Where is the Line?

November 27, 2011

Political Theory


Rousseau’s theory on social contracts argues that individual rights should be sacrificed for the greater good, “Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole”.  Rousseau argues that in this way we can create a “common self” and “form by aggregation a sum of forces [that] are directed by means of a single moving power and made to act in concert”. 

Put simply, Rousseau‘s argument says that in order to create legitimate power that can effectively change society, humans must enter into a common social contract in order to combine their individual powers.  Everyone in this social contract becomes part of a “common self”.  Anyone that is part of society should not act on any sort of personal desire that is detrimental to the common self; otherwise you are breaking the social contract and should be kicked out. 

If we follow this logic, then it would seem that any sort of rebel group trying to instigate a revolution would be against the social contract of the common self.  Recent revolutions have destroyed the social fabric of their respective countries.  Following each revolution, the countries are left with a government that is in shambles and unable to make and significant changes before extensive amounts of effort, money and time.  In the meantime, the citizens are left in a possible state of anarchy. 

Besides the damage to the cultural structure, these revolutions have all been responsible for thousands of deaths.  The Egyptian revolution has caused 846 deaths (http://www.thetakeaway.org/2011/apr/21/egypt-report-puts-revolution-death-toll-846/).  Some of which are bystanders who did not want anything to do with the revolution itself.  The revolution in Syria has led to a staggering 3500 deaths (http://www.usnews.com/news/slideshows/death-toll-of-arab-spring/2). 

Some would argue that these groups should wait to build up enough public support and capital to employ a peaceful regime change, thus saving the “common self” from such death and chaos.  However, on the flip side, others could make the claim that these rebels were suffering horrendous violations of basic human rights and that changes needed to be made as soon as possible. 

The question is, at what point does a violent uprising become a viable choice and worth the multitude of damages it causes the “common self”?  Rousseau’s theory does not address this gray area, but maybe some of the other political theorists have philosophies that could provide an answer.  Where do you think the line is?

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One Comment on “Where is the Line?”

  1. aclieb Says:

    It is difficult to put a finger on where the line is. Like the author of this post addresses, this is a grey issue. I think a violent uprising becomes a viable option when a group of people become so oppressed that human rights are violated. For example the conditions for Palestinians in Gaza are pretty miserable. The Palestinians have been fighting against the Israelis for many years but aside for reasons of land dispute or refugee issues, they fight because the conditions are so poor. I am not advocating a Palestinian uprising nor am I advocating Israel’s treatment of Gaza, I’m merely giving an example. If the common self is benefited from an uprising, then I think an uprising is necessary even if members of the common self are hurt en route to benefit the common self.

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