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

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.