The General Will and the People As Sovereign
JeanJacques Rousseau’s Moral Republic
January 28, 2014
Background and Context
• Said to have inspired the French Revolution – equality of man, etc. Many
prominent liberals actually call his ideas dangerous, and blame his ideas for the
terrors of the revolution (e.g. Robespierre).
Critic of the Enlightenment
• His break with those who believed that cultivation of reason, the progress in the
sciences and the dissemination of the results of the knowledge…
o Rousseau rejects the glorification of science, progress, and reason. Claims
that modern institutions have a corrupting effect on human beings (against
o Proclaimed that he “felt before he thought” – human are primarily driven
by sentiment and love. Fact: Often we feel something and THEN we
o Father of Romanticism and modern political thought.
Critic of Hobbes
• In order to get out of this horrible state of nature, we must transfer our rights to an
authority above the law. – Hobbes
o Rousseau disagrees. The selfish man is not the natural man.
o Just because the man he describes is violent, doesn’t mean men are
Critic of Locke
• Rousseau disagrees in that man does not have a natural right to property.
o We need to do away with the old social contract, and institute a new fair
and just one, rooted in morality.
o Once money has been introduced, you can accumulate as much as you
want, because money doesn’t spoil (new way of thinking).
Claims that Hobbes and Locke do not properly describe the natural man, but rather what
the man is like after he has been corrupted. The natural man is free, moral, uncorrupted,
and a character of instinct. Before any society is formed, there exists a natural
compassion for fellow human beings – a sentimental feeling that happens before reason
The State of Nature
• The natural man is selfgoverned, and to protect and serve ourselves.
• As society progresses, man develops a sociallyacquired, corrupting selflove,
reliant on how others see you – it brings into the picture selfishness and violence. Essentially we become vain – we have pride, and we want to have more (power,
money, resources, etc.) than those around us. This is the key thing that corrupts
The TWO Social Contracts
• The current one, perpetrated by the rich against the poor (Hobbes and Locke).
o Rousseau claims that scarcity does not exist. The problem arises when
societies form, people acquire more than what they need to better
themselves (over others), and eventually amounts to theft.
o People began exploiting others – especially the poor – for personal gain.
The rich are always afraid that their property will be taken (back) by the
poor (in an uprising).
o In order to protect their illgotten gains, the rich justify self pursuits.
o The rich see trickery (by making the poor agree with their illigitamte
contract) as the best way to maintain the status quo. From here,
illegitimate law is legitimated and reenforced. This entrenches
inequalities, unlimited private property, slavery, etc.
o THIS is the true origin of our current society. The rich are the powerful, in
control of the state, and require obedience by all other members of society
to their selfserving laws.
• Rousseau: Just because the statusquo is in place, does not make it natural or
inevitable. Things have not always been (competitive) this way.
o Things can and must change for the better.
o The current contract is based on arbitrary power(might makes right) and
not morality or consent. It is the rich securing themselves against the poor
through increased control – a contract based on false pretenses.
o Here we can see the roots of modern critical thought (including Marx).
The movement to challenge the status quo is rooted in this train of
What Can We Do?
• We cannot retreat to the state of nature.
• Doesn’t advocate a utopian reality, but a call to better and change the current state
The General Will
• A complex and highly controversial concept.
• Today, we have the poor depending on the rich for food, sustenance, resources,
survival, lowpaying jobs, etc. It reinforces dependency!
• It is not the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism). Rather, it is
founded on the reciprocal dependence of each on the whole. The new social
contract is supposed to give each citizen to his country, and secure him against
those that offend him.
• No one should be so rich and powerful that they sjould be able to enslave others.
Also, no one should be so poor that they should have to give up their rights. We have a collective duty to tak