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Aspects of Rousseau's Political Thought

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Critical Thinking

Joseph Wood

Aspects of Rousseau's Political Thought

Kateb begins this article with the statement that there is common agreement that the center of Rousseau's political thought is the idea of the general will. Almost everyone also acknowledges that they are somewhat confused as to the meaning of this general will, and that some of the confusion can be blamed on Rousseau's himself. This confusion is apparently eliminated, according to the author, once we see that the "aim of the general will is justice." (1) This concept of justice removes any doubt regarding if Rousseau was writing from the position favoring collectivism, despotism, totalitarians, or individualism. Two other concepts come into play in Rousseau's political thought, the concept of moral autonomy, and the concept of fair play.

According to Kateb, Rousseau was writing about the idea of distributive justice as "giving every man his due," or the condition where the rights of every citizen are protected. (2) Society can only be just when the life, liberty, and property of each citizen are protected. Next Kateb explains that autonomy is derived from the ability of man to make laws and give them to himself. Finally, fair play is described as man's willingness to obey society's laws, even when he must sacrifice something in order to obey these laws. Once these three principles are understood, their connection can be seen. If a society is good, all people take part directly in framing laws; these laws embody justice (distributive), and therefore call into being the idea of fair play. A good citizen will be present during the framing of laws, to ensure that they are just and fair. The citizen will then willingly obey these laws. Rousseau intended to have these principles guide the political process whenever possible.

A just society will follow these principles, and a just citizen will fulfill their obligations in order to preserve life, liberty, and property. "There can be no benefits without obligations, and there will be no obligations without benefits" (3) Next, the author attempts to strengthen his argument by examining some of the key points made in the Social Contract.

Kateb believes that the central reason that people agree to live with one another in society, or agree to the social contract is to set up the rule of distributive justice. When society is established a system of rights is also established. Unstable ownership of property is replaced by legal ownership, and it becomes the goal of society to protect this ownership. The order of society moves from natural law into a system of civil rights. This acceding to the author is the sole reason for which the social contract was made. "Rousseau begins where Hobbes begins" (4)

The author then states that the following passage from the Social Contract strengthens that argument that protection to civil rights is central to Rousseau's political beliefs: "Under bad governments, this equality is only apparent and illusory; it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped. In fact, laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much."(5) Only those with property can receive the benefits of distributive justice. According to the author, trying taking away a person's property violates the principle of distributive justice. Rousseau's ideal society would therefore be one without organized interests, but instead would allow each group to keep what belongs to it, and not take what is not theirs. This is where distributive justice will rule. The author states that under the social contract, the strong shall never take from the weak. This kind of injustice will upset the social contract. If society is strutted in this manner, the general will is expressed by laws, which are just and distributive. All laws should look to the common good, as the general will looks to the common good, which is preservation and justice. The general will is justice, and people must choose laws that they feel are just. This inclination towards justice can be achieved through a proper economic and social structure.

Kateb now begins to explain the concepts associated with distributive justice and the general will. The first of these are autonomy and fair play. Autonomy can be achieved by the people taking part in the writing and passage of laws. If laws are imposed upon the citizens from another source, the citizens are dependent upon that source for direction. Autonomy is taken away even with representative government. If the people are to be truly free, laws must be just and accomplish the following: "the law must look to the common good, it must realize the general will, it must embody the principle of distributive justice." (6) Autonomy and distributive justice are one in the same. Laws should come from all people and should apply to all people. When this occurs, moral liberty will be achieved, and the people will be given autonomy.

Next, Kateb examines the concept of fair play. He presents the central question of what brings the idea of fair play into operation? Kateb explains that the fair play comes into being due to the need for some sacrifice by the citizen. Everyone in society should share in the passage of laws, leading to autonomy. When individuals participate in making laws that impose taxes, or dictate mandatory military service, the citizen feels that they are serving equally in the existence of society. This creates a reciprocal relationship between the citizens. Fair play requires that those who benefit from society should also be willing to make some sacrifices for the receipt of these benefits. The author then explains that the idea of reciprocity is an important element in the idea of justice and fair play. A person should obey and respect the civil rights of others, while at the same time expecting their rights to be respected. This is the idea of justice. At the same time the person must agree to make sacrifices for others, while at the same time expecting others to make sacrifices for them. This is the idea of fairness.

From these concepts, the ideas that Rousseau was a despot, individualist, or totalitarian have been presented. The author discounts this belief by stating that Rousseau's "whole aim was is to advocate a small community in which all citizens share the responsibility to use their autonomy to frame



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