The essay consists of four parts and is intended to answer the following questions: what is general will by contrast private will and will of all? Is it capable of making mistakes or being wrong? Is it possible to implement? What are the shortcomings of it? The relation of the general will and the sovereign. At the outset, it is worth acknowledging that Rousseau is one of those philosophers, who referred in his writings the idea of social contract. Before Rousseau, the idea of the social contract has been first explored and presented by Thomas Hobbes. After Hobbes, John Locke tried to give some explanations and observed it from another perspective.
And then comes Rousseau, who among these philosophers was the one both as an advocate and critic of social contract theory. In The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right Rousseau addresses questions concerning man’s freedom and at the same time living in the society with other people together and having obligations towards one another. He raises questions like by living with others in one society, should we follow our principles or should we leave our particular will aside for the common good of the society (Rousseau calls it general will)? Rousseau raises such questions and tries to answer them in the Social Contract.
He starts the first Chapter of The Social Contract with the most quoted sentence: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Rousseau, 1923, 5). Thus, Rousseau starts his book with a paradox that though man has his liberty and freedom, in the society he has many obligations and duties too, that should be followed and implemented. Rousseau mentions that man was free from these obligations (state of nature) when there was no social contract between people. This situation continues until man finds that there are many cases, where people may cooperate for their common interest. The turning point of this is the family, which may be considered as the basis of society. In the wake of creating a society emerges a need to create a body through the social contract that will coordinate different levels of the society. Moreover, this body by its definition is more than an individual will and principle.
Consequently, Rousseau puts forward the idea of general will. What is general will? The idea of general will is the central concept of Rousseau’s social contract theory. According to Rousseau, when individuals identify themselves with the society, they set aside their selfishness and their private interests for the sake of laws by which they can peacefully coexist with other people. As Rousseau states: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau, 1923, 15). Only the general will can direct the corporate power of the community towards the common good.
However, by setting this idea, Rousseau did not limit people’s natural liberty or their natural right to be equal. Rousseau argues that as people have born equally by nature, no one has the right to govern them or dictate what they should or should not do unless they according to their own will and concent agree to relinquish several rights in favor of the general will (Rousseau, 1923). Is the general will always right (infallible)? Rousseau argues that the general will is inclined to be always right because it is directed towards the welfare and good of humanity as a wholeness. It is always right as it promotes public utility. Rousseau seems to divide between the general will and the will of all.
The latter is the sum of all private interests of one individual. As Dagger mentions the idea of general rests on the person’s two fundamental distinctions: everyone and a citizen. He continues: “Insofar as we are men, we are each unique; each of us, that is, has his own particular identity and set of interests. Insofar as we are citizens, however, we are alike in that we are members of the public; and as members of the public we share a common interest…” (Dagger 1981, 361). Thus, one may conclude that Rousseau does not exclude the fact that the will of one individual may be in contrast with the others or sometimes people may be decieved and make wrong decisions. In this case, they should come to the common denominator so that form the outcome will benefit the whole community (Rousseau 1923). Nevertheless, there are several problems with the concept of the general will. Indeed, Rousseau mentions that all people may pursue their will and interests, but when there a situation that one should choose between common good and individual one, the decision should be made in favor of the public good.
Here the problem is that the general will is not a practical thing. Rousseau states that the general will works in those societies or states, where the size of a population is very small so that everyone knows each other (Rousseau 1923). One may claim that this will to make decisions for the good of all because people know each other or even they may be relatives and do not want to harm their friends. However, this will not work nowadays, when there are many megapolises, where the size of the population is huge enough. The size of the population of the world grows and at the same time the possibility that the general will works decreases.
The next problem concerning the general will is that it is the decision or intention of the society for the preservation of the public utility. Nevertheless, several issues contradict with the idea of general will. For instance, let’s take the giant chemical companies, where thousands of people work.
These companies vary pernicious for the health of the community because of the air and environmental pollution. Thus, if the authorities follow the Rousseau’s general will, they should shout down those companies to prevent the spread of the diseases. On the contrary to this, due to these companies, many people have a sustainable workplace, and the companies become closed the rate of unemployment will rise, and many people lose their work.
The crus of the matter is that one may never say for sure, which variant prevails from the other. Both are for the good of the community, and there will always be contradictions between community members. Also, there is another contradiction in reality, where the state or other institutions should act according to the general will, but they do not. For example, taking the university fees, which are high or at least not everyone can afford himself to go to university, because of the tuition fee. If the university acts according to the general will and for the public interest, it will cut off its tuition fees, so that more student can come and study there. However, universities have their policy, and they also worry about their image: the better the quality of the education of the university, the higher is its tuition fee.
Therefore, if the university meets the demand of the society, it goes against its policy and its own will. As a result, this example shows that Rousseau’s concept of general will is not a practical one. Where can it be found? Rousseau comes with the idea that unanimity in the society shows that the general will is dominating there. In his own words: “The more concert reigns in the assemblies, that is, the nearer opinion approaches unanimity, the greater is the dominance of the general will” (Rousseau 1923, 92). Thus, according to Rousseau, the unanimity is a clear expression that the general will is mutually agreeable by all. “…Voting on the general will is necessary in those cases in which the existing general will fails to speak with a single voice” (Ripstein 1992, 57). Unanimity becomes clear when people vote for or against some issues concerning the whole society or during the elections. Here, one may say that the general will can be found through the voting and elections.
Rousseau claims that there is one law “which needs unanimous consent” (Rousseau 1923, 93), and this is the social contract. He argues that, who is against the social contract, should be expelled from the society. This is a matter of great importance for society, so it is very important that society be as unanimous as possible.
But Rousseau also identifies one problem in this. He states it is not excluded that people may vote or not based on their particular will. According to Rousseau, the worst case is that people vote out of fear of the tyrant or someone else (Rousseau, 1923). In these two cases, the general will becomes eliminated. Apart from voting Rousseau also introduces elections through which people choose their prince and magistrates.
Rousseau mentioned there are two types of elections: election by choice and elections by the lot (majority). Rousseau agrees with Montesquieu that in democratic countries the letter type of elections is more appropriate than the former, which is more suitable for the states that are aristocratic. Elections by choice mean that the government may choose its members, while elections by lot mean that the people got the opportunity to choose the one according to the general will, who should be responsible for implementing their decisions for the common good. As Rousseau points out: “The lot is a way of making a choice that is unfair to nobody; it leaves each citizen a reasonable hope of serving his country” (Rousseau 1923, 95). As a result, the general will can be found through fair voting and elections. What relation has the general will with the sovereign? People expressing their general will make laws, which everyone should follow.
However, there is a question: how can people compel everyone to follow those laws? Therefore, there must be someone; he can be a guide in making and following those laws. This person is called a legislator in Rousseau’s Social Contract. His position in the state is extraordinary (Cahn 1997). He is the person, who helps people to write the laws. According to Rousseau, the legislator should be the one, who is intelligent, fair and just, “his laws would be the ministers of his passions…” (Rousseau 1923, 36).
The legislator should set aside his particular will and deserves to serve the people on behalf of he makes the laws. Rousseau mentions that the legislator should have that power to make everyone follow the laws, but he should be “capable of containing without violence and persuading without convincing” (Rousseau 1923, 37). Hence, the relations between the sovereign and the legislator revolves around the lawmaking process. The people that create the laws should also be the subject of those laws. Although the legislative power is on the hands of the people, Rousseau believes that people may be unable to make the laws by the general will on their own.
Apart from this, they may be shortsighted and selfish. Thus, the work of the legislator is correct those flaws and make the legislative process without any impediments. As Fireside mentions:As any properly designed engine achieves the purpose for which it was intended, in conformance with the physical laws apparent to the inventor, so the machinery of government can be made to work if arranged according to an order inherent in the production justice, “joining rights to duties” (Fireside 1970, 193). While speaking about the general will and the law-making process, one of the first things that come to the mind is that who should implement those laws? Should there be any coordinating body to handle all the problems that may endanger the general will? Rousseau believed that to maintain the public good; the general will needs an institution that will support it.
Apart from the legislator, there is also an executive body, which is the government.