Obeying the Law

One of the central problems Rousseau wrestled with in The Social Contract was the question whether it is possible for a person to remain free while at the same time obeying a civil law. It is indeed the central problem for any political thinker, but Rousseau is the one who seems to have understood the problem most clearly.

Rousseau embraced the notion of the “noble savage,” claiming that we would be better off if we didn’t have to live in social units at all, especially social units with a government. But we do, and he knew it. So, how can we make the best of it? There’s only one way, he thought, and that is by living in a true democracy. Rousseau had little patience with representative government, insisting that we are free at the moment we choose our lawmakers and thereafter we are slaves to that person’s will. The only way we can live together in political units and retain our freedom is if we actually make the laws ourselves.

This is where it gets interesting. If citizens are able to discuss an issue at length and take the long view, Rousseau thought, they can pass laws that express what he called the “General Will.” That is, they can pass laws that really do further the common good — whether as individuals we accept that fact or not. In obeying a law that we have made in conjunction with other enlightened (!) citizens, we will invariably make the right law and in obeying that law we are free. In a word, freedom is about doing the right thing. If we are in a minority when the law is passed after thorough discussion, we are “forced to be free.” This is Rousseau’s famous paradox, and it sounds a bit like Pauline Manford in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep. But I doubt that Wharton knew about Rousseau’s take on this paradox and she was almost certainly ridiculing the notion that someone could be free while being forced to do what New York society decides is best for him. But is it that crazy? It certainly is when New York “society” determines what is best for us. But what if we made the laws ourselves?

We equate human freedom with having as many choices as possible, as I have mentioned in previous blogs. The more choices we have, the freer we think we are. Rousseau (and other enlightenment thinkers) would disagree. Freedom comes from doing the right thing. And, for the Frenchman, doing the right thing means acting in accordance with the General Will. This is a notion that powerfully influenced Kant who translated it into his famous “Categorical Imperative.” If we will what would be good for anyone else in the same circumstances (that is, distance ourselves from short-term self-interest and gut feelings) we can be free moral agents. Thus, we can make laws and in obeying those laws (moral or civil) we maintain our freedom. But when it comes to civil law, we must make the laws ourselves: Rousseau would have nothing to do with our Republic (which we mistakenly call a Democracy). Freedom is only possible in political units where all participate and all seek what is best for the community as a whole, recognizing that what is best for all is best for each.

What we have in the end, it seems to me, is a case for enlightened self-interest, a notion of morality that identifies the good (personal or public) with doing what is best for ourselves in the long run. The problem is, of course, that few of us are able to think in terms of the long-run and tend to be focused instead on short-term self-interest, which is antithetical to the good and can never lead us to what Martin Luther King famously called “the moral high ground.” In a word, if we want to be free and to do the right thing (which amounts to the same thing) we need to think about ourselves in conjunction with others and ask what would be best for all of us and not just for me here now.

Just a little philosophical food for a lazy Saturday.


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