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Good Citizen Hobbes Vs Rouseau Essay

Good Citizen: Hobbes Vs. Rouseau Essay, Research Paper

For one to be a good citizen, there are certain expectations a person must follow to achieve this goal. While many people have their own ideas of what makes a good citizen, there is little consensus to exactly what this would be. Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in their books The Leviathan and The Social Contract, create a system of political governing where the citizen plays a certain role and has certain expectations to carry out this role for the governmental system to work properly. In this paper, I will discuss what each of the men believed to be the role of the average citizen to support the state. Both men have quite different opinions in regards to the roles of citizens. While both are good theories, and create a strong case for government, neither is applicable in the real world because what is demanded of the citizen in these systems of government is based on certain assumptions. The assumptions made by these men, both good and bad, are not evident in the every day person.

Thomas Hobbes believes, that all men are egocentric, by nature. This is to say that men spend their whole lives looking for what makes the happiest as an individual. Even when men socialize, it is not for the benefit of building strong ties between each other, but simply for personal benefit. Hobbes argues that man is self- centered in nature because he desires power. This arises from the fact that man, unlike animals, may seek things that are not tangible. Hobbes argues, not only are men egocentric, but also equal.

Hobbes believes that even though every person may have different levels of strength, intelligence or character that all men are equal. “For such is the nature of men that, howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be so many so wise as themselves, for they see their won wit at hand and other men’s at a distance.” (Leviathan, 98) More importantly in dealing with equality, Hobbes believes no matter what power, strength or intelligence one possesses, his vulnerability to be killed is the same.

Because man is egocentric, a man’s ego, for the most part, will drive his actions. Because of this, a cycle of competition will begin. This cycle of competition can be summed up as the state of nature. In the state of nature, where the strong survive, life is not very good. In the state of nature, man is trying to fulfill certain needs, such as safety or life. Because of these common needs, Hobbes believes man searches for peace. Peace is then achieved through a social contract among the members of the society.

Before the social contract to even begin, man must find others willing to go along with it. This becomes difficult because man is very untrusting in the state of nature. This distrust, however, is overcome by the fear of death. A fear of death and of equal vulnerability to it is common with all men and the driving force behind men coming together to form a social contract.

To create the social contract, every person must give up the right to judge themselve’s, and hand this power over to a third party, the state. The state is founded on a common belief system held my all the people in the new commonwealth. “The only way to erect such a common power, is, to conferre all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.” (Leviathan, 227) The state is all-powerful and cannot be challenged because the contract would then be broken. The only people that can break the contract are those who agreed to it, therefore the state cannot break the contract, because the state is a result of the contract.

Now the Hobbes’s social contract has been created and agreed to by the citizens, there are several things the citizens must do to support the state. The demands are simple. A good citizen must obey the state and the laws the state makes.

Hobbes believes that citizens have an obligation to obey the government because all of citizens agreed to give up the right to be judge in their own case. Once a citizen has entered into this contract, the citizen’s obligation to obey the sovereign is absolute, with one limitation to be discusses later. It does not matter what the state does, the citizen must follow, even if the citizen believes the state is wrong in what it is doing or the laws it is making.

Citizens have an obligation to obey the law. Hobbes gives three reasons why. The first is a result of a duty to the contract. Because the citizens agreed to the social contract, which gave the state absolute power, the citizens have a moral obligation to follow through on the contract in which they agreed. The second results from self-interest. When people have to reason to obey the law, the state cannot enforce it. If the state is no longer able to enforce the law, the reasons citizens agreed to the contract are gone. Finally, out of fear of punishment. The state can enforce the law, by the use of punishment because the people have given their consent for the state to do so when the agreed to the contract.

Hobbes also argues citizens must follow the state’s laws because they are all good laws. The state cannot make a bad law because the state’s power is absolute. There is nobody to blame the state, and no action of recourse against the state.

There is one instance when a citizen may refuse to obey the state. This is when the citizen’s life is in danger. Even if the state is justified in it’s actions, the citizen may disobey. The citizen is as justified in preserving his life as the state is in taking it. In this case, the state has become the problem and not the solution, as was the case in the state of nature.

However, Hobbes believes one does not have the right to refuse military service, even if the citizen’s life will knowingly be in jeopardy. This again falls on the shoulders of the contract. When a citizen agrees to the contract, for his own benefits, he also agrees to reciprocate benefits in the state’s times of need.

Rousseau, however, believes the problem with many states is the people transfer the power to a sovereign, which does not promote the will of the people. Rousseau believes the general collective will of the people in a particular society should be the force, which governs the state. The individuals, which make up the community would give up their identity as individuals, and see themselves first and foremost as citizens of the state. The collective of these citizens then forms the sovereign. The newly formed collective body is to rule, with the collective interest of the community as a whole, disregarding personal interests. “The sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither had nor can have any interest contrary to their.” (Social contract, 194)

Unlike Hobbes, who sees citizens as egocentric, Rousseau sees citizens as exocentric. Rousseau’s view of the citizen’s role is much simpler. Citizens are to participate in the making of laws and act for the good of the general will of the society. Rousseau is not say that citizens do not want to benefit their own interests, but rather, those interests would be benefited by decisions made to benefit the community. Rousseau says this is a result of being a voluntary party of the society. Citizens also have an obligation to be free and participate in the general will of the society.

Unlike Hobbes, who believes the citizen should only agree to a sovereign, which is the total extent of the citizens participation, other than obeying, Rousseau believes the citizen has an obligation to participate. While participating in the general will, there will come a time when a citizen must act in a way, which is not in his personal interest. The citizen must do what is for the collective good. Even though a particular decision benefited somebody else, and not me, there will come a time when a decision will benefit me and not somebody else. More importantly, even though this decision did not benefit me, it benefited the community as a whole.

Rousseau finds the problem mankind faces, is that “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” (Social Contract, 181). Only in a system when a man is free to express his interests has an individual and not that of an overriding group, can a man be truly free. Each individual continues to retain this individuality except when he is acting on behalf of the sovereign. “Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody,” (Social Contract, 192).

In any society, in which there is a successfully functional government, citizens are expected to perform certain duties and expected to give up some power or interests in support of the state. Hobbes and Rousseau’s expectations exceed what the average man is willing to do in support of the state.

In a Hobbsian state, a citizen is expected to give up all power to the state in the name of self-interest. The reason is the benefits the citizen receives, such as life, is in their self-interest. Other things begin to arise out of this situation that are not in the citizen’s self interest.

The Hobbsian state can produce laws, which hurt or oppress nearly every citizen in the state, and the laws are justified because there is no such thing as a bad law, because of the absolute authority the Hobbsian state has as a result of the contract. The citizens have no recourse against the government, which is oppressing them, in the name of their own self-interest.

This state, once the contract is agreed to, gives the citizens no action the sovereign does not allow. The sovereign does not give the citizens a voice in the decisions being made, and therefore, it does not have to please the citizens. It makes no difference if the citizens within this state are discontent, because they have no form of action they can take.

While the citizens in this state are allowed to fulfill self-interest, they are not free to pursue their interests via the state.

The citizens in Rousseau’s state would also be unwilling to meet the demand placed on them. They are asked to give up all self-interest in the name of the collective good. This goes beyond human nature. Man is naturally self-interested and this cannot be changed. Because Rousseau does not allow for self-interest in government, progress will be limited because of the lack of exchange of opposing views. John Stuart Mill states the importance of opposing views, “he who only knows one side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side: if he does not so much as know what they are, he had no ground for preferring either opinion.” (On Liberty, 38-39) It is important to understand the general will may not be correct or most beneficial.

A democratic voting system allows for more discourse on a particular issue, while still resulting in the general will of the people voting. The general will is no more than a majority opinion. A majority opinion allows for individuals to enact their in interests.

Rousseau’s idea of government is more of a utopian idea and not really executable in the real world.

Although neither state produces a workable government in real life, the Rousseau state gives the most satisfactory account of the obligations of citizenship. A citizen is a person who will give the most to a political system, which gives the most to the citizen. A citizen is a person who is willing and able to participate in the state.

In Hobbes’s system, the people did little more than choose who would have absolute rule over them. This is a system that can only be derived from a place where no system exists at all. It is the lesser of two evils. People under this state have no participation in the decision making process, only to obey what is decided.

While not perfect, the Rousseau state allows for the people under the state to participate in the decision making process. The state will not act against the majority opinion of the people because the majority opinion of the people is the decision of the state. People in the Rousseau state are more willing to give more in support of the state because they can make a difference in what the state’s decisions are.

However, neither state does a truly satisfactory job in describing the true obligation of a citizen. In neither state express their true opinion and interests. Therefore, in neither state would the citizenship, as a whole, be able to receive what is truly the majorities will because one’s true will is never really taken into account.


1.Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan. First Touchstone Edition 1997.

2.Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Social Contract. University of Oxford Press, London, 1947.

3.Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

1.Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan. First Touchstone Edition 1997.

2.Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Social Contract. University of Oxford Press, London, 1947.

3.Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.