Rousseau-less sinning than sinned against?

I’ve been reading Du contrat social (The Social Contract) by Rousseau, and I would have to say that, generally speaking, I find the liberal abhorrence of it to be a little overwrought. I think the main mistake has been to see it as a realistic, rather than idealistic, representation of society. I myself have criticized the notion of the “social contract” in the past as not being at all the foundation of our society and for being somewhat empty, given the relative impossibility of opting out of social living in the world today. But in reality the social contract is just a hypothetical for Rousseau, an idea of what should be the basis for society, rather than what really is.

And the basic problem with the notion is that there is no real concrete practical program of how to achieve the utopia described in the book starting from our own fallible, self-interested world. The view of Rousseau as a totalitarian is definitely unfair, although he does give the rather amorphous “general will” absolute sovereignty over the members of society. But the phrase “general will” is not entirely disingenuous, even though it is clearly a conception of the general welfare of society which trumps the desires of any individual citizen. But Rousseau is very clear that society can only work if its members themselves work first and foremost for the welfare of others and not only their own private interest. So while one might criticize his insistence on the general social good as being somewhat empty and unrealistic, it is not a coercive system that he has in mind, of which many liberals have accused him. One might question if and how people are supposed to place the general good above their own interests. Rousseau’s answer is education. This is why his political and educational programs are virtually synonymous. Again, one can question the feasability and validity of the ultimate end, but he means to bring about those ends by inculcating his ideas as education principles so that people will really want to pursue the general good rather than having it forced upon them. No doubt the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and 80 years of communism has made many of us cynical about this kind of idealism and suspicious that when the peaceful revolution doesn’t work out a violent dictatorship will likely become the vehicle of social change, but in that case one can only Rousseau of naïveté, not of himself having totalitarian ideas.

And, quite honestly, although I can’t share his belief in the existence of a social collective and a unitary “social good,” and I don’t really believe that the basic psychology of humanity can really be fundamentally changed, in the big picture he is right in the sense that social living does require people to look beyond their own self-interest and consider the good of others. The difference is that, in the absence of some sort of extra-human collective will that he envisions, we must do this as subjective individual beings, and with less regard for the strict chimeric equality that he prizes so highly than with a respect for the diversity of things in which people place value.

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