According to Rousseau, when are citizens obliged to obey the law and when they are not?

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an advocate of direct democracy, the only political form he believed could provide clarity to the question of obligation. Rousseau maintained that humans are naturally free, but are corrupted by society. Before the advent of private property and the division of labor, humans were autonomous, i.e., they were the authors of their own actions rather than being influenced by outside forces. Rousseau tried to expose the contradictory logic behind the dominant philosophy of his age which defended an individualistic notion of the self. He instead argued in modern society, what we consider "the self" is actually constituted by others. What Rousseau is trying to say is that our desires and needs are constructed socially rather than individually. Nonetheless Rousseau thought that democratic governance could recover humanity's autonomy and give us a common political form that would solve the question of obligation.

According to Rousseau, citizens must only obey laws that are in accordance with the "general will." The general will emerges only when citizens see their own good in the advancement of the common good of the political community. If everyone started to think this way, Rousseau argued, humans would regain their autonomy because their individuality would be wrapped up in the wider interests of the polis. In summary, Rousseau argued that citizens are obliged to obey the law when a) it is the outcome of the general will and b) it promotes individual autonomy.

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For Rousseau, the condition of mankind being born free, but living in chains arises from a political reality that does not integrate the general will.  Rousseau's avoidance of such a condition is when individuals are able to understrand that political freedom is the only way to fully grasp individual identity.   In Rousseau's mind, this is the problem of previous political theorists' pursuit of the political good:

'All offered their necks to the yoke in hopes of securing their liberty. . . .'The result of this flight into slavery was the eternal fixing of the laws of property and inequality.

For Rousseau, the "offering of necks" is a vital ingredient in determining individual freedom.  It is at this point when individuals fully understand that they have a political stake in the configuration that freedom will be completely recognized.  The legitimacy of authority is only possible when individuals have a role in political establishments.  In this, Rousseau can see chains being dissipated and a new and more collective conception of freedom arising.

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Rousseau would argue that people are only obligated to obey the laws when they have agreed to be bound by those laws.  If they have not agreed to the "social compact," they are not morally bound to obey the laws.

Rousseau says that we are not obligated to obey the law simply because those who impose it have power.  He argues, for example, that a robber with a gun has power, but we clearly have no moral obligation to give the robber our money.  The same goes, he says, for government.

We are only obligated when we form a social compact.  This happens when we agree to be part of a society.  When we do this, we agree to obey its laws.  Once we have done this, we are morally obliged to obey.

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