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Rousseau’s Idea of “General Will”…Conducive to democracy?

March 20, 2011

We have been learning about Rousseau and his own version of the social contract recently, and one idea that he presents stuck out to me. He introduces two types of wills that exist in a given society: the general will and the will of all. Now, when Rousseau gives his fist general definition of each, I found myself having to read it over and over again so I could truly grasp what he is saying:

“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” (Rousseau 437).

Essentially, the general will calls upon the people to think in terms of the common good. You must put aside thoughts of what will personally benefit you, and consider what is best for the state as a whole. Thus, the decision made at the end will be a reflection of the moral choice, with people putting aside selfish interests. The will of all, however, considers what individuals think, and the ultimate decision made is based on the most popular answer—what Rousseau refers to as “particular wills” (Rousseau 437). To me, the will of all is extremely democratic. For example, consider our democratic system and the practice of voting for President. Each individual citizen gets their own say, and the person with the most votes at the end becomes President. I think that each member of a specific society should have a say in how their government is run, which I why I have discovered some issues with Rousseau’s idea of the general will.

Of course, we can all hope that people will put aside selfish interests and act for the common good—but how practical is this? Does it actually ever happen? When he says that “the general will remains as the sum of the differences” (Rousseau 437), it sounds to me like Rousseau is basically saying that the general will is a compromise, seeing as the will of all makes it impossible to be in 100% agreement. While I can see this point, the general will makes it impossible for everyone to have a voice. People will always have differing opinions on what is moral and about what is truly best for the common good, so why try to mesh it all together? Issues within the state are multi-faceted, and by following the general will, every possible aspect of an issue is not considered. With a system like the will of all, where people can voice their own opinions, it seems unnecessary to try to force everyone to think in the same way, like the idea of the general will encourages.

A question asked in lecture on Wednesday looked at Michigan’s in-state vs. out-of-state tuition in terms of the will of all and the general will, and whether or not it is fair to have out-of-staters pay so much more. It was answered that the general will would come to the conclusion that keeping out-of-state tuition higher is better for the UM community as a whole because without it, the general quality of education would suffer. This is where my problem with the general will surfaces again. While some might argue that this is true and that keeping out-of-state tuition higher is better for the community as a whole, some will completely disagree.  You could say that lowering out-of-state tuition would be better for the UM community as a whole because more students from all over the world could afford to come to UM and would be more likely to attend. This would thus increase the diversity and prestige of the Michigan name.  In effect and in my opinion, the general will fails to consider all aspects of a decision, and is not therefore conducive to democracy.

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean. “On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzshe. Ed. David Wooton. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008. Print.

4 Comments
  1. Jacob Miller permalink
    March 21, 2011 5:07 PM

    It is a very good idea to bring up such an interesting difference that Rousseau makes between the general will and the will of all. Many would think, “Well, isn’t this the same thing?,” but as we know from reading Rousseau is that there is a distinct difference. With your example of a presidential election being considered the will of all is not entirely true. I believe what you were trying to provide us is an example of Rousseau’s distinction being used in real life. We are all able to have our say in government, regardless of what others believe, which is given to us by the right to vote, as you stated. That part right there would be considered the will of all because the decision has not yet been tallied up and selected. From there, once all the votes are cast, then we see Rousseau’s idea of the general will being in play as the one president that is most common to the general will is selected. Those who didn’t favor that president is not included and therefore is not part of the will of all. Another example of this distinction is when a bill in Congress becomes law. Even though the government represents the people, we are looking at a smaller group of people and in the same as the latter, each person in the House and Senate has their own ideas that should be included into the bill. That would be the will of all. Yet, as we all know, we can’t all have our way and there are parts of the bill that are eliminated or added until everyone is satisfied with the bill for approval.
    As for the discussion of out-of-state tuition at University of Michigan, I am in disagreement of the fact that there is such high tuition, even though I’m an a Michigan resident. You mention prestige being a factor in the decision, but shouldn’t prestige be based on what universities like Michigan are really looking for such as top-notch grade point averages, phenomonal ACT/SAT scores, and extra-curricular involvement? Michigan, as a school known for its strong tradition, could only make it better if they acquire the brightest and best, not the heaviest wallets in their pockets. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that universities are seeking money left and right from students and for such a large university, I can see why. However, if you mention prestige, it should be about academics and only academics. I say raise the requirements and lower the tuition!

  2. emjaffe permalink
    March 21, 2011 7:19 PM

    Jacob- I respect that argument, but I believe the out-of-state tuition at Michigan should remain higher then in-state tuition. In-staters have had parents or other family members pay tax dollars to support Michigan and have worked in Michigan. These students should benefit from the work and resources they have given to the state. Also, it is important to have the out-of-state tuition to help the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor prosper to keep it on such a high national standing. Unfortunately, without strong finances, Michigan would not be the same prestigious University that it is today. One guess is thatt it would lose much of its’ research funding- which is extremely important for connecting so many intelligent people and stimulating projects to our university.
    Also- I think it is important to note that there is financial aid and other resources to help pay for tuition at the university. I know that college is extremely expensive and everyone should have a chance to attend the university they want to attend-no matter how much money they have. However, I think it would be more important to improve financial aid and ways to help individual students pay for college then to decrease out-of-state tuition for everyone.

    • Jacob Miller permalink
      March 23, 2011 7:59 PM

      Emily- the idea presented in the blog about out-of-state tuition fees at Michigan in regards to general will and the will of all that Rousseau provides. I understand that residents of Michigan are faced with the bearing of paying taxes to fund these institutions; however, when it comes toward the general will, in this case, the bettering of Michigan, it would be in everyone’s best interest to have the students out-of-state attend the university. University of Michigan, considered one of the most prestigous universities in the United States and even the world, (in order to maintain this prestige) would look for the brightest and best as I stated before. Not to disrespect Michigan, but not everyone in this state is that bright in comparison to students around the globe. Out-of-state tuition only limits the accessibility of intelligent individuals to attend prestigous universities. Now, I’m not saying that education at a public university should be entirely free because I understand that a large portion of revenue to maintain the university’s research fund and maintenance of the academic buildings heavily relies on student tuition. A single tuition for all students no matter where there from would be the general will.

      To prove this, let’s say that the university follows through with the plan I propose and everyone pays the same price for tuition. Let’s also say that we raise the academic standards to meet the demand of prospective students wanting to attend. Our result is a large percentage of people that are still paying the university, but having higher academic standards which leads to national academic competition against other prestigous universities such as Harvard and Princeton. But there’s more! When these students graduate, if they choose to stay in Michigan or not, they will almost be guaranteed successful jobs in which Michigan will receive credit for, something that is very important since Michigan already is one of biggest alumni donors and families. If the graduates decide to stay in Michigan, they can contribute even more by providing top-of-the-line service to their business and ultimately their state.

      Even though this is a very optimistic point of view, it is mostly accurate. With academic requirements being at a higher level and tuition at a single price, the state of Michigan receives alumni with the potential for big things. That outbenefits any resident paying for taxes. Like Rousseau said, general will outbeats will of all. General will would be allowing the most intelligent students to attend the university no matter where they are from.

  3. March 30, 2011 10:05 PM

    Great insight in Rousseau’s general will!

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