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Thus, it becomes necessary for society to compel this individual to act in accordance to the general will in order to stall a descent into arbitrary standards and meaningless identifications, and because acting in accordance with the general will means exercising reason and the freedom of thought and expression, this compelling takes the form of forcing someone to be free. The individual is ultimately compelled by society to utilize the full extent of his or her reasoning capabilities, which is ultimately the only means of achieving any true freedom, as freedom of action can only come from freedom of thought, expression, and an accurate, reasonable view of objective reality.
It is important to note that even in the instance where society compels an individual to obey the general will, the individual is still not suffering any kind of undue infringement of rights, because by definition the force exerted on that individual is available to that individual in equal measure. Put another way, the force used to compel the individual in this instance is actually made up of the force of every individual in society, and thus the individual being compelled is actually quantifiably complicit in their own compelling to exactly the same degree as every other member of that society. This is why the society is legitimized in compelling the individual; by nature of that individual's membership in society, every other member of society has been given implicit authority over that individual, to precisely the same degree that that individual has authority over anyone else.
When viewed with a clearer understanding of what Rousseau means by the general will, the passage regarding forcing someone to be free becomes less jarring and actually seems fairly reasonable. In fact, Rousseau's theory is actually fairly agreeable in general, because he does not attempt to argue that the legitimacy of a society comes from anywhere other than the people who make it up, and furthermore, he does not attempt to argue in favor of any one particular legal or representative framework (other than a kind of raw democracy). However, problems do arise when one attempts to either enact Rousseau's theory in the real world, or else look for examples of it in historical cases. Even then, however, one cannot truly fault Rousseau, because many of these problems arise due to technological limitation, rather than any hard barrier. For example, not until very recently has it been possible for reason and debate to occur at the scales necessary for ensuring that every individual has a voice, and that every individual will and argument is weighed against every other. Even now that is impossible, but the advent of the internet and mobile communication technology seems to point towards a time when everyone can communicate with everyone else in a seamless manner, to the point that a true democracy might be possible, with geographically-distant individuals debating and voting for the policies of society as a whole. Of course, society must still overcome those groups and individuals with a vested interest in undermining reason and its application to civil society, but it seems as if the increased communication made possible by new technologies will ultimately lead to the dissolution of these groups.
Rousseau's theory of the social contract includes some statements that at first glance appear quite radical, but are actually quite reasonable when considered in the context of the larger argument. For example, the passage about needing to compel individuals to obey the general will, forcing them to be free, appears confusing and even contradictory at first, but when one considers it in the context of the general will as outlined by Rousseau elsewhere, its meaning becomes clear. Rousseau is not proposing some bizarre society wherein individuals are forced to enact their freedom of action at all times, but rather is acknowledging that the legitimacy and continued function of a society depends upon the individual members of that society exercising their reason, in order to participate in the process by the which the general will is determined and enacted.
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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Trans. G. DH Cole the Social Contract.…[continue]
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