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Morality and Government in a Civil State

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 6, 2006
Latest Update: February 6, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Morality and Government in a Civil State
Randy suggested this link to clear up some points in our transform_dom discussion of morality and government in a civil state: The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, by Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762, Translated by G. D. H. Cole, public domain. Rendered into HTML and text by Jon Roland of the Constitution Society. Foederis æquas Dicamus leges. Virgil, Æneid xi:

"MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. . . .

"But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights." 1. Subject of the First Book

"THE passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked." (8. The Civil State.

Peruse the original and consider some of the following discussions:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does social contract theory fit into modern political theory?

    Consider what the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us about that.

    "Social Contract Theory, nearly as old as philosophy itself, is the view that persons' moral and/or political obligations are dependent upon a contract or agreement between them to form society. Socrates uses something quite like a social contract argument to explain to Crito why he must remain in prison and accept the death penalty. However, Social Contract Theory is rightly associated with modern moral and political theory and is given its first full exposition and defense by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the best known proponents of this enormously influential theory, which has been one of the most dominant theories within moral and political theory throughout the history of the modern West. In the twentieth century, moral and political theory regained philosophical momentum as a result of John Rawls’ Kantian version of social contract theory, and was followed by other revisitings of the subject by David Gauthier and others. More recently, philosophers from different perspectives have criticized Social Contract Theory. In particular, feminists and race-conscious philosophers have argued that social contract theory is at least an incomplete picture of our moral and political lives, and may in fact camouflage some of the ways in which the contract is itself parasitical upon the subjugations of classes of persons."

    From Social Contract Theory . . . The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  2. Would Rousseau's concept of a social contract work for the United States today? Why or why not? See the last piece of the following quote:

    Consider this discussion of Rousseau's social contract offered in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    "Rousseau wrote his Second Discourse in response to an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. (Rousseau had previously won the same essay contest with an earlier essay, commonly referred to as the First Discourse.)"

    " . . .

    "For Rousseau the invention of property constitutes humanity’s ‘fall from grace’ out of the State of Nature.

    " . . . Eventually, those who have property notice that it would be in their interests to create a government that would protect private property from those who do not have it but can see that they might be able to acquire it by force. So, government gets established, through a contract, which purports to guarantee equality and protection for all, even though its true purpose is to fossilize the very inequalities that private property has produced.

    "The normative social contract, argued for by Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762), is meant to respond to this sorry state of affairs and to remedy the social and moral ills that have been produced by the development of society. . . ."

    "The Social Contract begins with the most oft-quoted line from Rousseau: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains" (49).

    "So, this is the fundamental philosophical problem that The Social Contract seeks to address: how can we be free and live together? Or, put another way, how can we live together without succumbing to the force and coercion of others? We can do so, Rousseau maintains, by submitting our individual, particular wills to the collective or general will, created through agreement with other free and equal persons."

    " . . . The sovereign is thus formed when free and equal persons come together and agree to create themselves anew as a single body, directed to the good of all considered together. So, just as individual wills are directed towards individual interests, the general will, once formed, is directed towards the common good, understood and agreed to collectively. Included in this version of the social contract is the idea of reciprocated duties: the sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is likewise committed to the good of the whole. Given this, individuals cannot be given liberty to decide whether it is in their own interests to fulfill their duties to the Sovereign, while at the same time being allowed to reap the benefits of citizenship. They must be made to conform themselves to the general will, they must be “forced to be free” (64).

    "For Rousseau, this implies an extremely strong and direct form of democracy. One cannot transfer one's will to another, to do with as he or she sees fit, as one does in representative democracies."

    From c. Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

  3. What do we want to glean from Rousseau's social contract?

    Consider his insistence on "MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." Freedom for the individual seems to Rousseau a "natural right." Yet he suggests that the only way we can truly be free is by coming together in the sovereignty of a community. At that point Rousseau says that "the sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is likewise committed to the good of the whole." That would seem to me to suggest that our government has a duty of commitment to the good of all its people.

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