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The Role of the General Will in Social Contract Theory

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The Role of the General Will in Social Contract Theory

In the beginning, all men were in the state of nature. All men were allowed to do as they please and follow whatever instincts they had influencing them. The problem with their existence in the state of nature is that some of men's strongest instincts are safety and survival, something that is not really guaranteed in the state of nature. What is to be done then? They bind together and create a community under a sovereign in order to protect themselves. In creating this sovereign state Rousseau argues that in order to work efficiently the people need to align themselves with the general will.

It seems almost as if the general will has been active from the beginning of the creation of the sovereign. In creating the sovereign several factors are taken into account that brings the people together in agreement for this improved state of existence. I chapter 5 Rousseau states that their needed to have been a community or a group prior the creation of the sovereign state, a community that could have come to the decision to give themselves to the sovereign as a gift. If there was no such community then the sovereign would not have legitimate power over those who did not see eye to eye with the sovereign, "In fact, if there were no prior convention, then unless the vote were unanimous, what would become of the minority's obligation to submit to the majority's choice, and where do one hundred who want a master get the right to vote for ten who do not? The law of majority rule is itself an established convention, and presupposes unanimity on at least one occasion." (textbook, p 469-470). This initial convention and decision is an expression of a general will.

Rousseau brings up the general will in hard words a few chapters after and comes up with a fairly hard case definition and necessity for it. In describing the operations of the sovereign and the social compact, Rousseau writes "I suppose that men have reached the point where obstacles that are harmful to their maintenance in the state of nature gain the upper handÐ'...For since men cannot engender new forces, but merely unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of maintaining themselves but to form by aggregation a sum of forces that could gain the upper handÐ'..." (textbook, p470). Its as if Rousseau states that the creation of the general will is created by the aligned ideas of each man's individual will, and because of the benefits of the creation of the sovereign state, it would be in each mans best interest to join in to the sovereign state. Rousseau does state that the creation of the sovereign state and the general will is not simply the collection of lives and wills, the sovereign has its own life and will, this will is where Rousseau places his hard definition of the general will. The general will is essentially the will of the sovereign that aims for the common good, or the good of the commonwealth whole. In creating the commonwealth all men had the same ideas in mind, essentially the idea was that in order to survive they needed to be one entity and that general will looks out for the best of that entity much like each persons individual will. Sometimes the will of one individual may turn out to be a bit different than that of the general will and perhaps this individual would choose to take advantage of the benefits of the sovereign but not pay their dues. The general will would step in and, in a candy coated phrase, the sovereign would force them to be free.

The general will is quite a bit different from any other sort of will that exists in the world due to not only its definition but by its nature. The individual's will is a basic physical desire or instinct that influences men to do various deeds or pursue various wants. The will of all is the collection of all people's individual wills. The general will is not a will that belongs to any being, the general will consists of the needs and desires that all men share as they decide to abandon the state of nature and enter a society under a sovereign. The general will is the will of a political organism. The general will holds powers that bind men to each other and to the sovereign. The general will helps keep men in line and makes men moral. The general will belongs to no men and to all men. The general will, the will that looks out for the common good, is not expressed in simple actions but is expressed in administrations, declarations, and law. These laws are representations of every man's common desires, thus they should have no problem keeping in line with them. The general will is placed in line in order to keep people civil in the state, this will is in essence the consent of all. These laws and the general will are pretty much infallible and cannot be corrupted because a population cannot be corrupted. "It follows that what has preceded that the general will is always right and always tends toward the public utilityÐ'...There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter considers only the general interest where as the former considers private interests and is merely the sum of private wills. But remove these same wills and the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and what remains as the sum of the differences is the general will." (textbook, p 476).

The general will is at the heart of Rousseau's society, pretty much every idea in the following chapters is built upon the idea of the general will. In coming together and creating the commonwealth the people enter a sovereign state in which they are placed under the power of another; however the general will is what that other works towards. Though every action taken may not please every individuals' desire, these actions are aimed towards the greater good and essentially are decided on by the people. Rousseau believes that the only way that the sovereign can be legitimate and have complete indivisible power is that the people are the sovereign making everyman dependent



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