Rousseau’s Social Contract, public justification and the General Will Human beings are born both as potential lovers and rapists, potential friends and foes, patronsand murderers. In our nature, we find the possibility of both the best and the worst.
Socialcontract theorists think that social institutions play a crucial role in making it rational for citizensto be ‘the better angels’ of their nature2. As Rawls puts it, human nature is like a function:”given social and historical conditions, they assign the kinds of character that will develop andbe acquired in society” (Rawls, 2000, p.207).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contractis a prime example in this tradition. In the opening passage of the book, Rousseau states: I want to inquire whether there can be a legitimate and reliable rule of administrationin the civil order, taking men as they are and laws as they might be. I shall try alwaysto reconcile in this research what right permits with what interest prescribes, so thatjustice and utility are not at variance (SC, I, 1).
Reinier Hoon – U153132 2 I have ‘stolen’ this phrasing from Pinker (2011) 2 Taking ‘men as they are’ refers not to behavioural traits or particular ends that actual citizenshave developed under existing social conditions and institutions, but to people’s basicpsychological dispositions that interact with social institutions and then result in actualbehaviour (Rawls, 2000, p.207). The role of social institutions, then, is to make it rational forpeople, given their psychological dispositions, to agree upon terms of conduct that secure thatall bring to bear their (more) virtues possible selves.
This agreement is rational from theperspective of individual citizens because the benefits of others (and for Rousseau evenoneself) acting in the required way outweighs the loss of no longer being free to act on anykind of will, or in any kind of way. In brief, all social contract theories, in one way or another,combine a conception of human nature (and psychology), with fundamental interests and aspecific social arrangement that allows the former kind of person to secure the latter. It istherefore rational to consent to, or contract into a society that secures these terms of conduct.It is from this voluntary consent, that social contract theories also derive their conception oflegitimate authority.
The authority of rules of conduct is not alien, but freely chosen by thesubjects themselves. Different social contract theorists have defended different conceptions of humannature, resulting in different philosophical doctrines. In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes forexample, famously presents a pessimistic (or realistic) image of human nature as being solelydriven by egoism and crude self-interest in survival and ‘commodious living’ (read conceptionof human nature). Because enjoying these goods requires peace and security (readfundamental interests), it would be rational for all to submit to the authority of an all-powerfulsovereign capable of ‘keeping all in awe’ through fear of punishment and her unlimited power(read terms of contract).
Rousseau’s doctrine is different on all three levels. Let me start in hisconception of human psychology and build from there towards fundamental interest, and thentoward the terms of contract and the function of the General Will. To really grasp Rousseau’s conception of human psychology, we must look elsewherethen in The Social Contract. This because both in in Chapter IV of Rousseau’s educationaltreatise Emile and in his Discourse on Inequality Rousseau distinguishes between two formsof self-love, namely amour de soi and amour-propre, that are only implicitly present in TheSocial Contract but vital to the structure of his political philosophy (EM, 174; DI, 18-19). Amourde soi is a natural form of self-love that does not depend on others. It is the love through whichwe are concerned with our own interests and preservation; is the concern for our own goodas we, ourselves, see it.
In that sense, it is a healthy and good form of love, because itadvances our well-being. It also does not imply a will to advance one’s interest at the expenseof others. The second kind of self-love, namely amour-propre, is in that sense different.
It is Reinier Hoon – U153132 3 the kind of love that emerges when man enters society. It is in this kind of self-love that humansexpress their social nature, in which we care about our social position to others. In that sense,it is a healthy form of love because it creates resistance when we are treated as subject orsocial inferiors. But because of its desire for social standing, it also easily corrupts into a desireto be regarded as superior. As such can be a source of vice, misery and alienation.
Whenamour-propre corrupts, the freedom of amour de soi (living with oneself and one’s ownreasons) is exchanged for the chains of amour propre (acting for regard of others). In itshealthy form, it expresses a concern for a secure social standing compared to others, andrequires at least a desire for recognition as equal (Rawls, 2000, p.198) When men live in society, amour-propre is a given, and thus in one way or anotherpolitical philosophy must identify a method of social cooperation in which there is enough roomfor amour de soi, or reasonable self-interest, while providing room for healthy amour-propre(a desire to stand as equals), while preventing amour propre from corrupting into a desire todominate, or for those who are dominated, a dependency upon the opinion of others. Nowwhat kind of laws can do that job?