How to Understand the Rousseau’s Concept of the General Will
Popular Sovereignty and the Social Contract: Specific Wills, Corporate Wills, Minority Wills, Majority Wills, and the General Will
To get the concept of the general will it helps to understand the different wills possible in a “body politic” (a political body). They can be described as:
The Specific, Corporate, Minority, and Majority Wills
The wills that are not the General Will (and are therefore special interests) are:
- Specific Will: The will of one.
- Corporate Will: The will of the few.
- The Minority Will: The majority will of a minority group.
- The Majority Will: Popular opinion of the moment, the majority consensus of a majority group.
The General Will
The General Will: The TRUE will of the many, that which is the common good in its most enlightened form. It is the will of ALL, but not a majority will, or a minority will, or a corporate will, or a specific will.
The common good does not involve compromise (democracy can and should involve compromise, but the General Will is a perfect concept on its own, even when we can’t know it, thus it should not be confused with a compromised mid-point between tastes).
It is not the sum of all wills (as people can be influenced by corporate wills, and then at that point they have a roadblock to expressing the General Will). It is not purely what the majority thinks is best or what the smartest person in the room thinks is best.
The common good (an ends of the general will) is a moral concept, a concept of fairness and justice. It is that which causes the most happiness and least pain in the sovereign citizens. Even the most enlightened version of the Utilitarian theory only begins to describe the ideal of the “General Will”.
It is not, by any-means “the will of the stronger”; putting another Will before the Common Good isn’t democracy, it is more a sort of tyranny (the tyranny of the many, few, and one respectively).
The general problems with the general will and utopia: The two main problems with the general will are 1. the problem of knowing what is in the best interest of the state and 2. the fact that few can agree on what the perfect state (a utopia) looks like (one party says it looks like social equality, the other the opposite, social hierarchy; one group wants total liberty, another protection; one wants church and state, the other secularism). Given this, an attempt to create a utopia can very easily lead to “the road to serfdom” and other forms of tyranny. However, if we understand Plato, Rousseau, and other thinkers correctly, we’ll understand that a “strong man” offering a utopia and a “philosopher king” trying to rule in the interest of the majority or minority will (or wills) are two totally different things. “Doing what is in the best interest of all citizens” and “creating one or more factions’ version of a utopia” are two totally different things. Good governance isn’t the art of people pleasing.
TIP: The general will cannot err, if it errs, than it is not the General Will. The Will is indivisible, inalienable, and infallible. Again, it is a little like Utilitarian theory or arete, where if it goes wrong it is not the theory but the translator who has err’d.
TIP: If you take a thousand people and have them guess how many beans are in jar for a prize, the mean answer will be very close. This is because people, when uninfluenced and unbiased, are democratically smart. They naturally know the common good. We don’t live in any such world in reality though. In real life people spend great deals of effort propagandizing and this injection of special interest and corporate and specific wills corrupts democracy. That is why Rousseau looks to the General Will and not just popular consensus.What is the General Will?
Popular Sovereignty: The idea that all people of a nation or state are sovereign (and that some entities in the state, like the 50 states in the U.S., are sovereign).
The citizens may not have executive or legislative power, as that power is delegated to representatives, but they each have an equal degree of sovereignty (in a city of 300, there are 300 sovereigns, even if there is only one leader to whom power has been delegated; see Social Contract theory).
When people vote, they give their consent to be governed.
It is the implicit duty of the government to ensure the general will is satisfied. Meanwhile, it is corrupt for the government to ignore the General Will or to favor another Will over it. The spirit of the laws of any just government bound by a social contract is to ensure the General Will (to ensure the common good). Thus, not doing so is by its nature not lawful (or at least this is the gist of the philosopher’s argument in terms of sovereignty and consent).
This is all made complex by the devilish details such as “there is no philosopher king, and thus no great interpreter of the perfect common good”. Still, that is why we have voting and other advents of modern liberal democracy.Popular Sovereignty. I know, strange that people could misinterpret the right to consent and the right to overthrow unjust governments. Anyway, the concept is even more important because of this, but just make sure to warn your friends “this requires careful reading, and few have the skill to make themselves clear to those who won’t listen”. The American Revolution worked out well enough, it was philosophically justified, but that old Confederate Revolution we call a civil war… Well they were both about States’ Rights, weren’t they?
I warn you that this chapter requires careful reading, and that I don’t have the skill to make myself clear to someone who won’t attend. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau (politely asking you not to confuse concepts like General will and Majority Will).
The General Will in Rousseau’s Own Words
Rousseau explains his own concept well enough in Book II Chapter III of his Social Contract (as he does elsewhere in the book such as Book I Chapter VI) where he explains that if it weren’t for special interest factions the sum of all wills would be the general will,
“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.
If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular.”
NOTE: Although Rousseau doesn’t mention it, if we think of “the General Will” as “the Greatest Happiness“, and understand it as the intention of an enlightened version of Utilitarianism (as understood by a close reading of figures from Plato, to Mill, to Rawls), then we will have a solid understanding of what the General Will is and isn’t.
TIP: A central idea in Kantian ethics is “Good Will” (AKA Good Faith) when something is done in “good faith” and when one would wish that their action becomes a “universal law” (if they act in accord with the categorical imperative) then their action “is moral”. This exact ethical theory is debatable, but generally we can say, accounting for this and Mill’s theory, that “the General Will” is akin to “doing what is the most moral” as a first principle.
First principle? A first principle is a principle one checks all other principles against. We don’t just “do the most good” at any cost, we must factor morality into the means, ends, and all effects, checking principle against principle. This is why ethics, morality, politics, and governance are sciences as much as anything else, getting it right is a complex equation.
TIP: Plato’s Republic is structured to seek “the General Will”. Plato imagines an ideal philosopher class who can understand the concept, and decries oligarchies, tyrants, and democracy for their minority and majority interests. To not represent the will of the sovereign people is tyrannical. It is akin to a person following their whims over their wisdom. This has been known since Plato coined the way we describe moral philosophy and politics back in 360 BC.The General Will & Freemasons. Many of the French Revolutionists were Freemasons (according to legend). An important concept related to their type of liberalism was the idea that a nation should be governed by the general will, the will of the Third Estate so to speak. This idea became muddied however as the revolution turned to “the Reign of Terror.”
TIP: Rousseau’s concept of the General Will and the related concept of popular sovereignty are often misunderstood as popular consensus and debated. Still, the idea that sovereignty rests with the people, and that consent to be governed is a human right, forms much of the backbone of both Liberalism and Republicanism (Rousseau being accurately described in my opinion as both a social liberal and a republican).
TIP: If an angry mob is shouting about the General Will, it is a good sign more critical thinking should be done. This philosophical ideal of “what is best for all” is somewhat tangible, but given it is too easy to confuse with the will of a majority or loud minority, it is perhaps better proved with logical arguments in an essay (something of the quality of the U.S. Declaration of Independence or Constitution) than with a loud and popular movement.Rousseau: Popular Sovereignty and General Will. Popular Sovereignty is what the Civil War was fought over and it was largely what the French Revolution was about. Rousseau doesn’t just present the concept of the General Will as an idea, he uses empirical evidence from history to justify his moral and ethical philosophy.
TIP: This concept was well stated by Rousseau, but originates with many others. Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws notes it, Buchanan’s Powers of the Crown and Locke’s Second Treatise both use it to justify the political overthrow of tyrants, and elements can even be found in Plato’s and Aristotle’s musings on the state of nature and the perfect city-state in their Republic and Politics respectively.
The strength of individuals cannot be united without a conjunction of all their wills. “The conjunction of those wills,” as Gravina again very justly observes, “is what we call the civil state.” – Montesquieu
TIP: Society must answer two basic questions to form a government: “who has authority?” and “who says so?” If we think of each of those as having a moral-mental-will and will-in-action, then we can say morally everyone says so and everyone has authority or sovereignty. The government acts with authority granted by the people via the social contract. That authority is conditional and based on government acting in accordance with the general will.
Rousseau’s Social Contract – a Compact Bound by Consent and the General Will
To Rousseau, humans were [loosely speaking] naturally noble savages who were good at heart. Thus, to Rousseau, the general will was the ideal will of the people as it would be in this noble state of nature. Of course, we don’t live in a state of nature; we live in a society in which we are bound by explicit social contracts and social constructs which both corrupt us and require us to trade some natural liberties for civil liberties and rights.
Since we must trade liberties and form a social contract, Rousseau suggests we look to the general will to understand the Government’s purpose and moral center.
That may sound somewhat ideal, and although Rousseau discusses his ideals, he was also a realist.
His theory of the General Will contained in his Social Contract (1762) doesn’t paint the General Will as simply the majority or popular will of the people. It is painted as the TRUE or WISE and uncorrupted will of the people. It is an ideal translated by the government, consisting of those with power in the civil society, either a Monarch, Aristocrats, or even all the people of a Pure Democracy. In his view, the government would translate the will like a “learned sage,” and it would be confirmed by free speech, assembly, and voting.An Introduction to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract – A Macat Politics Analysis.
The General Will, Not the Popular Will or Specific Will
In Rousseau’s writing, the General Will is not the specific will of an individual or group, but instead the general will of the people as a whole. It should not be mistaken for “the popular will,” which could be the will of an angry lynch mob. It should be understood as “a wise will.” The General Will is the will of the people as interpreted by an improbably wise person, a will concerned with the survival, well-being, and common good of the collective.
One can see how a concept like popular sovereignty becomes confused by this. It may be clear to philosophers, even when it isn’t to everyone in general, that “slavery is an abomination and the general will can never be that of enslaving others.”
TIP: Rousseau explains the general will clearly in the Social Contract Book 3 Chapter 2 and Book 4 Chapter 1 tellingly titled “The general will is indestructible.” The Government’s force, or its will-in-action, should not be confused with its mental will. The General Will is the mental will, the government’s job is to translate the mental will to a will-in-action through lawful means.
TIP: If Rousseau were a religious author, he might have called the General Will “God’s Will.” However, he didn’t and wasn’t, and in context, he is simply assigning that ideal to man before government.
How to Determine the General Will
Although a small body of people may be able to state their General Will clearly, it is arguably impossible to understand the general will of a collective, especially a large one. Thus, a complex array of specifics measures is needed in practice including feedback. This is why Rousseau calls for virtuous mixed republics ruled by law where people can speak freely and air their opinions to check and balance the will-in-action with the general will.
Voting and freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all good ways to determine the general will.
Why Should Anyone Care?
Rousseau’s concept is important to understand. As Marx’s Communism was misunderstood by Lenin, or as some misunderstand Locke’s right to revolution, the concept of Rousseau’s general will has also been misunderstood. It has been put forward as an equivalent to popular consensus and used by those with a specific will with disastrous results (see the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution).
In Rousseau’s Words
Let us end again with Rousseau’s own words from Book III Chapter II (that will help to avoid my corrupting of his concept) .
In the person of the magistrate we can distinguish three essentially different wills: (i) the private will of the individual, tending only to his personal advantage; (ii) the common will of the magistrates, which relates purely to the advantage of the prince (call this ‘corporate will’, which is general in relation to the government and particular in relation to the state of which the government is a part); and (iii) the will of the people, i.e. the sovereign will, which is general both in relation to the state regarded as the whole, and to the government regarded as a part of the whole. In a perfect act of legislation, the individual or particular will should be at zero; the government’s corporate will should be thoroughly subordinate; and the general or sovereign will, therefore, should always predominate and should be the sole guide of all the rest.
I could offer many reflections on the simple right of voting in every act of sovereignty—a right that no one can take from the citizens—and also on the right of stating views, making proposals, dividing and discussing, which the government is always most careful to leave solely to its members; but this important subject would need a book to itself—I can’t say everything in this one.