Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 4: the Infamous General Will

Rousseau asks ‘how can society, and the constraint it implies, be compatible with freedom?’

One response, which we might call ‘liberal’, is to divide the individual’s life into two domains, the public and the private, and be constrained in the former and free in the latter. This solution is not at all to be sneezed at – it may even be the best available. But you don’t have to be a fascist to suspect that splitting your life in half like this may not be ideal, and there are major worries about whether, and how, that split is drawn in the real world. Not only that, but it’s not clear how this approach deals with issues that are simultaneously political and personal.

So there are reasons to consider alternatives to this ‘liberal’ response, and I think Rousseau can to some extent be read as offering one. The essential proposal is that the constraint that society imposes is compatible with freedom, if the power that constrains comes from the subject who is constrained – if it is self-constraint.

To be free, it seems reasonable to say, is to act according to your own will. The sovereign, Rousseau says, is an ‘artificial and corporate person’, it has a will, what he calls ‘the general will’. This is “the balance that remains, when we take away from [individual wills], the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out.” What flows from this ‘general will’ is, for each individual, ‘their own’. Hence when they obey it, they are only obeying themselves – and, in that famous line, when they are coerced into obedience, they are being “forced to be free”.

This doctrine has come in for a fair amount of criticism, especially along the lines that it just confuses and obscures actual, literal, freedom, and thus justifies illiberality.

Now, I think there is certainly a lot we can criticise in Rousseau on this subject (and I intend to in coming posts). This ‘a lot’ includes:

  • How is the general will expressed – what political and social institutions actually tell us what is is?
  • How does the generality of the general will change over time – i.e. does the social contract have to just be made once, or renewed regularly, or what?
  • How does disagreement among members of the group affect the generality of the will – in particular, how sound is the distinction Rousseau draws between law (which deals with general cases in the abstract, and expresses the general will) and governmental acts (which deal with particular cases, and do not)?
  • What is the actual psychology of this act of collective identification, and what effects might this psychology have?
  • Why does Rousseau make certain of the actual claims he does, about for instance punishing rule-breakers, which seem contradictory or unjustified?

But I also think (once again) that there’s a kernel in what Rousseau is saying that’s worth getting at. In the next post or two I’ll hit him on the above points, but for now I want to consider the idea of the general will in relative isolation from messy reality.

What is the point of Rousseau’s talk of the general will? For this we need to examine the idea of ‘will’ and the idea of that social contract itself.

Everyone has desires (if you like, we can speak of interests – the relationship is complex but beside the point here). These desires, much of the time, conflict, and when they conflict we must choose between them. This involves considering our different desires, weighing them up, and trying to see how the greatest weight of them can be satisfied. And finally, it involves selecting one course of action and deciding to pursue it – which will satisfy some desires but frustrate others, bring benefits but also costs. This activity of ‘cutting through’ the mass of competing desires and determining which are to be satisfied and which denied, is I think what is meant here by ‘will’.

The moral significance of ‘will’ can be seen in the following asymmetry:

When I act so as to satisfy one of my desires, I should feel pleased with myself; when someone else acts so as to satisfy one of my desires, I owe them gratitude.

When I act so as to frustrate one of my desires, I should feel angry with myself’; when someone else acts so as to frustrate one of my desires, I am entitled to be angry with them.

When I act so as to frustrate some of my desires as a means towards satisfying a greater number of them, I should feel pleased with myself, and should not feel angry with myself – the benefits ‘nullify’ or ‘override’ the harms.

BUT when someone else, independently, acts so as to frustrate some of my desires as a means towards satisfying a greater number of them, I need not owe them gratitude, and I am still entitled to be angry with them. It seems that with other people, the benefits they may provide me with cannot ‘nullify’ or ‘override’ any harms they impose on me.

The difference – that others cannot simply decide to harm me for my own benefit, even if they do in fact benefit me overall – seems to be based on the fact that ‘will’, the faculty of justifying harms by greater benefits, is individual: the only entity that seems to be capable of doing it is the human brain, an individualised entity.

Of course, this changes if I use my individual will to voluntarily tell someone else that I would like them to do X for me, despite the harms that X will inflict on me, because I think the benefits justify it. Now, they can impose harms on me with full justification, because they are acting as an extension of my will. So the will can be extended by voluntary agreement.

This, I think, illuminates what the social ‘contract’ is really about. What is supposed to be going on, in Rousseau’s story, is that each of the contracting individuals says something like this: ‘I consent to be harmed for my own benefit in the course of implementing the rules that we draft’. That is, they are, by their act of will, enabling the cost-outweighing-by-benefits, that is characteristic of an individual will, to be done across individuals.

It’s in this sense that the social contract isn’t really a contract, in that it’s not simply pre-existing people exchanging promises to act in certain ways. It is, as Rousseau says, the creation of an ‘artificial person’, where that means simply the legitimation of a weighing and exchanging of desires across a new, and much larger, range of desires. The sovereign is created as a person simply in that a new ‘will’ is created.

Now, is this notion of the general will, then, a justifiable one? It seems to me that it must be, in principle. Because it seems clearly just that if I have reached a decision, and requested of someone else that they help me implement it, even though it will inflict on me certain harms, they are still right to help – excepting cases where the harms are so great, or the benefits so small, or other circumstances such, that they doubt I am in my right mind.

That is: I can give people permission to do things that affect me in ways I could otherwise object to. I don’t know how this could realistically be denied.

Indeed, something like the general will seems to be involved in every act of agreeing to a rule. If a group of cohabitants agree, unanymously and after due discussion, on a rota for washing the dishes, and that if someone doesn’t do so when it is their turn, the dishes get dumped on their bed, then what is each member doing, except permitting the others to impose a harm on them (messing up their bed) in order to secure a benefit (the dishes get washed)?

If someone just randomly dumped dirty dishes on my bed, I would have grounds to object quite strongly – and, I think, I would have grounds to object, even if that dumping was ultimately (and intentionally) to my benefit, say by stimulating me to personal growth and character-building or something.

But if I knew it was my turn, and nevertheless neglected to wash up, I would have no grounds to object to a messy bed. The basis for my not having grounds to object would be my prior agreement to the rule; that is, it would be the accordance of the event with my previous will.

If I can lose my right to object to a certain action against me, on the grounds that it is in accordance with my (earlier) will, then is it really that much of a jump to say that I am being ‘forced to be free’?

All this means, of course, is that any valid criticism must be of his use and deployment of the concept, not of its innate coherence – and as I said, there is plenty to criticise. I’ll discuss some of it next post.

One Response to “Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 4: the Infamous General Will”


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