Rousseau Versus Mill: Does Collectiveness or Individuality Produce Freedom?

Rousseau and Mill identify two contrasting forces as the means by which a government is formed and maintained. While Rousseau illustrates it as a collective body with one will, but comprised of many persons, Mill defines it as individual liberty, with each person acting on his own will. Ultimately, Rousseau’s collective entity does not effectively maintain itself, as there are too many ways in which it may be refused by its members, overthrown, or dissolved. By virtue of its flaws, it is also ineffective in explaining political nature. By contrast, Mill’s societal form is more rarely conducive to dissent and more easily guarantees freedom. Therefore, it is a strong means of maintaining its members’ allegiance, especially because all citizens have the trait of individual liberty in common. In addition, it seems a potential explanation for political life, due to its logic and its similarities with many present-day governments.

In Rousseau’s ideal, the conflicts caused by people’s varying interests are outweighed by a common interest for the security of themselves and their property, which is lacking in the lawless state of nature. Through the bond of these commonalities, the social contract creates “âÂ?¦in the place of the individual person of each contracting partyâÂ?¦ an artificial and corporate bodyâÂ?¦ and by this same act that body acquires its unityâÂ?¦”[1] It eradicates individuality. He calls this collective person the general will, which “âÂ?¦alone can direct the forces of the state in accordance with that end which the state has been established to achieve – the common goodâÂ?¦”[2] There are several ways Rousseau establishes the general will as the basis for liberty, order, and justice in society.

First, the general will is the sovereign, in the sense that it discerns the will of the people. It cannot wish or do itself harm, as it is composed of the individuals it affects, and therefore, “âÂ?¦has not, nor could it have, any interest contrary to theirsâÂ?¦”[3] It follows then also, that it will always make the best decision. Moreover, the majority vote can make determinations, as long as all persons are included and votes counted. This is because “âÂ?¦the general will derives its generality less from the number of voices than from the common interest which unites them.”[4] Therefore, it limits the say of people to the extent that they must conform to the general will.

In addition, Rousseau argues, each individual remains free. Even though the general will decides what is right, each member has chosen to be one, and in this way, each remains master of himself. More specifically, the mutual commitment between all persons is such that, “âÂ?¦in fulfilling [it]âÂ?¦ a man cannot work for others without at the same time working for himself.”[5] At the same time however, it is difficult to withdraw from the general will, because “âÂ?¦whoever refusesâÂ?¦ shall constrained to do so by the whole bodyâÂ?¦ he shall be forced to be freeâÂ?¦”[6] Here again, limitations are placed on individuality in the sense that it must conform with the general will.

There are plenty of problems with these arguments. First, Rousseau admits that, “Despite their common interest, subjects will not be bound by their commitment unless means are found to guarantee their fidelity.”[7] Yet, he claims that the social contract is both appealing and strong because of its benefits. The benefits (“âÂ?¦civil liberty and the legal right of propertyâÂ?¦”[8]), must be either too weak, or not actually assured as well as Rousseau claims. Furthermore, “âÂ?¦every individualâÂ?¦ may have a private will contrary to, or different from, the general will that he has as a citizen.”[9] If this is the case, the prior point cannot be true, that man helps himself by working for the general will. He further concedes, “The commitments which bind us to the social body are obligatory only because they are mutualâÂ?¦”[10] Should not the loss of this feeling by any member separate it from the general will? Instead, the person is forced to return to it. This would not rekindle a mutual feeling with the general will; rather, the person would be rendered even less free and content.

In addition, the general will loses its accuracy when considering particular facts that have not already been settled. For this reason, decisions of this nature should be avoided, else they become matters of public versus private interests. Says Rousseau, “âÂ?¦I can see neither the law which is to be followed nor the judge to arbitrate.”[11] Therefore, there is no way to settle disputes over particular issues, which are in fact, the very type over which conflicts arise and from which the social contract is meant to provide protection.

Finally, for all these reasons of weakness, the general will is too easily eradicated. Rousseau says, “If a people promises simply and solely to obey, it dissolves itself by that very pledge; it ceases to be a people; for once there is a master, there is no longer a sovereign, and the body politic is therefore annihilated.”[12] Although the general always makes the right decision, it seems all too easy realistically, for a people to submit to others’ laws in times of suffering or weakness. Also, as just outline, its restrictions on individuality (although Rousseau claims there are none), simply make it undesirable. While human nature sometimes submits to conformity, it never fully loses its individuality, which would occur under Rousseau’s general will.

Clearly, although Rousseau presents much to support his thesis, his points prove weak. The general will is a flawed contradiction: its binding is both too strong and too weak. First, it binds men to each other in such a way that does not adequately satisfy their personal interests. Instead, it creates one, new interest in the general will and claims to encompass all personal interests. It rather limits actions through the personal interests of all other men contained within, and therefore, restricts freedom. By contrast, the binding is also weak, because it is too easily broken. For example, when members are forced back into a society they have renounced, they are again bound, but not by free will. Arguably then, the general will is not strong enough for men to freely choose to stay within it and has no power at all, except physical force. Additionally, the flaws prove that this cannot be an accurate explanation of political life, simply because it is illogical and not readily compared with any known government.

By contrast, in Mill’s ideal society, his citizens are bound by their equal possession of individual liberty. Most simply, they unite into a society to prevent infringements on these liberties. Secondly however, society acts to both progress humanity and prevent its extinction, through allowing unrestricted personal expression. Although not explicitly stated by Mill, these two implications arise from several points and reveal that individual liberty is the “glue” that maintains and defines liberty, order, and justice.

To demonstrate the latter proposition, Mill asserts that a belief is not meaningful, if it is simply acknowledged as truth without being understood by those who accept it. He explains, “There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanicalâÂ?¦”[13] To prevent this, a belief must be “âÂ?¦fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, [or] it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”[14] If one has not used his own judgment and opinion in determining a truth, it cannot be applicable to him. As Mill states, this is because, “The truth of an opinion is part of its utilityâÂ?¦ no opinion which is contrary to truth can really be useful.”[15] In other words, if “âÂ?¦it is desirable that a proposition should be believedâÂ?¦”[16] by the one who believes it, this is the same as saying it is useful or applicable to him. It cannot be stagnant since the very nature of people is that they are different from each other and continually change. Truths must adjust for each person in accord with the constant changes he experiences in his lifetime.

Based on these principles, limitations on individual liberties not only render a static society, but one unable to progress. Instead, progress is the result of allowing these liberties, such as personal expression, “âÂ?¦since by it there are as many possible independent centers of improvement as there are individuals.”[17] And as already suggested, “ conform to custom merely as custom does not educate or developâÂ?¦ [a person in] any of the qualities which areâÂ?¦ of a human beingâÂ?¦ He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best.”[18] Personal expression then, is synonymous with personal development. When “âÂ?¦each person becomes more valuable to himselfâÂ?¦ [he] is therefore, capable of being more valuable to others.”[19] By advancing himself, he advances the whole. Without these means of improvement, Mill asserts, “âÂ?¦the grounds of those [traditional] beliefs and practices [would become]âÂ?¦ dead matter [that] would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die outâÂ?¦”[20] The result is that people are fundamentally bound by their need of each other’s opposing opinions so they may progress as humans.

Returning to the first assertion about the bonds of society – the protection of independent liberties, one must note the people’s relationship to the state. On this Mill asserts generally, “âÂ?¦the individual is not accountable to society for its actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself,”[21] Also, individual liberty, as equal with all others’, supersedes all other authority. To this end, persons are given free exercise over themselves in Mill’s ideal (discounting a few specific cases he outlines). Mill specifies even, that law should not impose itself, for instance, on a man acting in a way disapproved of by others, because he has “âÂ?¦the perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences,”[22] unless he affects others’ interests.

This is the only main exception to individual authority, at which time society assumes control. The consequences need not be an official punishment by law, which results only when one infringes on the established rights of others. The opposite outcome occurs due to a minor act, which is against people’s interests – “wanting in due consideration for their welfare…”[23] This is “âÂ?¦justly punished by opinion, though not by law.”[24] In any case, members are bound by certain limitations. Clearly then, Mill’s ideal society not only allows for individual rights, but is able to protect these rights because of their very existence. The rights themselves impose a protective boundary on the citizens.

In such a form, it seems that society would remain more committed than in Rousseau’s plan. In being limited by nothing but one’s effects on others, there exists a definite quality of freedom, at least in personal pursuits. It is individuality itself that creates the concept of individual liberty in society, and for this reason, a person truly is his own master. Also, societal order is upheld by the fact that all citizens possess individuality and therefore, the desire for them not to be infringed. As a result, it seems they would understand the necessity of the law and what it means to violate it. The greater the understanding of a law, the more incentive there is in following it.

In addition, the logic of Mill’s arguments suggests it is a possible explanation for political life, although its pinpoint accuracy is unclear. While he does provide specific applications for his ideals, Mill is not clear about the exact form his ideal government should take. He explains the societal form in terms of general terms, which makes it especially hard to fault them. In less ideological terms however, a substantial number of modern governments act similarly to Mill’s description, the being a prime example. They establish a set of rights which aim to protect individual liberties, and the majority of laws are concern the infringement of those rights. The adheres very well to Mill’s explanation, since it allows also for a numerous amount of personal liberties, where are held as fundamental principles to all its law.

If then, our main concern is justice, order and liberty, we can be sure that Mill’s analysis guarantees at least some freedoms, implying justice and order that possess some qualities of fairness and equality also. The societal form also has many characteristics in common with several real-life governments. By contrast, Rousseau’s plan not only fails to assure any freedoms, but also serves to squelch them. His general will both too strongly and too weakly binds men together, and it is not in strong accord with any known examples of government.

– – – – – – – – – –
[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (London: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 61
[2] Rousseau, p. 69
[3] Rousseau, p. 63
[4] Rousseau, p. 76
[5] Rousseau, p. 75
[6] Rousseau, p. 64
[7] Rousseau, p. 63
[8] Rousseau, p. 65
[9] Rousseau, p. 63
[10] Rousseau, p. 75
[11] Rousseau, p. 75
[12] Rousseau, p. 70
[13] J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis/Oxford: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1978), p. 63
[14] Mill, p. 34
[15] Mill, p. 21
[16] Mill, p. 21
[17] Mill, p. 67
[18] Mill, p. 56
[19] Mill, p. 60
[20] Mill, p. 62
[21] Mill, p. 93
[22] Mill, p. 74
[23] Mill, p. 73

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