To try to help my online students understand Rousseau’s concept of the general will, I adapted an example that I use in in-class discussion. The page numbers are from Christopher Betts’ Oxford World’s Classics translation.
Rousseau starts off, like other social contract theorists, with people in a “state of nature.” For our illustration, I will imagine that we as a class have just crash landed on a remote island (everyone survived). We are now individuals with no society.
Soon, though, we realize that we are likely to starve or get eaten by the rodents of unusual size (ROUS) if we don’t band together. So we get together and agree to form a society. All of us who do join give our individual rights over to the community (Rousseau 54-56). This community now forms a “public person” that all of us have joined (Rousseau 56).
This public person has a “general will,” which is for the best interest of the community. This general will is there whether we realize it or not. The general will for our little island community would include, for example, that we eat a balanced diet in order to survive. This is the case even if the majority of us decide that we don’t want to hunt and gather, but survive on the candy stash that we gathered from the wreckage of the plane instead. That’s not in our best interest. But Rousseau is confident (66) that eventually we will realize our best interest is to ease up on the Jolly Ranchers and find some proper food.
Now we must decide how we are going to feed ourselves. Let’s say that the island has a lot of berry bushes and leafy greens as well as some deer. There are fish, too, but they are small and not likely to be worth the effort. Different opinions arise as to how we will feed ourselves:
- Since I am an avid fisherman (not in real life), I argue that we need to fish.
- The vegetarians in the group don’t want to kill the deer (or the fish, for that matter).
- The majority decides that we must create a hunting group and a gathering group in order to feed ourselves.
Rousseau is confident that in a healthy society, the majority will always be right, at least eventually (66, 134-136). So hunting and gathering is the general will of society, and my preference for fishing and the vegetarians’ objections for hunting are merely particular wills. Those on the losing end of the debate ought to say, “When an opinion contrary to mine prevails, therefore, it proves only that I had been mistaken, and that the general will was not what I had believed it to be. If my particular will had prevailed, I should have done otherwise than I wished; and then I should not have been free” (Rousseau 138). This is because when you obey society, you are really only obeying yourself because you are connected with everyone else (Rousseau 55).
Now we haven’t even gotten to actually forming a government yet. His first two books are almost entirely about society. Government, he says, is put in place to carry out society’s wishes (91-92). So when we choose the members of our hunting group and gathering group, we have then acted like a government (Rousseau 68-69).