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The term "General Will" in political theory refers to a generally held will that seeks the common good. The general will is a political notion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a political philosopher, that has become an essential concept in the modern world. Rousseau believed that humans are morally capable of acting in the best interests of society. The philosopher divides the universal will from the specific and frequently contradictory wills of individuals and groups in his work (Wyckoff 51). This general will symbolizes the will of the citizens, and by exercising it, each individual is pursuing his or her own societal interest. The government should be designed in a strategic manner to support the “General will” since the legitimate laws are also based on the general will of the citizens. To support this argument, Rousseau claims that freedom and authority are not contradictory. In addition, the philosopher argues that in obeying the law, the individual citizen is only obeying himself as a member of the political community (André 2013).
Rousseau introduces a method to determine the “general will”. His design of the social contract, the sovereign, and the government altogether apply the general will as the guidelines for decision making in civil society. Although sovereign and government have specific tasks, distinction between the two is very important since their final decisions are determined by the general will. Civil society is subdivided into three branches; the legislative, sovereign, and the executive branch. The main functions of the both the legislative and sovereign are to make and frame the laws. On the other hand, sovereign consist of all people and the laws are considered to be the “acts of the general will” (Rousseau, 161).
The act of general will demands everyone to collaborate in order to ensure that the laws are erected from the general will’s interest. The Executive plays a major role in ensuring that every individual adheres to the laws put in place. Therefore, this shows that all parts of society operate under the general will. Rousseau believes that all people are indirectly under the authority of the general will, and whoever goes against it should be “forced to be free” (Schmid et al. 358). This indicates that the entire body will force those individuals who are not willing to comply with the general will to do so.
Rousseau believes that a good government should give freedom to all its citizens as it is the fundamental object. Rousseau introduces the concept of “Social Contract” to show how the government should provide freedom to its citizens, with a certain constraint inherent to a complex, modern, civil society. The philosopher claims that as long as there property and law exist, individuals will never be entirely free in the modern society since they are in the state of nature. Rousseau also believes that there exist certain government principles that if implemented effectively, they could provide the members of the society with a freedom enjoyed in the state of nature.
In conclusion, Rousseau assumes that all individuals are capable of taking the moral standpoint that aims at the common good and this would simply reach a unanimous decision. Thus, in an ideal state, laws express the general will. This idea has been useful in the modern society as it has been widely adapted in philosophy and politics.
Jason Wyckoff. ‘Rousseau’s General Will and the Condorcet Jury Theorem’, History of Political Thought, XXXII (2011), pp.49-62.
Munro, André. "General Will | Philosophy of Rousseau". Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.c
Schmid, Rudolf et al. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), An Early Student And Teacher Of Botany (1763-78)". Taxon 49.2 (2000): 358. Web.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Social Contract: Essays. Oxford: University Press, 1980. Print.
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