Pros and Cons of Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory and Its Applicability to Modern Day Society

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Over the centuries there have been many philosophers who have sought to explain how political systems are formed, how they work and which one is the best form of rule. This has brought about many different theories from philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. While some of these theories have been accepted, other theories have been heavily debated and opposed by academics around the world. One such theory is the social contract theory. Philosophers such as John Locke and Hobbes have their own versions of the social contract theory however in this essay we will examine the pros and cons of Rousseau’s social contract theory and its applicability to modern day society. Firstly we will give a brief background on Jean Jacques Rousseau. Secondly we will define what a social contract is. Thirdly the essay will examine the pros and cons of Rousseau’s social contract theory. Fourthly the essay will assess whether Rousseau’s social contract theory is applicable to modern day society. The essay will then end off with a brief conclusion of the discussion at hand. The argument of this essay is that the social contract does still apply to modern society.

Definition of concepts

The social contract theory

The social contract theory is essentially a theory of morality as well as that of the state. Although social contracts are thought to have been around for eons the social contract theory itself only started to garner attention from the field of political philosophy around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The concept behind this theory is that in the beginning man lived in a state of nature. They had no government and there was no law to regulate them. (Laskar; 2013). This state of lawlessness created a perilous and distressful environment for man to live in. This led man to draw up an agreement that would address some of the hardships they faced in such an environment. Through the social contract people sought protection for themselves as well as their property. It was also due to the social pact that man started to join together and commit themselves to an authority or sovereign. In doing this people lost some of their rights and freedoms. The sovereign or authority in power would then pledge to protect the lives and property of the people. This authority would protect their freedoms as well albeit to a certain extent. Thus one could say that the existence of a sovereign, authority or the state is a result of the social contract.

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Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau was French philosopher, writer, composer, and political theorist. He was born in Switzerland in 1712 and died in 1788 in France. Rousseau was one of the most influential philosophers of the enlightenment era in the eighteenth century. He drove the political and moral thinking of the time into advanced channels. Rousseau was a very accomplished writer and had he published several works of art in his lifetime. These include; A discourse on the arts and science. This was his first philosophical work and it was published in . It examined how the arts and sciences had caused the ruin of virtue and morality.*.His other works include,which were published in respectively.Despite these many works of art Rousseau is best known for his work on The Social Contract which was published in 1962. His other famous works include .

Rousseaus social contract theory

It is a popular opinion that Rousseau’s social contract theory was ahead of its time. Rousseau lived in the eighteenth century, an era that was marred with chaos and instability. His social contract theory was a way of him addressing the plights of his time. His version of the social contract states that before the social contract, life in the state of nature was happy and there was equality amongst men.(Laskar;2013). However as time went on, it brought changes that humanity would have to deal with. Such a change was the increase in population. This change pushed man to find new means of meeting their fundamental needs. For example a small population would likely be nomadic and rely on hunting and gathering for sustenance. A population increase though, would push them to devise new ways of providing for that population. They would now have permanent settlements and practice farming and herding animals instead. Other changes include the inventions and specialization of labour that made life much easier than it was before. These developments gave people more time off and it is during this time that man started to make comparisons between themselves and others. These comparisons influenced the public values of society hence leading to feelings of shame, jealousy and pride.

One of the other crucial themes of Rousseau’s social contract theory is the introduction to the ownership of private property. According to Rousseau the ownership of private property transitioned mankind from the peaceful, pure state of nature to a state plagued by avarice, inequality and immorality. Due to the unsavoury state of affairs man had brought upon themselves, they gave up their individual freedoms not to a single sovereign, authority or power but to the general will.

The general will

The social contract is a means used to guarantee the civil rights and freedoms of the people of a particular society. The core of Rousseau’s general will is that the government acquires its prerogative to rule from the governed. The state and its laws are a result of the general will of the people .Should government pass laws that do not fall in line with the collective will, those laws will be deemed illegal. True political legitimacy is found within the general will, not through sheer absolute force. In order to maintain a well ordered society the collective will must be present. The general will of the people on matters concerning the state can be discerned through political activities such as voting and debates.

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Pros and Cons of Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory and Its Applicability to Modern Day Society. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from
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