The General Will and The Will of All: Unnatural Inequalities?
While reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, I found myself nodding my head to many of his theories; especially his intriguing, psychological take on the state of nature. Yet, when I came across his explanation of the “general will” and the “will of all”, both definitions and their implications seemed convoluted and unsettling.
By definition, the general will is the total “general interest,” whereas the will of all is the “sum of private interests.” The general will thinks “what is best” for the community as a whole, and the pluses and minuses of the private desires cancel out and “the sum of the differences” remain (BkII, ChIII, p437). In this instance, the will of all are personal, private desires of an individual such as taste in music, foods, etc. The general will compensates or compromises these separate interests with the benefit of the entire community in mind.
Rousseau’s depiction of society under these two social theories is questionable because it seems like an unrealistic generalization of human character and judgment. Even though Rousseau stresses that our preferences should be altered to benefit the community,it seems that this strategy is virtually impossible. How could a person decide what is good for a whole community without unfairly generalizing and dissatisfying many? And what is this standard of “goodness” when deciding? Private interests seem to be impossible to separate from decisions, and therefore, the general will seems theoretically “broken.” It is highly unlikely that a human will support a decision that is not made from self-interest,because by support of a decision is itself is an act of self-interest. Since society is an unequal community, how is it possible for there to be a resulting “sum of differences?” The pluses and minuses do not simply cancel out, but remain suffocated by the general will. Indeed, our social fabric is composed of too many different races, economic backgrounds, and personalities for there to be a satisfying community-driven consensus.Additionally, one person may say something will benefit the community while another may say it does not. There can be no “common good” when the community itself is split into so many irreversible, inevitable factions. Therefore, the general will leaves no one extremely happy or anyone extremely mad; Rousseau’s perfect happy medium between state of nature and modern society, equality within inequality. Personally, this middle-ground status presents itself as a mediocre last resort.
In my opinion, a person cannot determine what is fit for the community because you are dealing with others’ desires. Rousseau is not suggesting that desires be completely annihilated, but he wants them to be compensated. However, desires are too subjective, personal, and virtually non-negotiable for such blind compensation. Exceedingly, our advancement through time suggests that inequality is a natural, evolutionary characteristic; even social and political inequalities could be said to be natural since its origin (people) are natural creatures.Since human nature is undefinable and diverse, it is nearly impossible to define certain natural qualities. Just because we began as equals does not mean nature intended to preserve our original primative characteristics. By promoting a preservation of inequality through the social contract, but still displaying its negativity, Rousseau then paints a hazy picture of progression.