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The Civil Society: Rousseau Vs. Locke

November 7, 2010

Rousseau seems to strongly believe that a government is only truly “free” if all of its citizens have the ability to voice their opinions and vote.  The natural levels of inequality based on age, gender, and race that are apparent in the state of nature, are eliminated with the creation of a civil society and “social contract”

According to Rousseau, in the State of Nature, the right of Autonomy and personal freedom reign supreme.  Based off of this philosophy one is able to infer that Rousseau believes that an individual has the most freedom in the state of nature, and that this is ideal for man.  However, he goes on to say that man has the innate desire to be a part of a social setting, and additionally, man possesses the ability to put his actions in prospective and may realize what is best for himself and the greater community.  Thus a free and equal society is accomplished by deriving a social contract.

So what exactly is this “social contract” that is necessary for a man to derive in order to exit the “state of nature”?  As Rousseau puts it:

“each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and in our capacity, we receive each member as indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau. P. 192).

This idea of the social contract is somewhat contradictory to Rousseau’s original belief in the ability for autonomy to take supreme importance for a man.  In this social contract described, man relinquishes his ability to act in full accordance to himself, giving power to the legislature, which is representative of the entire people, as opposed to just the individual.  When it comes down to it, individuals enter the social contract in the first place because they are looking to for a way to best fend for themselves.  Being a part of a social contract, can, and almost always is, a very beneficial mechanism for an individual to be a part of, as it ensures strong protection against enemies and crime.

John Locke’s central belief is that society is set up to protect the indivdual’s personal property and to avoid disputes over property.  These disputes can either be local or international, and can go as far as causing civil, or world wars.

In Lockes’ social contract, men have unequal amounts of posessions on earth, which is contrary to the understanding of Rousseau.  What seems to undermine Lockes reasoning is the fact that Lockes underlying basis for man having personal property is that there is enough to go around for everyone.  I find this reasoning to be completely flawed based on society today.

Comparing Locke and Rousseau is not as black and white as it may appear.  Both believe in the power of the “civil society,” but for different reasons.  Each of the thinker’s reasonings ultimately lead to one point: the power of the community to provide protection; whether it be for an individual’s personal property, or for the protection of the society as a whole.

4 Comments
  1. adamhollenberg permalink
    November 7, 2010 8:34 PM

    I am not sure that Rousseau means that everyone will be equal in terms of property, but he does mean they are equal in society, due to the social contract. People are an equal part of the general will, which decides the path of society. While Rousseau does mean that men will be equal, he does not necessarily mean in terms of property, as you say.

  2. joshhend permalink
    November 7, 2010 8:58 PM

    I found this blog post very interesting but I don’t think you wrote enough about Locke to do him justice. I think your point that the problem with Locke is that he believes “there is enough [property] to go around for everyone” is not correct. Firstly, Locke’s actual quote is “where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”(chapter V) He doesn’t say that it must be actively distributed amongst them but he is thinking more of equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. Also (I’m not sure if you think this but I did when I first thought of Locke’s argument) Locke may not be talking just about property in terms of land this could just as well be any other sort of ownership e.g. a car (a contemporary example).

  3. yequan permalink
    November 7, 2010 10:53 PM

    I feel that John Locke’s view of joining civil society is to protect the rights like life, liberty and property. John believes that everyone has the equal right to his property, to Locke, the unequal distribution of property is inconsequential. Rousseau pays more attention on joining the civil society would make everyone free and equal because of the general will.

  4. ariellagomolin permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:57 AM

    I find it interesting that you choose to question the credibility of Rousseau’s beliefs versus his actually concrete social contract. While you say that his beliefs are one of complete individual freedom, you then go back to question whether under the social contract he is in fact looking out completely for the individual himself. Under the social contract, Rousseau points to the idea that man comes together in a society to work with one another in order to create a civil and functional society. In my opinion, it is contradictory of Rousseau to create man as a completely free individual in the state of nature and to then continue with its idea of “freedom”, even though stated differently under the contract, when in fact in a society, man will have to give up some of his own individual rights in order to better the society and community as a whole. The differing views between Locke and Rousseau, while both think along the same lines with regards to the social contract, differ with regard to what type of liberal ideas they are. Rousseau points to the idea of republicanism which points to a higher governing order coming to power to create order in society, whereas Locke points to the idea of monarchy, where one individual reigns supreme. This difference leads to a conflicting idea of the state of nature and the social contract. Going back to this post, while I do agree that Locke and Rousseau cannot be compared as black or white, there are many large differences between the two to distinguish many differing ideas and beliefs. Republicanism and Monarchy are two conflicting ideologies. The fact that Rousseau believes in republicanism and Locke believes in monarchy shows that the two are different views. Liberal Monarchy points to the idea that there is an elected monarch. Liberal comes into play here by distinguishing between absolute monarch and liberal monarchy. In liberal monarchy, the king or queen has limited power because they have a parliament or governing body behind them instituting and enforcing laws and certain affairs. Liberal Republicanism, on the other hand, points to the idea that the head of state is appointed NOT by heredity but by elections. There is a grey area in the comparison between Locke and Rousseau; whether it be because of the fact that both believe in liberal society or the fact that their underlying reasoning to a social contract is for the freedom of the individual. The interesting thing is that while researching the differencing between republicanism and monarchy, when paired with liberal in front, some views believe they are complimentary of one another. In terms of Locke and Rousseau, some of their differing views and beliefs points to the different interpretations of the meanings.

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