The definition of an ideal life may vary greatly for different people. Several political and moral philosophies have been proposed which aim to address this age-old topic by exploring our role in society. This essay discusses the role of individuals in society by referring to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill.
Although individuals are born to freedom, they are inevitably obligated to follow the rules and regulations of the society in which they live. According to Rousseau, people should associate together to form a collective body that rules over themselves. This collective body, which is bound together by the social contract, is called the Sovereign. The sovereign, both inalienable and indivisible, is the ultimate authority in the state. The will of the sovereign is the general will, which always addresses the “common good”, offering equal consideration to the good of each citizen. However, the general will does not conform to everyone’s desire, because it is not the sum of all interests or the “will of all”
If everyone is born to freedom, it would be interesting to understand why people would come together to form this collective body called the “sovereign.” According to Rousseau, when people exercise their individual freedom, they only act according to their personal interests, impulse and appetite. However, when people join forces and are bound by the social contract, they enjoy the civil liberty of being able to think rationally. He believes that this gain in civil liberty outweighs the loss in natural liberty of the individual. As a member of the entire society, it is understandable that we should always consider public interests while making decisions that may affect the society.
However, personally, I feel that Rousseau’s stance on this tension between conflicting individual interests and the collective interest of society is somewhat extreme to the extent where self-interests are suppressed. It could even be considered a form a Totalitarianism, where the state has complete political power over its citizens and restricts individual opposition to the state.
Meanwhile, it could be argued that the society should pay more consideration to the individual freedom of its people. This not only ensures a peaceful society, but also a satisfied one where people have the liberty to follow their interest or passion. More importantly, suppression of individual liberty certainly hinders social progress or human development. If Isaac Newton had to prioritize public interests over his personal passion in physics, would we understand the foundation of classical mechanics which drives the world today? If Steve Jobs had to give up his passion for technology for public interests, would we be able to use the iPhone today?
An appropriate contemporary example is The United States of America, which is the largest and, arguably, the most powerful economy today. The current progress of U.S illustrates why individual liberty is so important to development.
In conclusion, it is clear that Rousseau strongly believes in the moral philosophy of putting public interests before our private interests by obeying the sovereign. On the one hand, this may lead to an altruistic society where everyone has a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. However, on the other hand, this mode of life may severely hinder the advancement that humans have made today. In fact, our current progress can be credited to the modern laws, which are largely influenced by the Harm Principle, in most countries.
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