November 6, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
The Social Contract has been on my mind a lot lately. Of course, elections and coronavirus and all of the current stresses on society have been on my mind, and they often circle me back into what it means to exist in a community at all. What is the sort of contract that I have with fellow citizens? For this reason, I designed the October Quarterly Discussion around Rousseau’s Social Contract.
In the first section of Book 1, Rousseau claims: “[T]he social order isn’t to be understood in terms of force; it is a sacred right on which all other rights are based.” Since he also discusses natural rights and legal rights, I did not initially understand his use of the term “sacred right.” Our group discussed this at great length, which was extremely beneficial. First of all, I feel that the idea of legal rights is fairly straightforward and often indicates rights that extend from written laws. These are human-made laws, but they can reflect cultural or spiritual beliefs. Natural rights are a little bit fuzzier, but are those rights endowed to humans. These have evolved over time, but do participate with life itself and humankind’s ability to sustain life.
The term “sacred right,” however, extends only to humans once they have bonded together into some sort of civil society. It is hard to differentiate this right from the others. In what ways is a citizen bound by sacred rights, and what are these sacred rights? Rousseau claims that the only natural society is that of the family. This family unit depends upon each other for care, nourishment, and safety. Larger societies offer security too in terms of food and health, etc. Once a person exists within a community, the sacred social contract exists as well. According to Rousseau, humans involved in a group setting must think in terms of the group, they can no longer think only of the self. For this reason, civil society thrusts one into a moral realm (whether we are aware of it or not), one that takes into account the well-being of society and our fellow neighbors. In other words, the civil state itself introduces questions of morality. So, in Rousseau’s terms, the sacred right of citizenship should replace appetites, inequalities, force, and excess.
Rousseau explains that force is never acceptable in a civil state. In fact, force de-legitimizes the civil state. He writes, “If force makes us obey, we can’t be morally obliged to obey.” In other words, if a citizen is forced to obey, then the sacred contract of citizenship has been alienated. A citizen is justified in their actions as long as it does not harm another citizen and force is neither legitimate for individuals nor governments. In fact, he says that a body of people must be created before the government or ruler exists, not vice versa. This is the way that a people becomes a people, and hence, we have the system of majority voting.
However, I still return to the idea of the way that a civil duty is also a sacred duty. There must be some exchange of liberties when turning from individual into civic-minded individual. The latter must exchange some natural liberty for some liberty-by-agreement and I think that this precise intersection is the place of exchange into sacred duty as discussed in Rousseau’s Social Contract.
This idea of a sacred duty extends to the sovereign as well. Rousseau continues, “[T]he body politic, i.e., the sovereign, owes its very existence to the sanctity of the contract; so it can never commit itself, even to another state, to do anything that conflicts with that original act -e.g. to alienate any part of itself, or to submit to another sovereign. I’m saying not that the sovereign ought not to do such a thing, but that it can’t do so: violation of the act of contract-making by which it exists would be self-annihilation; and nothing can be created by something that has gone out of existence.” I understand this to mean that in contradicting the populace, the sovereign immediately deligitimizes both themselves and any existing contract.
The question remains, though, what this would look like. What event(s) might precipitate the dissipating contract? There must be any number of possibilities. It also strikes me that a country like the United States, which is large with innumerable differences, must share some commonalities or spirit which adheres to a social contract. Without this (what I will call) “spirit,” the contract would have already disintegrated or been broken. This is a heavy question, certainly not one to be answered by myself. I view ideas of Social Contract rather as a hopeful spot from which to begin conversations about what binds us together. These are necessary conversations, and may themselves be the binding agent.
I want to sincerely thank all of the October Quarterly Discussion participants. The next Quarterly Discussion will be held in January and focus on Natural Science. Email as****@hm*.edu for more information. I look forward to hearing from you!
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