Rousseau Blowing Up the “Right of the Stronger”

I really enjoyed this passage when I read it a year ago in David Gordon’s Political Thought Through the Ages course; while re-reading it for my Political Philosophy class in college, I realized my appreciation for it has not swayed one bit.

The right Rousseau is discussing is the “right of the stronger,” a claim that morality is derived from the greater force.

The following is from the Cambridge edition, edited by Victor Gourevitch.

But will no one ever explain this word to us? Force is a physical power; I fail to see what morality can result from its effects. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; at most it is an act of prudence.

Let us assume this alleged right for a moment. I say that it can only result in an unintelligible muddle. For once force makes right, the effect changes together with the cause; every force that overcomes the first, inherits its right. Once one can disobey with impunity, one can do so legitimately, and since the stronger is always right, one need only make sure to be the stronger. But what is a right that perishes when force ceases? If one has to obey by force, one need not obey by duty, and if one is no longer forced to obey, one is no longer obliged to do so. Clearly, then, this word “right” adds nothing to force; it means nothing at all here. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 1, Ch.3)

It’d be an interesting argument if someone contended morality existed but immorality didn’t. I have not seen such an argument and don’t know if it can be made. Nevertheless, any one that accepts the existence of both morality and immorality logically cannot propose that force creates right.

For proof, consider the following: if you are forced to do something, by definition, you had no choice in the matter. If force created right, then your forced action was also moral.  However, the absence of choice means that you cannot be immoral! Thus, the right of the stronger eliminates the possibility of immorality.


Posted on April 9, 2013, in Ethics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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