Rousseau – Slavery, War, and Natural Law

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his writing The Social Contract, (Rousseau), philosophizes on what a civil society entails. Rousseau shows great ability to allow reason to prevail over manipulation in his political assertions. In the writings ‘Of Slavery’ section, Rousseau examines the nature of conflicts and alleges that war exists between states and not man. Rousseau applies reason to the actions of man and claims it to be a requirement for civil society to exist. Following his logic, he surmises that slavery of individuals and/or whole societies cannot exist in a civil world because this contract would be invalid in the eyes of reason and nature. I believe Rousseau’s ideas are sound in principal and should and some should be incorporated into modern legal doctrines. Natural law works subtly against violators of it by natural methods. This sometimes takes its form in the conscience of people and directs them to act helping to regulate natural order.

Rousseau attempts in his writing to show that there is a higher reasoning than the conscience of man, and this is verbalized in his statement concerning men who submit into a contract of slavery voluntarily, “for to alienate another’s liberty is contrary to the natural order, …” (Rousseau 61).

Rousseau continues that slavery is a not a valid contract by reasoning fairness to both parties does not exist, in effect making such an arrangement in the eyes of common sense “vain and meaningless” (Rousseau, 61).

It is easy enough for slaves to agree with this train of thought; but what is there to make free people or slaveholders to find truth in Rousseau’s beliefs?

Rousseau’s rhetoric involves presenting scenarios, often the opinions of others, and countering them in accordance to his philosophies. Using Grotius’ theory on the rationalization for slavery of the defeated in war, Rousseau briefly looks at these justifications to lay a base of reasons, creating contrast for his own opinions on which he then elucidates. Grotius held that it is a right of the victor to extirpate, referring to the defeated, he followed this argument by concluding that it is within the victor’s rights to “ransom his life at the expense of his liberty”(Rousseau, 62).

Grotius elaborates in his book On the Law of War and Peace referring to enslaving losers of war, “Nor is the commission of crime requisite to reduce them to this condition, but the fate of all is alike, who are unfortunately taken within the territories of an enemy, upon the breaking out of war” (Grotius). Grotius’ opinions give no merit to moral civility. The ruler or ruling that denies the property and liberty to the individuals of a defeated nation or group is fighting an uphill battle on civility and natural law, forces that are often underestimated by corrupt oppressors. The definition of natural law that I am referring to is well defined in James A. Donald’s Natural Law and Natural Rights including “Conduct which violates natural law is conduct such that, if a man were to use individual unorganized violence to prevent such conduct, or, in the absence of orderly society, use individual unorganized violence to punish such conduct, then such violence would not indicate that the person using such violence, (violence in accord with natural law) is a danger to a reasonable man” (Donald).

Donald and I agree that this theory of natural law is embedded in human nature and government policies that go against the ingrained human core morals will always be subject to resistance equaling that to which it is opposed. When evaluating causes and definition of war, one can see that indiscriminate killing and slavery are direct extensions of war, and being such will always face opposition.

Rousseau goes into some depth on what he considers reasons for war. He argues that men become enemies through war by accident, further claiming that wars exist over property rather than person (Rousseau, 62). Being so, he argues that a just victor prince, in reflection of his own laws, will respect the lives of his captives and their property as individuals, but not the property of the fallen state. What I find most compelling of Rousseau’s points falls in his statement, “The object of war being the destruction of the enemy state, a commander has a perfect right to kill its defenders so long as their arms are in their hands: but once they have laid them down and have submitted, they cease to be enemies, or instruments employed by an enemy, and revert to the condition of men, pure and simple, over whose lives no one can any longer exercise a rightful claim” (Rousseau, 62). This train of thought is followed in his next paragraph, “If war does not give to the victor the right to massacre his defeated enemies, he cannot base upon a nonexistent right any claim to the further one of enslaving them” (Rousseau, 63).

I cannot sit back and watch the beating of a defenseless child, I must intervene. This compulsion is a manifestation of natural law. To silently observe without contest the rape of another or the willful destruction of another’s property, the lack of challenge of such actions make the observer a participant by condoning such oppression. As an individual and as part of a nation, I find it an inherent duty to make effort to curtail blatant and excessive practices that would shock the moral conscience of free men by consensus (a method natural law dictates), of nations and individuals alike. Excessive exposure to violations of natural law are used to pacify its predominance by socially conditioning a numbing of man’s innate sense to critical violations of natural law by creating overwhelming conditions that can confuse and build tolerance in the morally inclined. The portrayal of wars conducted by the United States by the media is one example of this infusion of acceptance by overwhelming viewers with examples of rationalized treachery.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau spells out what he believes are necessary virtues for a civil society to exist. His progressive ideas toward slavery contrasted its actual widespread institution. While some would differ from his opinion, his carefully thought and expressed views have been often considered over the 200 years since first being published. Natural law was not invented nor created, it was discovered. Entwined to us since our conception, it is a law, though unwritten and underappreciated, violations of it, even the most encompassing and conniving are guaranteed to face permanent resistance at all points. Practices that do not conflict natural law have more than sum of its parts (supporters), the permanent effects of reason will further these applications.

© 2005 – David Oppenheimer – Performance Impressions

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. The Origin of Civil Society. A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston:Bedford/St. Martins, 2006.

Grotius, Hugo. On the Law of War and Peace. Book II. Chapter 7, (1) Trans. A. C. Campbell. 21 Sept. 2005

Grotius – On the Law of War and Peace

Natural Law and Natural Rights. Ed. James A. Donald. James’s Liberty File Collection Index. 28 Oct. 2005 Natural Law and Rights