In “The Social Contract” Rousseau tackles the question of why we have governments and societies at all, what the limits are, and what the responsibilities are.
Rousseau gets to the heart of the matter when he says that people form societies and governments in order to survive the forces of nature.
“I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition then can subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.”
In an odd way I think this man against nature justification is evident in winter when people shovel their sidewalks. It seems like an over-simplification, but when the whole neighborhood shovels their walks and pays taxes for snow plows, then the winter is much more survivable.
By the same token, though, the ease that our modern society has provided us causes people to think that they can operate more independently of society than they might in other circumstances.
“’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 united himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.’ This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contact provides the solution.”
Rousseau writes that people must give themselves over to the community, and because each person does so, and agrees to play by the same rule, retains his or her freedom.
“We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves, is liberty. “
What we see today is people who assert their rights to be free and act as they wish, but they take on no responsibilities for the communities of which they are a part. Listen to any modern political debate, and you will hear plenty of screaming about rights, but very little talk about the responsibilities that we owe to one another by being part of the state. The Founding Fathers wrote a Bill of Rights, but perhaps we need to add a Bill of Responsibilities to it.
In a book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this site, former U.S. Marine Jess Goodell writes about how when she returned home from Iraq, one of the things that shocked her was how selfish people were in civilian life and how much of their behavior would never be allowed in a combat zone. While I don’t think that we should all need to live on yellow alert, I think we would be better off if we all took a few minutes to realize that civilization is here because we all take on responsibilities and that those are as important as our rights.
“In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constituted the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfill the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.”
I think this is the risk we face today with everyone thinking about their individual rights and their own interests. They never see the need to set aside their own interests for the larger good because they are too far removed from the dangers that exist that forced people to enter into the social contract in the first place. When disaster strikes, we often see people pull together in ways that seem unlikely, until you consider the beginnings of the social contract. Of course people help each other after the hurricanes or blizzards – they understand the need for survival.
But I worry about the future because even those returns to the fundamental social contract are increasingly being used to score political points. If we cannot come together and recognize the duties we owe one another voluntarily, then the position we will soon find ourselves in because of our selfish behavior will force us to renegotiate and re-enter that social contract. That will involve some very hard times before it happens, though.
It is worth noting that Rousseau does not believe that recognizing we owe duties to our society means that we all become cogs in a big machine. It means that there need to be limits on our behavior in recognition that we are part of a larger whole.
“I have already defined civil liberty; by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself: which implies, on the part of the great, moderation in goods and position, and, on the side of the common sort, moderation in avarice and covetousness.”
“Such equality, we are told, is an unpractical ideal that cannot actually exist. But if its abuse is inevitable, does it follow that we should not at least make regulations concerning it? It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends to continually destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.”
Rousseau causes me to think more deeply about the rights and responsibilities that we all have. If we had more conscious thought about the social contract in our public discourse, I think we would be better off. If we continue to lose sight of that contract because life is made less risky by technology and a general inertia that keeps society going, then we will eventually be forced to come to an ugly reckoning with our own selfishness. We have to think bigger and smarter in order to reach our true potential both as a society and as individuals.