up being a victim of discrimination. Some of the person’s liberties include: liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property etc. The first principle requires that these liberties be equal, since, citizens of a just society are to have the same basic right. The second principle applies to the distribution of income and wealth. While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. “These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first prior to the second”20.

In conclusion, from the above discussions, we can see that before Rousseau’s work on social contract, some philosophers or political theorists had already done something on it which influenced Rousseau to a large extent in his own theory of social contract. Rousseau shared more similarities with John Locke in his social contract than with Thomas Hobbes who disagreed with them on certain issues. John Rawls presented a conception of principles of justice, which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of social contract as found in Locke and Rousseau. These principles specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established


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