[Viewpoint] Public good over personal interests

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[Viewpoint] Public good over personal interests

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about?” This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the 250th anniversary of the publication of his “Social Contract.” If Isaac Newton is the scientific genius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the genius in humanities.

The Korean Political Science Association and the Korean Society for Political Thought are holding a conference to highlight Rousseau’s contributions to political philosophy and social theories. Although the academic celebration is left to the hands of the scholars, we all need to think about Rousseau’s ideas since the basic questions he posed 250 years ago are still unresolved and propose many serious topics for discussion in relation to the reality in Korea today.

As the traditional society evolving around the blood ties began changing into a modern society in 18th century Europe, a new community to replace the existing feudal monarchy was needed. In “The Social Contract,” Rousseau proposed a political community operated by the authority under the supreme direction of the general will when there were easier options such as a military state or a religious state.

This model of a modern civil state inspired people immediately and triggered a transition to modern politics all over Europe, including the French Revolution. However, it was revealed that the relationship between the society and the state in Rousseau’s simple and elegant political community model was quite different from the reality and criticism and controversies that continue today.

According to Rousseau, people are inherently good but become immoral because of a social environment that drives them to selfishness, aggressiveness and competition. In order to save people from the ailing society and grant them liberty, the only solution is to create a sovereign state based on new principles rather than supplementing or reforming the existing system.

The political community is based on the general will to create an absolute authority that should be obeyed without exception. Rousseau integrated the need for an absolute sovereignty, advocated by Thomas Hobbes, and the calling of the participation of all citizens.

The state prescribed by Rousseau was a moral state that follows the will of heaven by wise politicians. People should be reformed morally so that they can participate and obey absolute sovereignty. Immanuel Kant highly regarded Rousseau’s “contract” because he believed that keeping the promise or contract with one’s own conscience was the beginning of a moral society. Rousseau’s political philosophy was largely utopian as it proposes an ideal model in an exemplar and transcendental level rather than based on experience or proof.

Rousseau’s 18th century and our 21st century are evidently different in terms of cultural perspective on humanity and nature. While Western enlightenment propagated the belief on the infinite potential of humans, we are facing the inevitable limit of humanity.

We have long experienced how hard it is to earn freedom from poverty, ignorance, servility and violence, and how challenging it is to create a mutually prosperous democratic community. As Korea has gotten over the ordeal of imperialism by Japanese aggression, we are faced with a challenge of efficiently and justly operating the state and social system of a democratic community.

We are desperately struggling to solve the task of harmonizing, integrating and realizing the legitimacy of Korea and the dreams and rights of the members of the community based on our own standards.

Rousseau’s political philosophy poses as much risk as potential. Ultimately, the creative idea of entrusting the state to come up with all solutions can be abused to justify totalitarian or authoritarian politics. However, Rousseau consistently emphasized public good over personal interests. If politics in Korea create more division than integration, that means politicians lack qualification as public servants.

* The author is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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