In his famous work The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposes an absolute rule of the general will (Melzer 1983, p. 633). He argues that the general will ‘is always rightful and always tends to the public good’ and that it can never ‘err’, i.e. that it never makes mistakes (Rousseau 2006, 1762, pp. 30-32). In my essay I am going to evaluate this statement. Firstly, I am going to outline Rousseau’s vision of society and government which he described in The Social Contract. I will also show what freedom is for Rousseau and who is and is not a free man. Besides that I am going to explain what he means using terms ‘the will of all’ and ‘the general will’. I will show why Rousseau argues that the general will can never ‘err’ and therefore why it should be the governing body. Finally, I am going to argue why in my opinion Rousseau is mistaken.
In The Social Contract Rousseau tries to revise the contemporary to him school of natural law by putting the general will rather than self-interest in the centre (Maloy 2005, p. 259). The very beginning of The Social Contract suggests what the book is about: ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’ (Rousseau 2006, 1762, p. 2). Later he asks a question what form of association could defend each member and his goods, and under which, while united with other citizens, he would obey nobody but himself and stay free. The answer, he claims, is the social contract (Rousseau 2006, 1762, p. 14). In The Social Contract Rousseau argues that the individual can only achieve complete humanity and moral freedom if he moves from the state of natural independence towards participation in civil society (Affeldt 1999, p. 299). In doing so one does lose several advantages that were given to him by nature, however ‘he gains in return’, Rousseau writes in Chapter 8 of Book I, ‘far greater ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that’ he should praise that he left ‘the state of nature’ and that ‘from a stupid, limited animal’ he became ‘a creature of intelligence and a man’ (Rousseau 2006, 1762, p. 20). Further in the same chapter he states that moral freedom alone ‘makes man the master of himself’ as freedom is ‘obedience to a law one prescribes for oneself’ (Rousseau 2006, 1762, p. 21).
Before trying to answer the main question, it is essential to explain what the general will is according to Rousseau. As I said before, he argues for a rule of the general will. It is possible to achieve it if the government is based on a social contract. In order to do so all people have to give all of their rights to an absolute sovereign which is made of all members of the society, all of whom are equal to each other. The sovereign body must only establish laws that affect all citizens and it has to rule according to the general will and try to attain the common good. As Rousseau claims, it is impossible for the general will to introduce oppressive laws as they would affect everyone, which would be against every citizen’s interest to act against his own will (Rousseau 2006, 1762, pp. 17-20). In The Social Contract we see that Rousseau assumes that in this type of society we would be free. However, I will later argue that Rousseau might be wrong.
In The Social Contract Rousseau recognises the will of all and the general will as well as the common good and particular interests. Basically, the former two are consequences of the decision making process. The will of all is a result of citizens voting according to their own interests, while the general will is an equal product of everyone’s interests (so when they vote in terms of the common good) (Wolff 2006, pp. 78-79). As Rousseau argues, if the decision making process is done in terms of the will of all, it will make a majority and a minority. The minority will not get what they want, so it will be bound by the majority’s decision. As a result, it will not be free. Because of this Rousseau rejects this idea and argues for the general will. If people think in terms of the general will, they will all agree. Since the general will is created by every member of the state, everyone will get what they want. Therefore all citizens will live by their own will and be genuinely free (Bluhm 1984, p. 372).
It is quite interesting how this kind of society could be governed and how the laws would be established. Rousseau argues that it would be irrational if it required universal participation. Therefore the body that would apply the laws would not be the sovereign but some sort of government or executive (an ‘elected aristocracy’). It would consist of wise men who would govern in their citizens’ interest, and not just in their own (Wolff 2006, pp. 79-80).