The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Can there be a legitimate society? If so, what would it look like?

These are the questions that Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempts to answer in The Social Contract. In this classic work, the 18th-century Swiss philosopher discusses political legitimacy, or the ethical right to exercise political authority by creating and enforcing laws.

Continue reading for a brief overview of The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In The Social Contract, Rousseau uses a normative definition of legitimacy—one which provides standards that a state must meet to be legitimate. A normative definition is suited to discussions of a society’s moral obligations. Normative definitions differ from descriptive definitions of political legitimacy, commonly found in works of history and the social sciences. A descriptive definition states that for a society to be legitimate, the only requirement is that its members believe that it is legitimate. This type of definition is better suited to discussing concrete examples of present or past interactions between a society and its members.

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempts to answer these questions: “Can there be a legitimate society, and if so, what would it look like?” We explain Rousseau’s answer by exploring the following:

  1. The definition of legitimacy
  2. How a society becomes a legitimate state through a social contract
  3. A legitimate state’s government
  4. Preserving a legitimate state

Part 1: Defining a Legitimate Society

Rousseau begins The Social Contract by explaining what makes a society legitimate. To answer this question, he explores three ideas:

  • The natural freedom people have outside of societies in a “state of nature”
  • The benefits of life inside a society
  • Why a legitimate society can’t infringe on natural freedom while providing those benefits

Through these explanations, Rousseau determines the benefits and moral standards a society must offer to be legitimate.

Standards for Legitimacy

Based on the benefits of the state of nature and the reason we form societies, Rousseau creates two standards a society must meet to be legitimate (that is, to have the ethical right to exercise political authority over its members):

1) Protection: A legitimate society must offer the benefit of protection that people form societies for in the first place. If it didn’t, people would be better off remaining in the state of nature, free to do whatever they want.

2) Freedom: A legitimate society must not infringe on the freedom of its members.

Rousseau offers two reasons why a society can’t legitimately infringe on the freedom of its members: no one has the natural right to rule and no one voluntarily sacrifices freedom

Part 2: The Social Contract

To meet the two standards necessary for a legitimate society, Rousseau explains that all members of this society must come together as equals and agree to a social contract. This social contract has one rule: Every member must choose to exchange their personal freedom (freedom to pursue what’s good for themself as an individual) for civil freedom (participation in a society that pursues what’s good for everyone).

The Sovereign

Under the social contract, all members of the society form a collective political entity: the sovereign will of the people (sovereign for short). The sovereign isn’t an existing political body like a court or parliament. Instead, the sovereign is closer to the overarching ideology or purpose of society—the reason for its existence and every use of its political authority.

The Legitimacy of the Social Contract

A state built on the social contract meets both of Rousseau’s standards for legitimacy: protection and freedom.

The Creation of a Legitimate State

Therefore, Rousseau concludes that a social contract (and the sovereign it creates) is the foundation of a legitimate state and that the ultimate goal of this state is the common good for all its citizens.

Part 3: Legitimate Government

While the sovereign provides legitimacy to the state, Rousseau argues that it cannot handle the day-to-day governing of the state. The sovereign can’t make decisions about specific matters, as they’ll inevitably divide public opinion—a “collective will” is impossible. The sovereign therefore must create a government to run the specific operations of the state, acting as a middleman between the sovereign will of the people and individual citizens.

The Legislators

The legislators write a constitution consisting of rules for how the government functions. Their main goal when writing this constitution is to express the sovereign will of the people, preserving liberty and equality—in other words, the common good.

The Executives

Once a government has a constitution, it will need executives to make and enforce laws and manage the affairs of the state. He outlines three executive systems:

  • Democracy—First, Rousseau discusses democracy: a system where all citizens act as executives, making and enforcing laws.
  • Monarchy—Second, Rousseau discusses monarchy: a government with a single executive.
  • Aristocracy—Finally, Rousseau explains aristocracy: a government composed of a small group of individuals, acting separately from the sovereign.

Part 4: Preserving the Legitimate State

All legitimate states eventually die, claims Rousseau. The division of power between the sovereign and the government can’t be perfect, and when one gains too much power over the other then it can freely act in self-interest and the state stops being legitimate.

However, a legitimate state can prolong its life by creating systems to delay an imbalance of power. Rousseau identifies three systems that prolong the life of a legitimate state: public assemblies, public unity (through censorship or state religion), and supreme powers.

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Social Contract summary :

  • An explanation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's social contract theory
  • What a legitimate and ethical government looks like
  • The two standards a society must meet to be legitimate

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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