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Who Cares About the Common Good, Really?

November 5, 2010
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After reflecting on Rousseau in discussion the other day, I realized just how self-interested people are. I especially noticed this by taking into consideration all the things the average American does to preserve his or her locality, while neglecting to care for neighboring communities. It is because of self-interest like this that most Americans do not vote according to the “general will” of the people. Rather, folks vote for what is best for them. I believe that what any given election contains are the votes of mainly self-interested individuals who portray the “will of all.”

Again, to exemplify this condition, in regards to the average Americans’ own community, citizens of a region cannot even typically work together, because they are primarily interested in their own locality. For instance, look at the situation in Detroit. When Detroit, or less affluent surrounding suburbs want to have consolidated services with more affluent areas,  the more affluent areas become very upset. They normally do not want to help out their regional neighbors, but rather want to continue similar policies which closely maintain their neighborhoods. More affluent areas do not want to deal with potential problems that could arise from consolidating, even though doing something as simple as consolidating some services, say police, fire, or education, would benefit others who are less fortunate and therefore serve the common good of those citizens under the sovereign state.

Certainly, there are “Mother Theresa’s” out there, who will vote in for the “general will” of the people, but really, if any person inspects how peoples votes affect policy or how the free market works, he will find that on a global scale, the average man is looking to get as much for himself as possible. A perfect illustration of this is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand Principle. Rousseau thinks that laws are made to promote the public good, rather than the private, but by looking at the way localities are organized and the way in which economics work, it is clear that isn’t the way things really turn out.

9 Comments
  1. lrib12 permalink
    November 5, 2010 11:18 PM

    I definitely agree with that mindset of voting for the “general will” and the common good of the people is defunct. Personally I don’t ever know if it was inherently there or just because of the fact that we are so easily able to be in our “self-interest.” Rousseau’s vision of the “will of all” certainly doesn’t seem to be present–Hey!, I’m certainly looking out for myself!

    • matteric9 permalink
      November 6, 2010 11:14 AM

      According to Rousseau, the general will is not the will of the majority, it is the will of the political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own. The general will, according to Rousseau, demands the obedience of every individual in society, and if the general will is not followed, the society will become a bad society and fall apart.

  2. tungyat permalink
    November 6, 2010 12:27 PM

    Even if everyone is voting for what they believe to be best for themselves, by the democratic system, the concepts and ideals that fit the general population will be adopted by the state, thus the general will of the population will be taken into account rather than the will of all.

    • tungyat permalink
      November 6, 2010 12:28 PM

      Or that’s the concept anyways…

  3. darriensherman permalink
    November 6, 2010 3:07 PM

    I do agree with your argument that a majority of people vote to simply do what they think is best for themselves. Whether they are a large business owner or a small private practitioner, voters will vote for policies that best suits their business, state, and family. However, Rousseau believes man’s state of nature is having compassion toward others who are in pain or in Detroit’s case people living under poor conditions. It is man’s natural tendency to try and help their fellow neighbor. If Rousseau’s state of nature holds correct,voters would sympathize with those who are in poorer living conditions and vote for policies that would change their outcome.

  4. mgrizzy permalink
    November 6, 2010 4:56 PM

    The sad truth is that if one strictly goes by Rousseau’s words, the societies of the United States (and most other democratic nations) have been in a “bad” state almost since their inceptions. Requiring the obedience of entire populations and trusting them to promote the general will is increasingly difficult as a society – and the social inequalities within it – grows in size, and when the general will is neglected, even if for just a single case, the repercussions can be huge and snowball to gargantuan proportions if the neglect persists. In the case of the current age’s democratic societies, the general will has been abandoned by a significant portion of the masses, and so when voting time comes around the the vast majority of citizens are much more inclined to vote in their own interests than to try and pursue the perceived “lost cause” that the general will has become.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

  5. mikeking0717 permalink
    November 6, 2010 6:33 PM

    Reading these comments brought a question to mind. As many of us know, the November elections have left Washington split down the middle and prone to grid-lock. Is this simply the result of the ‘will of all’, or is this a result of people who are attempting to pursue the ‘general will’ only to disagree on the means with which to reach the end goal of stability? In other words, is the extreme partisanship found in our nation the result of individual selfishness, or simply a disagreement on what is best for everyone?

    • Spriel permalink
      November 7, 2010 3:20 PM

      This is an interesting question that I think incorporates both answers. I think the instability that currently characterizes the past elections is mostly a result of individual selfishness; people are voting based on what will ultimately favor themselves. For example, the current economic situation in our country encourages people to vote for what will serve their best interests in the long run, but it can be said that this long run is their view of what will be best for everyone.

  6. mattwax permalink
    November 7, 2010 6:31 PM

    It seems only natural to say “its just human nature” in relation to man’s self interest. As you pointed out those with power and wealth are often reluctant to take a step down, and share some of their wealth with those who may be in dire need of aid. Apart from the rare “Mother Theresa’s” in the world, we think of man to be inherently selfish. But we can simply look to some of the earlier groupings of man to see that this is not the case. Many groups of native americans lived in a commune; there was no currency, everything was collectively accumulated. I have thought, why do modern Americans seem to be so selfish, as you say, they often look out for those who are immediately important to them. Is it because of capitalism; is it the model of American individuality? Other citizens of capitalist countries don’t seem to exhibit the same qualities you pointed out to be so prevalent in the US. Why is this? I am not capable of giving a sufficient answer, but I just find this to be an interesting question- in line with your post.

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