The Social Contract "The Right Of Conquest"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"The Right Of Conquest"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Rousseau's Social Contract attempts to establish that the authority of the people is absolute. To begin, he endeavors to prove that free-born men have fallen into slavery because of misconceptions of what constitutes right. In political societies strength is the basis for right; and strength leads to the use of force and to war and conquest. Conquest, then, also becomes a basis for right, but, writes Rousseau,

With regard to the right of conquest, it has no foundation other than the law of the strongest. If war does not confer on the victor the right of slaying the vanquished, this right, which he does not possess, cannot be the foundation of a right to enslave them. If we have a right to slay an enemy only when it is impossible to enslave him, the right to enslave him is not derived from the right to kill him; it is, therefore, an iniquitous bargain to make him purchase his life, over which the victor has no right, at the cost of his liberty. In establishing the right of life and death upon the right of slavery, and the right of slavery upon the right of life and death, is it not manifest that one falls into a vicious circle?