Critical essay on rousseau general will

Nevertheless, this is a great progress, what has to be taken on. Well, the second theme is about the question of diluted justice. And he said, you know, the order to admit justice among us has to be diluted. And diluted means, you know, our individual sense of justice has to be overruled by the general will. And a sovereign needs no guarantor, and the individuals will have to be constrained; otherwise we are in trouble.

And here is the argument why the individual will have to be constrained. Individuals cannot just follow their self-interests, because the general will have to prevail. The common good has to overrule the selfish individual interests—a very different type of argument from the British liberals. Then he argues for popular sovereignty, and he prefers to do so.

General will of Rousseau

And this is his single most important contribution. This has to be based on a convention, and a convention has to be arrived at by the rule of the majority. There must be an assembly of people and—this is also a very radical, controversial argument—that they must pool the resources. It is almost a Communist idea of having common property of major resources—a very problematic argument. And the problem is this is really—does it lead to totalitarianism? A very problematic argument—again paves the foundation towards Marxism and Communist ideologies.

And well many of the—you know, all the citations will be on the internet. So you can read it much more carefully than you can do it now. Well then we arrive at the idea of the general will. Individual—if this is something, you believe in Adam Smith or you believe in Locke, you will be very disturbed—individuals express only private interest. So there must be a public interest. And this is the general will, which is represented in what we call the commonwealth. The federal authority, the federal interest expresses the general will. It is not the will of all. It is the will which serves the interests of everybody, rather than the view of everybody.

Well, as I said, you know, there is an element of truth to it. In discussion sections we can talk about this. The class will be divided whether this is acceptable or not. But those of you who believe in methodological collectivism will have to take very seriously the idea of general will. And now comes the question of the lawgivers, and this is a very important argument.

Well we are only free when we obey the law.

2. Conjectural history and moral psychology

That freedom is under self-imposed law. Hegel said that freedom is—you are free when you recognize necessity, and therefore you will have to go by the law. And this will inspire amour-propre , the love of the country, rather than amour de soi , which is self-love. I made this point briefly in the last lecture, but let me make it sharper because in the questions I am asking—questions about the general will—and I feel I may not have given enough meat to you about the notion of the general will.

Because Rousseau especially emphasizes that the social contract has to be arrived at by a universal consent. So he does emphasize that in arriving to a social contract we actually have to exercise some popular sovereignty.


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And this is an idea which is only an element in Locke. In some ways Rousseau moves a big step forward—contractarian theory, towards democratic theory, popular sovereignty, and, in fact, universal suffrage. I mentioned he did not advocate suffrage for women but advocated otherwise universal suffrage—what Locke was not willing to do.

An Introduction to the Work of Rousseau

But there is an interesting other idea in Rousseau which has an important kernel of truth, and a very disturbing idea at the same time, and this is the idea of the general will. I talked about this as a good example of methodological collectivism; that Rousseau, unlike Hobbes or Locke, or we will see later on Mill or Adam Smith, does not believe that studying the individual actions we can understand what is society and what the need of the society is. There is a general will over society which is more than simply adding up all individual wills.

And there is clearly an element of truth to it—that there is some universal good, what is more than just the sum total of individual interest. When we are talking about healthcare reform and the needs of governments to provide healthcare for everybody, when we actually do believe that it should not be left to individual responsibility whether they have healthcare insurance. Or at least some people in this room probably believe that.

Then you believe that there is a general will—that you have to overrule the individual to make a decision.

Online Library of Liberty

And there is this general will everywhere. When you go to the college, you have to get certain shots otherwise you are not allowed into the college. It is not leaving up to you to decide whether you have certain shots taken. You have to demonstrate, to be in residence. There is a general will. You see? This is a strong case that the idea of general will makes sense. There is some collective good.


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  • But we can understand that individuals occasionally have to be forced to go by this general will, by the public good. But there is a big problem with the general will; namely, if there is a general will as such, where on earth will it come from? How we will know what the general will is? And Rousseau is explicit about this.

    Reading Rousseau in the Nuclear Age

    He confronts it. But we are the lawgivers. Well this is a very disturbing idea—a disturbing idea which opens Rousseau up to a totalitarian interpretation—that he argues that the government knows better. No, I tell you, this is not your interest. I know what is your interest. How on earth do I know what is in your interest?

    They loved the idea that it is the Central Committee of the Communist Party who knows better than ordinary Chinese or Russian what their needs are. There must be a central planner rather than an individual actor which tells people what their needs are. So the problem of general will is highly problematic. You can make a case for it, that you need an assumption like that.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau

    As I pointed out, there are people in this room who believe that there is general will and the common good. Are there people here? Anybody believes that? Okay, yeah, yeah, there are people in this room—of course. And there are others who would not believe that.

    Most of them will disagree with most of his ideas, but will be provoked by his ideas. I told you, of course, that this is a very idealized Rousseau, because he put all of his children into an orphanage—into a very lousy orphanage—and probably most of them, or all of them, very early died in this orphanage.