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Rousseau on Natural Freedom and Social Contract Essay

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Updated: Apr 22nd, 2021

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought. Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us; to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it” (Rawls 23). These famous words well emphasize that though it is an essential requirement for an individual, freedom requires that one be ready to take full responsibility for the consequences of their freedom and be obliged to do what is right by the society to safeguard it. This paper seeks to emphasize the fact that freedom has a price. That though we are free, we are practically in chains and that there is no such thing as freedom without sacrifice. As Mohandas Gandhi bluntly puts it, ”freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life. What would a man not pay for living?”

Rousseau (12) purports that liberty is a natural right but can only be fully realized when one commits himself to a social contract. Naturally, individuals tend to sacrifice their reasoning to meet their individual needs. He argues that through the social contract, the state of nature and personal freedom should be overlooked. Instead, each individual’s powers are directed towards a common good; social freedom.

Rousseau envisioned a country in which individuals in a society forfeit their natural rights and are united together by mutual consent. These citizens collectively agree to abide by a set of rules, accept duty imposed on them equally, preserve one another, and remain free. That the general will, which is the indivisible and unalienable popular sovereign, decides what is suitable for everyone. It becomes the rational ruling body.

However, society has never lacked in individuals who violate or ignore their roles and fail to think of others or the general will but instead focus only on their selfish desires. As a result, such individuals should be forced to listen to what the citizens collectively agreed on because it is the popular sovereign that decides what is right for society. Hence Rousseau’s famous statement, “we shall force them to be free.”

What are the implications of this assertion? This means that the law is voted by and decided upon by the citizen’s representative, so every citizen has the civic obligation to safeguard that which was agreed upon collectively. Should an individual lapse and disobey the general will, the law must ensure that the individual pays the price for disobedience. But that does not imply that the law is a limitation to one’s individual freedom (Rousseau 23).

Instead, by its existence and enforcement, the law merely seeks to remind the individual citizen that he agreed to be constrained if he did not respect his own will as formulated in the General Will. Laws then represent the restraints of civic freedom, a bridge between nature (natural liberty) and civil society (civic liberty). In this sense, the law becomes a force behind civilization. It not only governs the people, but it also helps mold their character.

Getting oneself into the social contract involves doing away with the limitless ability to do anything that he pleases with the sole priority of advancing personal desires. The individual attains the freedom to coexist harmoniously within the society and have control over his property. This, therefore, means that People should be able to conform to society because it is the sovereign body.

Those who are unwilling to do so should be subjected to the full force of the law. Freedom cannot be achieved if we ignore or go against what we are supposed to do, if we do not think of others and only focus on selfish wants. It comes with obligations. Citizens should not challenge the laws and restrictions of the society which they instituted. Defending the community and its laws is, therefore, fundamental.

While it is apparent that in a society of too many laws and restrictions, abuse of human rights and freedoms is bound to be inherent as the General Will becomes authoritarian in its nature, and that in such cases, people will continuously fight for more freedom, that will be a contradiction to the social contract since they will be fighting against what they themselves instituted.

On the other hand, too much freedom is the building block for immorality and lack of control in a society. For instance, a society with too much sexual freedom and permissiveness eventually leads to the total breakdown in morals. Experience has taught us that we need boundaries in every aspect of life. Picture a society in which professions are not limited in their actions. A society in which the children act as they please, a society with unlimited freedom of expression, a market with no limitations, churches with no code of conduct, uncensored media, and many other liberties. That would be a breeding ground for disaster! It is no wonder that in society today, every other outrageous group is physically demanding for their right to practice their perversity publicly.

It explains the presence of child-prostitutes all over the world and other vices. What will be next? We are assailed by evil all over. It is precisely the reason why some parents strictly supervise their children, keeping them on a short leash, with the hope of keeping them from all the evil influences of the society. It is the reason why some countries still prefer dictatorship to democracy.

It is precise because of such excesses that boundaries should exist. While no one, in particular, can tell us what to or not do since we are masters of our destinies for better or for worse, it is our duty still to apply rules which limit our actions in every situation. Individuals are free to choose, and since their choices affect others, there is a need for regulation. We need a set of rules which will guide us through the decision making and help us control our actions.

Individuals that go against the norms of society should be punished by law. Much as they have the civil right to choose their way of life or their lifestyle, which may have been forced upon them, if it hurts another human in any way, it should not be accepted or tolerated. When society does not condone them, these individuals think that their way of life has now been accepted. That type of influence should be prohibited so that it does not spread.

Nevertheless, many questions are bound to arise from this argument. For instance, don’t citizens have the right to get out of the “contract” should they deem it not serving the common interest? What of the minority? Don’t they have a say in matters of their own good? Is everyone aware of the details of the social contract? Isn’t the use of the word ‘force’ alongside freedom in itself a contradiction? It may be argued that that goes against one of the requirements for getting into contracts; that contracts are voluntary.

This is relative since not every human is rational enough to understand the need to get into the contract, and sometimes it may not be ignored that prevents one from getting into this contract but sheer stubbornness. This is large because the individual feels it would be unfavorable for him whenever he wishes to usurp his natural rights.

In conclusion, freedom is crucial to human development and society at large. In order for it to be beneficial to the whole community, there should be regulating mechanisms. Freedom has its own challenges. Society should function as a unit, and every individual is accountable.

Ultimately, it all comes down to individual self-control. While individuals are allowed total freedom, self-control must be exercised to their limits, and individuals should act responsibly. For a society to be completely free, individuals should be ready to take responsibility for their freedom. Otherwise, if too much-unrestricted freedom is given to a community whose members act irresponsibly and cannot exercise control, that society or state is ultimately bound to fail to safeguard its sovereignty. Once natural liberty takes control of the society, and individuals no longer adhere to the General Will, the social contract is broken. That society is no longer free.

Works Cited

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. Maurice Cranston. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968. Print.

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