Obligation in Rousseau: making natural law history?

Jahrbuch für Recht Und Ethik/Annual Review of Law and Ethics 20:139-154 (2012)
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Is Rousseau an advocate of natural law or not? The purpose of Rehm’s paper is to suggest a positive answer to this controversially discussed question. On the one hand, Rousseau presents a critical history of traditional natural law theory which in his view is based on flawed suppositions: not upon natural, but on artificial qualities of man, and even rationality and sociability are counted among the latter. On the other hand he presents the self-confident manifesto for a fresh start in natural law theory, founded on what to Rousseau’s mind is the true idea of human nature. The paper intends to show that the only natural qualities which can be seen as anthropological constants are those that keep man flexible, namely perfectibility and freedom of will. It is argued that these are exactly the qualities which according to Rousseau serve as the standard of natural law for the system of politics and its laws: Only a state based upon the free consent of individuals can do justice to man’s perfectibility and freedom of will. Rehm stresses that because of perfectibility and freedom of will, this self-commitment has to be revisable, which is why the republic of the “Social Contract” should not have a constitution, or any law that the citizens cannot alter. It is demonstrated that in Rousseau’s view, this republic is the enabling condition of natural liberty.



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Michaela Rehm
Bielefeld University

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