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Rousseau & Mill on the Limitations of Freedom Essay

\\Philosophers often attempt to design a societal system that reflects their view of “what is good.” However, before this can be established, it is crucial for them to set out, in their opinion, their respective present view of society. In this case, what is commonly held as “good” is freedom. Rousseau’s explanation of social contracts affirms his belief in a common will that derives from his concept that if all individuals freely enter into a social contract based on the general will, this establishes authority in the political sovereign as long as it reflects such a will. This “general will” is contrasted with Mill’s notion of the liberty principle.

The work of Mill “On Liberty” is fundamental to understanding the ways in which to liberate oneself from an oppressive society by way of promoting his harm principle, freedom of opinion and speech, and protection from the majority if one is indeed able to step back and observe the sovereign mechanism of society. While both philosophers offer valid arguments for legitimate functionality of their respective systems, it will be made evident that Rousseau’s insights are tainted with problematic contradictions, and that Mill’s structure is one that represents freedom in the truest sense.

Rousseau introduces his notion of the “general will.” The general will is a concept in political philosophy referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole. This notion was first introduced in his work, The Social Contract: an analysis of the contractual relationships that may be necessary in order to establish legitimate government. Rousseau argues that civil society is based on a contractual arrangement of rights and duties which applies equally to all people, whereby natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty, and natural rights are exchanged for legal rights. The terms of the contract provide assurance that civil laws promote the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals or groups. If the contract is breached by a government which appropriates the sovereignty of its people, then the people are no longer obligated to submit to that government and consequently regain their natural liberty.

Many of Rousseau’s arguments are based on his concept of “the state of nature.” In the state of nature, no individual has legal authority over any other individual. Any power which an individual may have over another individual is established only by force or coercion, and this does not make force or coercion morally right. In “the state of nature,” individuals are motivated only by their own selfish interests and by the desire to gain advantage over others. Rousseau maintains that “the law of nature” is the law of self-preservation and that individuals have no natural obligations toward each other. In the state of nature, individuals are motivated only by their own private interests and not by the public good.

However, Rousseau also argues that in “the state of nature” individuals eventually recognize that they must unite to protect themselves and that they must join together to protect their possessions from being misused or misappropriated by others. Thus, a social contract is necessary in order to protect civil liberty and in order to protect basic rights such as the legal right to property. The social contract is fulfilled by a surrender of natural freedom in exchange for a moral and social freedom.

Rousseau contends that if justice were the power to force an individual to yield to a particular demand, then there would be no obligation for an individual to comply with a lawful authority unless that authority had the power to force the individual to comply. Thus, the question of whether justice can be achieved in society may not depend on whether individuals can be forced to comply with civil authority, but on whether individuals and civil authority can act in harmony with, and fulfill their moral obligations toward, each other. Moreover, there may be a moral obligation to comply with civil authority only if that authority is legitimate (i.e. if that authority is based on a fair and just agreement among the members of society).

According to Rousseau, in order to protect themselves and their property, individuals may agree to a contractual relationship whereby they combine themselves into an association for the benefit of all. By means of this contractual relationship, individuals agree to accept various duties or obligations in exchange for the benefits provided by social cooperation. Thus, a republic may be established on the basis of a mutual commitment between society and each individual, whereby society has an obligation to each individual and each individual has an obligation to society.

Each individual may have a particular will which is different from the general will of the people, but the particular will of each individual may be forced to submit to the general will because of the obligations that have been defined for all individuals by the terms of the social contract. The general will is not the same as the will of all individuals, because it is not the sum of all individual private interests. Unlike the combined will of all individuals, the general will is concerned with the public interest rather than with private interests.

The social contract involves a total and unconditional surrender by each individual of his own natural rights in order to gain the rights of citizenship. There is no need for the sovereign authority to guarantee the civil liberty and legal rights of its subjects, because its interests are identical to those of the people as a whole. If anyone refuses to comply with the general will, then he or she may be forced to comply by the whole body politic (and may be “forced to be free”).

Many of Rousseau’s statements may be criticized for their severe and illogical nature. For example, he says that dictatorship may be necessary in order to restore public order when there is a civil emergency. He also says that censorship may be useful in order to preserve public morality and in order to prevent corruption of social values. Even more unacceptable is his statement that if the prince of a state declares that a particular individual must be put to death, then that individual should be put to death, because the terms of the social contract may be interpreted to support the argument that the life of the individual belongs to the state and not to the individual.

Rousseau’s concept of the general will may also provide inadequate protection for the rights of minorities, because he assumes that the characteristics of the general will are always to be found in the majority of individuals. He admits that if the will of the majority is acting in support of the selfish interests of a particular social class or group, then the will of the majority may unfairly deny the legal rights of an opposing minority.

Rousseau’s basic argument for the social contract is also self-contradictory in that natural liberty is in conflict with civil liberty. Rousseau claims that natural rights are in conflict with legal rights and that the social contract guarantees protection of the civil rights of each individual only by alienating the individual from his or her natural rights. While arguing for civil liberty and equal citizenship on the one hand, he argues for the absolute power of the state on the other. While attacking the evils of tyranny and slavery on the one hand, he tries to mitigate the evils of dictatorship and totalitarianism on the other. The above mentioned inconsistencies within Rousseau’s work make it difficult for a practical application of such a system, thereby discrediting his theory in practice. On the other hand, Mill offers a differing ideal with regards to liberty, and sets up a system with sensible limitations when it comes to the powers of the sovereign.

One of the major concepts described by Mill revolves around his notion of the harm principle, which asserts that the state has no right to interfere in any self-regarding action by a rational person. “That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” .

Mill sees the world as leaning more towards a balance in which society, through law and public opinion, has far more power over the actions and thoughts of an individual than an individual has over himself. Mill discards this standing, arguing that society should have control over only those actions that directly affect it, or those actions that harm some of its members. Mill argues that an individual harming himself or acting against his own good provides insufficient reason for others to interfere.

Mill is also famous for his concept of the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which basically voiced concern for the individual rights of the minority being trounced either through law or social humiliation to suppress those individuals that don’t fit the majoritarian mold. As he puts it “…the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.”

The question, then as Mill sees it, is where and how to limit public opinion’s influence over individual independence. There has been very little consensus among nations about the answer to this question, and people tend to be very complacent about their own customs in dealing with dissent. People tend to believe that having strong feelings on a subject makes having reasons for that belief unnecessary, failing to realize that without reasons their beliefs are mere preferences, often reflecting self interest. Furthermore, on the occasions when individuals so question the imposition of public on social standards, they are usually questioning what things society should like or dislike, not the more general question of whether society’s preferences should be imposed on others.

Mill then turns to the issue of freedom of opinion and speech, which entails the question of whether or not people, either through their government or on their own, should be allowed to limit or coerce another person’s right to expression of opinion. His perspective on the subject is strictly an infringement or rights on that person, and strongly argues that “a group of people aren’t any more justified in silencing one person, than that one person is justified in silencing the group.” He affirms that the reason why liberty of opinion is so often in danger is that, in practice, people tend to be convinced of their own rightness, and excluding that, in the infallibility of the world they come in contact with. Mill contends that such confidence is not justified, and that all people are hurt by silencing potentially true ideas.

He also adds that the only way that a person can be confident that he is right is if there is a complete liberty to contradict and disprove his beliefs; putting to rest any uncertainties or doubts one may have on a given “truth.”The above mentioned theories have very contrasting views about freedom and the limitations on an individual and sovereignty’s right to freedom. While Rousseau introduces his concept of the “general will” as a “free contractual state” with regards to the relationship between individual and the sovereign; Mill’s theory revolves around, and prioritizes individual wills; which creates a sense of an almost unlimited amount of freedom. In visualizing the manner in which both theories would play out in reality, it becomes evident that Rousseau’s system is tainted with too many contradictions to actually put into practice. Mill, on the other hand, offers a truly democratic system that could very well succeed, if implemented properly, and maintained by all.

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated by Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968),

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