“Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has” (Rousseau 1913, p. 192)
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One way of understanding the concept of the social contract based on the perspective of Rousseau is to look at the way in which we as individuals become part of a society and the inherent obligations that are associated with it. Basically, society as we know it is composed of a set of rules and obligations that most individuals follow.
There are the more obvious rules in the form of laws and regulations which govern the function of society, while at the same time there are the less obvious rules in the form of moral and ethical guidelines as well as protocols when it comes to proper societal interaction (ex: spitting on someone’s face when talking to them is not considered acceptable manners in society).
Thus, from an outside perspective, it can be seen that society as we know it governed by an assortment of rules and regulations, both written and unwritten, which help to control human behavior to ensure the continued survival of the social group as a whole. It is based on such a concept that the notion of “the social contract” comes into effect. In order to be considered as being part of a particular society, it is necessary to ascribe to the rules and regulations that govern it.
In essence, a person enters into a social contract with the society in question wherein in order to reap the full benefits of belonging to such a society, all that an individual would need to do is follow all rules that govern human behavior and action within that society. However, as seen in the quote above, there is apparently a quid pro quo status in effect wherein a person apparently has to give something up in order to gain something in return.
In the case of the social contract, this takes the form of an individual giving up particular actions and freedoms in order to acquire certain benefits and protections. For instance, one of the fundamental rights in society is the ownership of property and the capacity to sell it as need be. This particular concept forms the basis of the right of ownership wherein people are entitled to own property, items or other similar aspects that have either been given to them or they have acquired through purchasing.
Since there is such a right in place, this creates a form of protection wherein a person cannot unilaterally seize the property of another unless both parties agree to it. Thus, the “freedom” so to speak that was given up was the capacity to merely seize what you want while the protection that given in exchange focuses on protecting what a citizen already owns. Another example of this in action comes in the form of proper social interactions among different people within society.
At the present, it is considered proper behavior to greet someone with a handshake while it is considered improper to inflict bodily harm to them as a form of greeting. Thus, the protection that a person gains by ascribing to this societal rule results in protection from bodily harm while at the same time an understanding of the proper means of greeting and associating with people.
Thus, it can be seen that under the social contract, what a person gives up they actually gain back in the form of societal benefits. Under the ideas of Rousseau, it can be presumed that if two men were born in exactly the same situation, in the same environment and with the same background and economic circumstances then these men would continue to be equal under the social contract.
Taking this particular viewpoint to its zenith, it can thus be stated if a large enough population were born also under the same circumstances, environment, background etc. then everyone in it would be equal as well. This means that the individual contracts entered into by each member of the society is equal with the same benefits being given to them also being equal as well.
This particular conclusion can be arrived to by assuming that the state of nature mentioned by Rousseau means a state with absolutely no outside interference and letting the natural progression of human growth take its place. When it comes to politics and the social contract, it is important to note that power yielded is equivalent only to the freedoms that the citizens give up under the social contract, anything beyond that is a violation of said contract.
For instance, while a citizen may give up certain freedoms in order to gain the protection of the government (ex: gun control), this does not give the government the right to unilaterally seize all freedoms under the guise of adhering to the social contract wherein there is a quid pro quo arrangement.
One clear example where significant violations occur can be seen in the case of North Korea and the expansive nature of human rights abuses that are occurring within the country in the form of preventing people from speaking out against the regime. This systematic denial of rights shows a direct violation of the quid pro quo nature of the social contract described by Rousseau and is more of a blatant imprisonment of the population.
Under Rousseau’s perspective of the social contract, the power of the government is in direction relation to what the people give up in exchange for the government’s “services” so to speak. Thus, power in this case is merely loaned and not given up entirely which makes governments ultimately answerable to the people since at the end of the day it is the people who still wield power.
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It is based on such a notion that politicians should understand that ultimately they are mere stewards of the people and that the power they wield was merely given to them in order to perform a function under the social contract.
Thus, there should be self-imposed limitations on the use of such power in order to ensure that there are no violations of the social contract. It is only by doing so that the government in power ensures that the general citizenry will be happy with their governance and will not openly rebel due to perceived violations of their benefits under the social contract.
Rousseau, J 1913, Social Contract & Discourses, Dutton & Company, New York.