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Communitarians Versus Individualists: Competing Ethics

 Civilization is tenuous, even in relatively stable societies. Competing tensions between individual liberty and communitarian mutual interdependence create a dominant flux in the continuum of attitudes about societal ethics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues that inherent in society is an interdependent social contract between each individual and the sovereign, comprised of the totality of citizens in society that acts for the good of all. Others take a more libertarian approach, where there are significant limits on how a society can legitimately make demands on individual liberty. Inasmuch as these individualistic views overwhelm communitarian values, societal cohesion suffers. Supplemented by views of Galbraith, van Parijs, Greene and Shugarman, and Julia Simon-Ingram, in examining Rousseau’s view of the nature of communitarian society, what characterizes a citizen and the mechanics of how citizens interact with each other and with society as a whole, we can discover Rousseau’s view of how people ought to be ethical and to behave ethically. In examining individualistic tendencies that undermine social cohesion in the assault on government-funded welfare state policies in the world, particularly in British Columbia, we can discover how Rousseau’s view breaks down. Because of this flux between individual and communitarian values, ethical politics are not possible in our contemporary world because as individualists express their ideology, they necessarily behave unethically in the social contract. Despite the fact that it is conceivable that all could believe and could act according to Rousseau’s theory, making ethical politics theoretically possibility, the fact that many people do not means that political relations in the world are necessarily characterized as power relationships.

   Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the necessity of interdependence for society to exist, for civilization to mean more than in a random state of nature where there was no order beyond a kind of Darwinian survival state, where ethics and morality are irrelevant. But because we are sentient, conscientious creatures, morality and ethics are a part of our human identity, therefore we are obligated to recognize our accountability to behave morally, and thus we must recognize and uphold an order in civilization. Each person in a society behaves both as a private person and as a member of a society. Rousseau describes all members of society as the “sovereign,” which has ultimate authority over each of its members: “the sovereign is formed entirely from the private individuals who make it up” (Rousseau 1987, 150), not so much the aggregate of all our desires, but “there is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter considers only the general interest, whereas the former considers private interest and is merely the sum of private wills” (155). Greene and Shugarman acknowledge the foundations of democracy itself, informed by ideas of the social contract, require that we recognize the interdependence we exist in: “democracy is founded on the principles of equality and respect for all individuals: what we refer to as mutual respect” (Greene and Shugarman 1997, 3).

   Equality in the common good comes because “each person necessarily submits himself to the conditions he imposes on others” (Rousseau 1987, 158), including leaders: “it is [not] necessary to ask…whether the prince is above the laws, since he is a member of the state”(161), including leaders who plead no contest to drinking and driving in foreign criminal jurisdictions. In fact, there is a symbiotic relationship between leader and society as Rousseau invokes Montesquieu: “it is the leaders of republics who bring about the institution, and thereafter it is the institution that forms the leaders of the republic” (163). But egalitarianism is hampered by individual desire within the social order. Because we have these dual roles of individual and social member, Rousseau recognizes our dual natures, the personal and the collective, when he describes that “each individual can…have a private will contrary to or different from the general will that he has as a citizen.” So while we all may possess our own individual, particular will, we must recognize that by existing interdependently with all others, we must sacrifice that particular will for the good of all society, to conform to the general will of the sovereign because “every man by nature has a right to everything he needs” (151): basic needs for human survival. To seek more to the point where others do not have their needs met is to harm the sovereign. And even though a person is capable of acquiring more, that right is superceded by “the community’s right to all” (153). Further, because some are born with greater access to food, clothing, shelter and other necessities of life, our inherently unequal positions from birth need to be reconciled for all to survive; thus the common good must outweigh our personal desires: the social contract “substitutes a moral and legitimate equality to whatever physical inequality nature may have been able to impose upon men” (153). Van Parijs concurs: “not even the most narcissistic self-made man could think that he fixed the parental dice in advance of entering this world” (Van Parijs 2000). The result is a society that is preferable to an uncivilized disorder: “instead of an alienation, [we] have merely made an advantageous exchange of an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for another that is better and surer” (Rousseau 1987, 158). We have left an uncivilized state in which “the laws of justice [are] without teeth” (160). Galbraith recognizes, in an economic context, the need for balance as well: “just as there must be a balance in what a community produces, so there must also be balance in what the community consumes” (Galbraith 1977, 243). Greene and Shugarman reinforce this sense of balance as a consequence of a society based on mutual respect which “implies government by consent of the governed and as much individual freedom as is consistent with safeguarding the equal freedom and security of others” (Greene and Shugarman 1997, 4). It is then unethical to behave in an individualistic manner that undermines the security and rights of others.

   Because we exist interdependently with everyone else, Rousseau describes how we ought to behave with respect to each other to be ethical. When we hurt others, we hurt all. Because “one cannot harm one of the members without attacking the whole body” (Rousseau 1987, 150), we must recognize what Dr. King knew, that no one is free until everyone is free. Further, not only do we have a moral duty to offer aid when others are suffering, but we also improve the condition of the sovereign (hence us in return) when we do so: “duty and interest equally obligate the two parties to come to one another’s aid” (150). Another benefit for a person to behave in ways that enhance the common good, or general will, occurs as “his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas are broadened, his feelings are ennobled, his entire soul is elevated” (151). So exercising selflessness and altruism allows people to expand their scope and understanding of humanity, develop new capacities and genuinely acknowledge their positive contribution to society.

   As Rousseau distinguishes between two types of freedom: individual/personal and social/civil and as society enacts laws to regulate its sense of civilization, citizens must obey them by sacrificing their individual impulses to behave in a selfish way that would harm the general good: “the private will tends toward having preferences, and the general will tends towards equality” (Rousseau 1987, 153-4). Acting in a way that harms the greater social good of the sovereign, though enhancing one’s own personal freedom, necessarily hampers one’s social freedom. Thus society punishes illegal, selfish behaviour that harms others to restore the correct order: “whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body…. He will be forced to be free” (150) because maintaining civil freedom supercedes seeking individual freedom. The essence, though, of elevating personal desire over the social good is simple greed. Though we can, or are able to seek and acquire all we can, doing so often requires that others go without their basic needs. So while being selfless means sacrificing desires that enslave us, each individual still gains by the advancement of the state of the sovereign. So those things that I do not need, that I give up, allow me to trade some personal freedom for some civic freedom: “what man loses through the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can acquire. What he gains is civil liberty” (151).

   So Rousseau argues that to be ethical in society, we must recognize that we are part of a larger common good. We are allowed to have individual desires, but we must not act on them if they would harm the common good of the sovereign, of everyone, so we do not elevate our particular will over the general will. To behave this way is to be unethical. But we also need to examine how Rousseau feels society inculcates these ethical norms into people. With acknowledging a social contract, we must ensure society properly respects the nature of the contract: “through the social compact we have given existence and life to the body politic. It is now a matter of giving it movement and will through legislation” (Rousseau 1987, 160). Rousseau feels that direction for enacting laws comes not from aggregating everyone’s desire, but by examine what is good for all, then establishing policy that ensures all receive all they are entitled to. Since “only the general will can direct the forces of the state according to the purpose for which it was instituted, which is the common good” (153), society’s laws must reflect that.

   In British Columbia, our laws reflect our respect for the social contract because we have a long tradition of social welfare programs. From the fiscal conservatism combined with humanitarian social ideals from decades of governance by the Social Credit party to the socially-egalitarian ethic of New Democratic Party governance in the 1970s and 1990s, BC has typically respected the right of all to live in a state of human dignity: adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, opportunities to improve their social or educational or vocational state, all supported by tax revenue. Van Parijs advocates to move towards a more egalitarian society by instituting a basic income for all: “a basic income would be serve as a powerful instrument of social justice” (Van Parijs 2000). Short of a basic income, Galbraith reinforces the validity of taxation, however rough it may be in practice: “people decide how much of their private income and goods they will surrender in order to have public services of which they are in greater need” (Galbraith 1977, 247). Citizens recognize the moral imperative to address inequities within the community: “the disorder associated with social imbalance [is] visible even if the need for balance between private and public services is still imperfectly appreciated” (252). MLAs represent the electorate and legitimately enact legislation that establishes and reinforces the social contract: “the populace that is subjected to the laws ought to be their author” (Rousseau 1987, 162). So for decades as citizens paid taxes, they may have complained about inefficiencies in the administration of social welfare programs, but they rarely rejected the idea that the programs ought to exist. Rousseau recognizes the necessity of people contributing to what the sovereign determines it needs to accomplish the general will: “a citizen should render to the state all the services he can as soon as the sovereign demands them.” (157).

   Recently, though, despite a long tradition of communitarian values in BC in the form of progressive taxation and social welfare programs, neo-liberal ideologies have grown more important in the last 20 years in many liberal democracies, enveloping BC in their expansion and threatening individuals’ commitment to the social contract. Since 2001, Gordon Campbell’s Liberal party has opposed both progressive taxation itself, by initiating a tax cut that favoured the wealthy, and social welfare programs, by cutting spending in several areas including instituting an arbitrary time limit for welfare recipients of two years out of every five, meaning that thousands of what the government deems to be employable welfare recipients will be cut off in April 2004 to join the 200,000 unemployed British Columbians looking for work. The ideology driving this policy shift is the neo-liberal approach to social structures that places maximum value on individual liberty and negative freedoms from state intervention. By enacting policy that reflects a neo-liberal ethic of individualism, the current BC government is necessarily asserting the right of citizens to assert their particular will over the social general will. The rise of this individualistic ideology is the kind of competing interest that assaults the sustainability of the social contract. As long as competing ideologies agree with their place within the commons, within the social contract, Rousseau’s sense of societal order can remain intact: “it is what these different interests have in common that forms the social bond, and, were there no point of agreement among all these interests, no society could exist” (Rousseau 1987, 153). So the erosion of the general will is leading to the erosion of society itself as the social contract is undermined. Further, since the “social state is advantageous to men only insofar as they all have something and none of them has too much” (153), Rousseau recognizes the legitimacy of government policies that redistribute wealth to at least a minimal degree. The BC government’s policy of reducing tax collection from the wealthy, while reducing subsistence those in need undermines the social contract.

   Further, over several decades, the BC government has developed a group of crown corporations, owned by the government (thus the people, the commons), that have not only provided government revenue to lessen the tax burden on individuals, but also some of these common assets have provided essential services that should not be subject to market pricing. Electricity, rail, ferry services, and forests are held in the commons. Over decades these corporations have also amassed significant asset wealth beyond annual income. Galbraith notes the social value that comes from public ownership of public services and industries like education and parks: “By failing to exploit the opportunity to expand public production, we are missing opportunities for enjoyment which otherwise we might have had” (Galbraith 1977, 246). The current government has moved to privatize all or part of many of these crown corporations and public assets, essentially selling to the private sector the asset base that is owned in common by the sovereign: the people, in Rousseau’s sense. Further, these revenues will be used to offset the tax cuts that have favoured the wealthiest in society. Eroding public assets by selling them off undermines the social contract: “since the forces of the city [or province] are incomparably greater than those of a private individual, public possession is by that very fact stronger and more irrevocable, without being more legitimate” (Rousseau 1987, 151). Enclosing the commons is contrary to Rousseau’s conception of the general will’s legitimate right to manage common resources: “how can a man or a people seize a vast amount of territory and deprive the entire human race of it except by a punishable usurpation, since this seizure deprives all other men of the shelter and sustenance that nature gives them in common?” (152). To do so would be to behave unethically.

   It is essential to examine how a government can attain a legitimate mandate to erode the social contract. The current government campaigned to get elected by promising a tax cut that favours lower incomes and by not selling public assets. Combined with a previous government that demonstrated a lack of integrity, the electorate voted for the Campbell government, which proceeded to violate the trust the people placed in it by lowering taxes of the wealthy and selling public assets. Rousseau remarks how people want what is best, though they do not always have the breadth of vision to see what the best happens to be: “we always want what is good for us, but we do not always see what it is” (Rousseau 1987, 155). So the people look to those contending for leadership to describe their vision of a prosperous future and a healthy social contract. He also argues that the general will is always right and can never be corrupt, but it can be fooled: “the populace is never corrupted, but it is often tricked, and only then does it appear to want what is bad” (155). Too many people were tricked and seduced by the lure of a tax cut without thinking about the natural consequence of reducing government revenue: reducing services or selling assets to make up for the lost revenue. So the good path “must weigh present, tangible advantages against the danger of distant, hidden evils…. Everyone is equally in need of guides” (162) or politicians who tell the truth. Those who misguide the public to undermine the social contract behave unethically.

   Rousseau has specific comments regarding those who oppose and undermine the social contract. Though he was speaking about the death penalty as a punishment for certain violations of the general will, he considers those who assault the social contract as rebels and traitors who denounce their civil membership by asserting their will over society’s: “every malefactor who attacks the social right becomes through his transgressions a rebel and a traitor to the homeland; in violating its laws he ceases to be a member, and he even wages war with it. In that case the preservation of the state is incompatible with his own” (Rousseau 1987, 159). Essentially, Rousseau’s conception of perfect legislation eradicates the natural forces that tempt us to follow our self-centred desires over the common good: “legislation has achieved the highest possible point of perfection” (163) when “natural forces are dead and obliterated” (163). Herein lies the core of the attack on progressive taxation and social welfare programs in BC today. Communitarian values like the social contract exist in direct opposition to individualistic philosophies that seek freedom from societally-imposed obligation. Along the continuum of how to structure an ethical society, BC has experienced a strong shift from being near the communitarian end to far over toward the individualistic end. Ultimately, though, this is not surprising. Rousseau’s conception of society was of its small size and homogeneity. The larger the society with a vibrant diversity will produce a strain on the social contract because of many irreconcilable particular wills leading to difficulty deriving a cohesive general will. Simon-Ingram describes this problem: “the ideal state would be a small and homogeneous group of citizens requiring a minimum of legislation because of social unanimity” (Simon-Ingram 1991, 137). Further, she argues that “the exclusion of women from…the ‘civic public’ of [the] social contract” (Simon-Ingram 1991, 134) demonstrates a significant limitation to Rousseau’s social contract idea. So the homogenizing tendency of the social contract’s formation of the general will may harm the necessary identity of minority groups in society, meaning there may be exceptions to how strongly we should hold to social contract ideals. However, supporting minority groups to retain identities that may diverge from a homogenizing general will of society may not undermine social cohesion—they may in fact strengthen it—unlike assaults to citizens’ subsistence that the BC government has enacted. So some exceptions to a strong social contract may encourage a stronger society, while others may weaken it by disenfranchising members.

   Ultimately, while ethical politics is conceivable, even to the point of manifesting a social safety net to uphold Rousseau’s social contract, individualistic tendencies necessarily subvert the social contract. This leaves society fighting: those who wish to maintain the social contract by legislating restrictions to citizens’ personal freedom through taxation to enhance positive freedoms of others through social welfare programs all compete with individualistic, libertarian ideologies seeking negative freedom from limits to their personal sovereign will. The power relations that fight are those who believe the individual is sovereign versus those who believe the common good is sovereign. While Rousseau describes his vision of the common good manifested in the social contract, and while other writers concur, not all abide by his view of ethical politics. Individualists who retain personal sovereignty abide by their own view of ethics, a view that threatens society itself.


Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1977. “The Theory of Social Balance.” In The Galbraith Reader. US: Gambit. P. 240-253.

Greene, Ian and David P. Shugarman. 1997. Honest Politics. Toronto: Lorimer.

Rousseau, J.J. 1987. “On the Social Contract.” In The Basic Political Writings. Edited by Cress, D.A. and P. Gay. US: Hackett. p. 149-165.

Simon-Ingram, Julia. 1991. “Expanding the Social Contract: Rousseau, Gender, and the Problem of Judgment.” Comparative Literature 43(Spring), p. 134-149.

Van Parijs, Philippe. 2000. “A Basic Income For All.” Boston Review 25(5). http://bostonreview.net/BR25.5/vanparijs.html (November 24, 2003).

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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