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Fail Blog: The general will and the health of the body politic

November 4, 2010

In the physical, structural manifestation of a Rousseau’s social contract, the people are designated as the decision makers. Because, as Rousseau states, “obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is liberty.” So while the lawgiver drafts laws to be voted on and the government is required to enforce them, it is the responsibility of the people to make the final call on whether or not the law should be enacted. As Rousseau clarifies, there are two wills at play in the voting for laws: the will of all and the general will. The will of all is just the sum total of each individual’s preferences. The general will is the common good, what is best for the entire community. Usually, the general will is reflected in the majority opinion of the people, since Rousseau suggests that we vote with others in mind and not our personal preferences (the will of all). But what happens when majority opinion does not reflect the general will? Well Rousseau states that if this happens you have an unhealthy body politic. While not explicitly stated, Rousseau seems to imply that the government or state set up would eventually dissolve or dismantle with an unhealthy body politic. However, there is no guarantee that an unhealthy body politic will collapse…

It seems to me that if the majority starts passing laws unreflective of the general will or good, the state could easily continue existing, now with unjust laws. While this would then revert us back to the “bad social contract,” putting us back in our chains, is there any guarantee people will notice? Is there anything stopping or physically making an unhealthy body politic collapse? The answer is no.

The other question is, if the people do realize that they are once again in chains, having lost their liberty, and they decide to dissolve the government, what state do we return to? If we are no longer able to go back to the state of nature as Rousseau says, but have dissolved our social contract, are when in a quasi-civilized state of nature?

None of these represent answers, but are merely critiques to Rousseau’s social contract. While he obviously is a renowned political theorist, it is interesting to think about loopholes within the physical and structural manifestations of his government.






  1. Nick Weeks permalink
    November 4, 2010 11:22 PM

    Interesting questions, on the question of what state we would be if the body politic is dissolved, isn’t that what rousseau said would happen to an unhealthy body politic? Then ideally according to Rousseau we would enter into a healthier body politic that is made by the true general will. Thus, we would remain in the civil state. However, an interesting perspective is does Rousseau imply that the body politic is cyclical? Since he builds the metaphor of the body as the government wouldn’t have a life span and eventually die? Then it would be replaced? Some other questions to think about.

  2. lrib12 permalink
    November 5, 2010 1:20 AM

    You broach very interesting questions. I really enjoy your question “what happens when majority opinion does not reflect the general will?” To me this is how I envision the contemporary citizen–able to move away from the accepted norm. You bring about, what i continued to question from lecture and discussion. Good work!

  3. yequan permalink
    November 6, 2010 11:57 PM

    My opinion is that the majority might be mislead by some informations, and it did happen in history. It is pretty scary that if if majority can not reflect general will and this so called unhealthy body politic lasts… And the author also mentions an interesting question is that “Is there anything stopping or physically making an unhealthy body politic collapse”? I think one of the consequence may be —revolution.

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