Rousseau vs. Locke: Rousseau on property (part 3) and the individual’s right to life

Twice before, I have posted about Rousseau’s views on property (here and here). In The Social Contract, Rousseau states that property is made secure in society. “The right of the first occupant,” he writes, “is more real than the right of the strongest, but it does not become a true right until the right of property has been established” (Book I Ch. ix, p. 60 of Christopher Betts’ translation). This establishment happens in “the civil state,” which is created by the voluntary social contract among individuals. In the civil state, an individual becomes a member of a community, a unified “public person” that has a “general will” to which all of its members are subject. For Rousseau, this means that each person is obeying himself, since he is bound to others in the social body (Book I, Ch. vi, pp. 54-56). Strictly speaking, he is not saying that the government is all-powerful, since there is a difference between the community of people, which is sovereign, and the government, which is set up to do the community’s will. I don’t think that this distinction has ever held up among Rousseau’s philosophical descendants.

But the civil state, unlike in Locke’s understanding (where the government protects “life, liberty, and property”), does not create an absolute right to property. It is limited to what the individual needs, and this need is determined by the community. There’s a parallel with his rejection of the absolute individual right to life as well. Christopher Betts notes that Rousseau argues against Locke’s argument that people cannot give their lives to a sovereign since they don’t have the right to dispose of their own lives (see James Rogers’ exploration, where he notes that “Locke argues that life is an inalienable right precisely because God owns us and, therefore, we do not own ourselves”). For Rousseau, on the other hand:

The purpose of a social treaty is the preservation of the contracting parties. He who wills an end wills the means to that end: and the means in this case necessarily involves some risk, and even some loss. He who wills that his life may be preserved at the expense of others must also, when necessary give his life for their sake. But the citizen ceases to be judge of occasions on which the law requires him to risk danger; and when the ruler has said: ‘It is in the state’s interest that you should die’, he must die, because it is only on this condition that that he has hitherto lived in safety, his life being no longer only a benefit due to nature, but a conditional gift of the state. (p. 71)

As you can see, there are massive possibilities for abuse opened up by this logic, even if Rousseau was not trying to create something like the French Republic or the Soviet Union.

Hat tip for Locke article: Rick Hogaboam


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