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The General Will and The Will of All: Unnatural Inequalities?

November 7, 2010
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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.

The colorful "pluses and minuses" of the will of all, resulting in the gray "sum and differences" of the general will

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.

8 Comments
  1. yequan permalink
    November 7, 2010 11:09 PM

    I do feel that part of argument from Rousseau is very controversial just as the writer says. It is almost impossible for people to decide rationally what is the most benefit to both himself and the whole community. One’s favorite might be another’s poison. Some of the differences among people could be hardly come to a solution, and what about the next step? Argument, confrontation, or even war? All in all, I think general will is not always reliable.

    • eghat2 permalink
      November 8, 2010 12:42 PM

      I found this blog post extremely interesting, as I enjoy reading about the different ways in which individuals analyze political theory arguments, and the subsequent conclusions that they come to. Although I think that this blog post makes a good argument, I don’t completely agree with all of its concepts.
      First, I want to address the idea of the general will being the gray remainder that is left when all the ‘pluses and minuses’ of the individual desires cancel each other out. Although this was initially my understanding of the general will as well (based on the textual passage cited in the blog), I came to a different conclusion about it during my discussion section. That being, the general will is more the idea of individuals directly thinking about the best interest of all, rather than each individual thinking about themselves and then some figurative math problem computing what the general will should be. I believe you touch on this when you say “a person cannot determine what is fit for the community…” The idea is, people decide the general will thinking in terms of all, rather than in terms of themselves.
      However, the completion of the above quote, “A person cannot determine what is fit for the community because you are dealing with others desires” raises an interesting question in my mind. According to my understanding of this blog post, you believe that the world is too diverse and there are far too many different beliefs and individual interests for anyone to be able to ascertain what is in the best interest of all. My response to this idea is, Rousseau’s wrote On the Social Contract for small communities, which were likely (at the time he wrote the contract) pretty similar in race and ideals. So, it is not much of a surprise that today’s world, particularly the United States of America, does not lend to Rousseau’s concept of the general will. Second, I believe that the general will lends better to the idea of choosing what is best for the general need rather than just general interests. For example, it is much easier to recognize that a group of people desires something that will meet a common necessity, rather than desiring something more personal and not necessary.

      • eghat2 permalink
        November 8, 2010 12:44 PM

        Note: The above comment was supposed to be to the blog as a whole, not a comment on a comment.

  2. Alexis Biaggi permalink
    November 8, 2010 10:47 AM

    It has been clearly explained why choosing what is good for the general population is difficult and frequently bias. However, if people try to seek the general will anyway, they are more likely to produce more agreed upon rules than if people originally only focus on their individual preferences.

  3. cwatson872 permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:44 AM

    I started writing this post saying that I agree that Rousseau’s definition of the general will is a bit shaky; I was going to say that, yeah, different desires can’t just cancel out and that gives a very vague definition. But, I think if it’s just taken as what stands outside the opposing views, it’s not that bad – it’s whatever is just generally agreed upon.

    However, I then jump back on your page because the general will doesn’t offer much worth one’s attention. Whatever is “the general will” is simply the generally accepted – and usually that’s not really that important. It’s just the marginal stuff that kind of floats down the river of change.

    But what’s really going to really move things is that which is create conflict. Radical ideas posed against radical ideas will bring about new middle of the road ideas – and these ideas are going to be part of that general will. So, essentially, if there is a general will at all, it’s not going to do much, and really doesn’t play a great role in the world of social change.

  4. Melissa Glassman permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:40 PM

    I agree very much with this post; it attacks the idea that individuals have the ability to know what is the best choice for the community as a whole. I believe that individuals are often only certain of their own interests and what will better affect them. In addition, sometimes even WE are uncertain of our personal interests so how can we possibly make decisions based on the good of the community? Our natural instincts as humans, in accordance with Hobbes, is our self-interest. You stated “In my opinion, a person cannot determine what is fit for the community because you are dealing with others’ desires”. This is certainly true and even if we asked our fellow community what their interests were, who’s to say we will end up with all truths. People lie when discussing who they will vote for and why so how can we possibly be certain of their honesty before making decisions that can detrimentally affect our community as a whole? I believe the more progressive way to make decisions is to consider our self-interest first and then go on to further contemplate how that can and will affect others within our community.

  5. mattwax permalink
    November 8, 2010 4:45 PM

    How could inequalities be “”natural?” Social inequalities are not givens, they are not something to be expected and accepted; they are social constructs. Man creates inequality, and in the same sense man has the power to promote equality. You point to the task of having people act not out of self interest but rather for the community as being a nearly impossible. You question how a person could consider something to be good for all. Our founding fathers established a system of governance that they deemed to be “good for all.” George Washington had the oppurtunity to become a near king after the revolution, and he turned down this tremendous oppurtunity. People often consider what is good for the majority, and consequently they do not act solely out of self interest.

  6. adamkornbluh permalink
    November 9, 2010 3:31 PM

    You bring up an interesting point. However, I feel that I can shed light on the differences between the general will and the will of all. The general will is the desire of the overall population to do what is best for the country. For example, I think it is safe to say the general will of the country is that we want our economy to expand. It is a pretty vague statement, but it serves its purpose for the argument. Obviously, the question that follows this is “How do we best expand our economy?”

    This leads us to the will of all. The example I want to use is government protectionism in our economy. Remember, everyone wants the economy to expand. However, it is also the will of all that perhaps each person would like to be better off (or more wealthy). The individual wills will then oppose each other in some instances. Take farmers, for example. In our country, farmers are helped by subsidies, tariffs, and quotas in order to remain competitive with foreign producers. If we did not use those measures, our food costs would be lowered but these farmers would lose their jobs. For the vast majority of people, it would be better off if we did not protect the farmers and instead let them find new jobs while Americans also receive lower food prices.

    Therefore, it may help farmers (part of the will of all) to use protectionist measures, but it is the general will that they do not protect this industry because it will benefit the vast majority of the citizens instead.

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