General Idea of WillJune 27, 2021
One of Rousseau’s original ideas is the idea of the general will. This concept first appears in the Discourse on Political Economy. Rousseau begins by distinguishing between the state and the family. The family is described as “a moral being with a will”. There is a general will that transcends the will of each individual.
“This general will is always the source of laws, as well as for the preservation and well-being of the whole and each part; constitutes the rule of right or wrong for all members of the state, in their relations with each other and with it.” Rousseau gives an example to illustrate these ideas. A particular group within the state, for example a religious community, has a common will in relation to its members. Moral goodness, on the other hand, expects one to harmonize one’s particular will with the general will; In this respect, a good member of a religious community can also be a bad citizen for the state, since the general will of this community may be incompatible with the general will of the state which includes it. Consequently, the most general will is always the most justified: the general will of the state, more generally than the general will of any community in it, must dominate; because it is more just and for a universal good. Thus, the first and foremost rule of legitimate or popular government is, above all, to follow the general will. Virtue is nothing else than making all particular wills compatible with the general will.
According to Rousseau, the general will, as the common will of a community of people, is always aimed at the protection and goodness of the whole and every part of it, and as such, it is the source of law.
Rousseau makes a distinction between sovereignty and government. The sovereign is the power with the right to legislate. The function of the government is to rule the state in accordance with the law. The primary duty of the legislator is to enact laws in accordance with the general will. The general will is on the side that is most suitable for the public interest, in other words, the most just. So that all it takes to make sure that the general will is followed is simply to act right. The actual decision of a sovereign legislature, however, may not be a true expression of the general will. This decision may be an expression of unfairly enforced special interests. For this reason, state laws are also open to criticism in terms of whether they comply with the general will. The main task is to ensure that the laws comply with the general will. However, according to Rousseau, there is another will that is more general than the general will of states. “The will of the state also remains particular when seen in relation to a world-state, whose general will is always the will of nature, and which includes different states and peoples as its individual members.” As can be seen from this sentence, Rousseau’s ultimate thought is that there is a concept of a natural moral law engraved in people’s hearts and which, when treated appropriately, brings happiness and well-being to people. The laws enacted by the legislator in a particular state will, or should, eventually evolve into this natural moral law. If laws are made in accordance with the general will, people can be said to be truly free in spite of the legal order. For the general will represents the well-being of each individual.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook