The Social Contract

The Social Contract Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapter I-V


Only the general will can direct the forces of the community toward the common good. A private individual may temporarily have the same interests as the general will, but will not share the community's interests in all circumstances. Thus, sovereignty is inalienable, and the sovereign cannot be represented by anything other than itself. Sovereignty is also indivisible: the will either reflects the interests of all citizens, or it does not. Rousseau complains about political theorists who divide sovereignty into different parts, such as legislative and executive power. In reality, he believes, these parts are subordinate to the general will and merely put into effect the interests of the community.

The general will is always right, and always promotes public utility. However, the deliberations of the people do not always express the general will. Rousseau distinguishes between the "will of all" - the sum of all competing opinions within a society - and the general will. If all the different opinions have equal influence, the general will be the same as the will of all. However, when there are partial associations in society, each develops a particular set of interests that differs from that expressed by the general will. When one group becomes large enough to dominate others, there is no general will, and only private opinion is expressed. Thus, for the general will to be promoted, it is important that either there are no partial societies with equal amounts of power.

The primary concern of the state is its own conservation, and it can demand anything from its members in an effort to ensure its preservation. Thus, a citizen must render any goods or services to the sovereign as soon as they are demanded. However, the sovereign cannot place obligations on its members that are of no use to the community. Furthermore, the sovereign can only deal with matters that affect the entire population. When the general will has a particular objective, it loses rectitude and does not pursue the common good. The social contract requires that all citizens have the same rights. Thus, the sovereign cannot demand more from any one subject than from any other. When it does so, its decisions become particular instead of common, and differ from the general will.

Finally, Rousseau discusses whether the sovereign can demand that citizens sacrifice their lives for its protection. He claims that although men do not have the right to commit suicide, they can risk their lives in order to preserve it. Thus, an individual can risk his own life to protect the state. Because the purpose of the social contract is the conservation of its members, everyone must be ready, in times of war and crisis, to give to his life to save others.

The same logic applies to the death penalty. Because no one wants to be murdered, they must consent to submit to the death penalty if they become a murderer. Furthermore, every criminal becomes a traitor and an enemy to the state. He ceases to be a citizen, and must be removed from society for its protection. Although Rousseau approves of the death penalty in certain situations, he argues that a high frequency of corporal punishment indicates a weak government. The state should only put people to death if they cannot be rehabilitated. Rousseau asserts that the state does have the right to pardon, but should use it sparingly to protect the sanctity of the law.


Rousseau acknowledges that individuals may have private interests that conflict with the general will, but expresses concern about the manipulative effect of factions. Usually, the competing interests of citizens cancel out, and the will of all approximates the general will. When people form partial associations, however, it becomes harder to express the general will. For this reason, Rousseau advises each voter to make up his mind independently of his fellow citizens. Given his argument that people should consider the common good when voting, this self-imposed isolation may seem like an odd request. One might assume that discussing an issue with others would help a voter to recognize the common good. However, Rousseau maintains that the independence of each voter prevents people from banding together and distorting the general will.

The common good promotes the best interests of the state in spite of personal objections. Say, for example, that the state is deciding whether to institute a tax to support public education. Although almost everyone would agree that it is in the state's best interest to have educated citizens, some individuals might not want to pay this tax. For example, those who are above school age and thus receive no personal benefit from public education may view it as burden. In this case, supporting the common good would mean abandoning one's self-interest in favor of the state's well-being.

Rousseau also establishes the inalienability of sovereignty. The people cannot cede legislative authority to a person or group without abrogating the social contract. In Book I, Rousseau argues that it is impossible for a person to give himself to someone else without also giving up his humanity and morality. The same concept applies to the sovereign. If the sovereign were to transfer legislative authority to an individual or a group, the members of society would cease to have any moral obligations to each other.

Rousseau also asserts that sovereignty is indivisible. The indivisibility of sovereignty is tied to inalienability. The division of sovereign power is the same as a partial transfer of legislative authority. Both the inalienability and indivisibility of sovereignty satisfy Rousseau's second condition of legitimate polity - that in obeying the law, each person only obeys himself. For this to be true, the people must exercise their legislative authority in all areas.

Rousseau distinguishes between a law and a decree, asserting that the latter pertains to the particular, whereas the former deals with the general. Law as an expression of the general will can only place obligations on all members of society. In Chapter 4 of Book II, Rousseau establishes that the sovereign has no right to "burden one subject more than another." If it were to do so, the sovereign would lose its legitimacy. It is important to emphasize that the demand for generality extends beyond the framing of the law to its application. A law can be stated in a general form but only apply to certain individuals. A true law must apply actually or potentially to every citizen.