General will

The general will, (French, volonté generale) first enunciated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778), is a concept in political philosophy referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole. It is most often associated with socialist traditions in politics.

General will is what a fully-informed body politic (community of citizens) would unanimously do if, by using good reasoning and judgment unclouded by bias and emotion, it would make general laws and decisions intended to ensure the common good. General will presupposes the existence of a generally-accepted political and social ideal. Rousseau characterized general will as being always abstract, establishing rules and setting up systems of government, but never being specific about which individuals were subject to the rules or about who the particular members of social classes or the particular rulers in the government were. The general will (volonté générale) was not merely the sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, nor was it expressed simply in social customs and mores; rather, it was an over-arching concept that infallibly sought the good of society as a whole. Those who surrendered their individual rights to the general will were exercising their personal freedom, because they themselves were authors of the law.

Though abstract and difficult to articulate in practice, the concept of general will had a powerful influence on modern political thinking and on the structure of modern representative governments and civic institutions.


Although Rousseau in his life passed through phases of both Catholicism and Protestantism, his matured view of God was deistic: God, the Creator, was not present in or involved with either the world or human affairs. Hence, God is not a factor in Rousseau's general will. Instead, Rousseau expresses an implicit trust in an original nature of humans that would sense a common general will. An alternative approach that would consider a God who is involved with human affairs might point to that God as the source of the general will.

Historical Background

The idea of "general will" was first formulated by Nicolas Malebranche, who argued that all laws in the phenomenal world are manifestations of God's "general will." Denis Diderot re-interpreted the idea of "general will" as the will of humanity, which desires the goodness of humanity and determines the obligations of human beings. The general will underlies all positive laws and social regulations and is the basis of universal obligations that are applicable to all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized Diderot's concept as "empty" for the reason that we develop our concept of humanity based upon particular society we live in. Rousseau's formulation became the prevailing notion of "general will."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Man was/is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Vol. IV, 131).

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau disliked any kind of authority or structure, and championed the creativity and worth of individual human beings. At the same time, he explored the political implications of these ideas and the consequences of bringing individuals together in a society. Rousseau’s notion of individual liberty and his convictions about political unity contributed to the romantic spirit of the French Revolution.

The concept of the general will was first introduced in two of Rousseau’s essays, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), and the Discourse on Political Economy (1755), and was further developed in Social Contract (1762). In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau asserted that in a savage and uncorrupted state, human beings were guided by feelings of pity and love for each other and had no need of concepts such as morality or duty. In this primitive state there was no inequality among men. When, through mutual cooperation, men began to engage in agriculture and industry and to possess private property, inequalities arose and along with them, the need to establish a stable government by means of a contract that unites many wills into one. Rousseau distinguished two types of freedom—personal freedom that arose from basic human instincts and natural selfishness prompting the individual to act for his own benefit, and social freedom which was achieved when the individual made his individual desires subservient to the general will, in order to receive the benefits that it guaranteed to all individuals.

The Social Contract

In Du contrat social (On the Social Contract, 1762), Rousseau described in detail the process by which such a contract was created, and he explored how an abstract social contract could be translated into practice. Rousseau concluded that society must devolve from a social contract in which individual citizens chose to participate voluntarily. Each citizen willingly traded his natural liberty and independence for the civil liberty secured by the state, allowing social rights over property to take precedence over individual rights. However, Rousseau maintained that the surrender of individual rights must take place in such a way that all individuals were united in a desire to do what would most benefit the whole. In this way, individuals were obliged by law to sacrifice personal interests for the welfare of the whole, yet they were exercising their personal freedom because they were authors of the law.

Trouver une forme d'association qui défende et protège de toute la force commune la personne et les biens de chaque associé, et par laquelle chacun s'unissant à tous n'obéisse pourtant qu'à lui-même et reste aussi libre qu'auparavant.

To discover a form of association that protects and defends, with all its common force, the person and the goods of each individual member, and in which each individual, by uniting with the whole, only obeys himself, and remains as free as ever (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I).

Rousseau maintained that anyone who did not join the social contract was a “madman” who was ignorant of its advantages, and that compelling such an individual to conform to the community was "forcing him to be free."

The General Will

Rousseau tied the concept of general will directly to sovereignty. True sovereignty did not imply simply having power over the rest of society, but was always directed at the public good. The general will, therefore, infallibly pursued the benefit of the people. Another characteristic of the general will was that it was always abstract, or general. It could establish rules, set up social classes, or even a monarchial government, but it could never specify the particular individuals who were subject to the rules, particular members of the social classes, or the particular rulers in the government. The general will was directed at the good of the society as a whole, and was not to be confused with the collection of the wills of individuals, who would put their own needs, or the needs of their particular factions, above those of the general public.

Rousseau emphasized that the general will (volonté générale) was not merely the cancelled-out sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, the will of all (volonté de tous).

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter looks only to the common interest; the former considers private interest and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will (Rousseau, Social Contract, Vol. IV, 146).

Rousseau warned that the influence of parties representing special interests would impede the kind of public deliberation that could arrive at a consensus regarding the welfare of all. Each individual must completely surrender his own interests to the whole and seek only the welfare of the community.

Although the general will must be arrived at through reasoned deliberation by the state as a whole, its execution depends upon its being embodied in the structure of government. Rousseau examined various forms of government in terms of how well they might be able to execute the sovereign laws. He considered democracy to be dangerous in application to particular cases in which the general will could easily be lost in the pressure of private interests; aristocracy was acceptable as long as it executed the general will rather than serving the welfare of the ruling elite; and monarchy clearly raised the temptation to seek private benefit at the expense of the common good. The appropriate form of government for any state depended upon the character of its people, and even on its physical climate.

Rousseau believed that the establishment of any government should be provisional and temporary, and subject to continued review and appraisal by its subjects. A representative legislative body could not determine the general will, because the social contract depended on the unanimous consent of all the governed. Sovereign general will could only be fully determined in an assembly of the entire population.

The fundamental problem of all social organization was to secure the participation of every individual in the general will. Rousseau maintained that general will, which could be considered in abstract to be a commitment to the welfare of the whole, was in principle indestructible, although in practice it might be obscured by the undesirable motives of some individuals. Since it was impractical to assemble the entire population every time a particular decision was to be made, Rousseau proposed that major questions should be decided upon by a majority of the population, but that matters requiring quick action could be determined by a simple majority. Leadership positions requiring skill should be filled by an election, while those which only require the exercise of good sense should be chosen by lot. In every case, Rousseau assumed that open debate would eventually result in an awareness on the part of each individual of what was truly in the best interests of the community as a whole, the general will.

Rousseau pointed out that general will was distinct from social customs that might be endorsed by public opinion. Social customs were not a conscious and deliberate determination of what was best for all, but simply social expressions of traditional mores. Even when traditional values were incorporated into the civil religion and therefore supposedly sanctioned by God and by the people, they did not necessarily express the general will.


The concept of the general will presented some philosophical difficulties. Rousseau argued that following the general will allowed for individual freedom. However, in promoting the interests of the whole, the general will might easily conflict with the interests of particular individuals. This conflict caused some intellectuals to criticize Rousseau’s political thought as hopelessly inconsistent, while others attempted to find middle ground between the two positions.

Liberal thinkers, such as Isaiah Berlin, criticized the concept of general will on various grounds. Pluralists argued that the “common good” was a balanced aggregate of private interests, rather than one over-arching, quasi-metaphysical concept. Some pointed out that “desire” does not necessarily coincide with “best interest,” and that the imposition of the General Will was not consistent with autonomy or freedom. The distinction between a person's "empirical" (conscious) self and his "true" self, of which he is unaware, was essentially dogmatic and incapable of logical or empirical verification or even discussion. Rousseau did not offer any practical mechanism for the articulation of the general will, and suggested that under some conditions it might not actually be expressed by the majority, making the concept open to manipulation by totalitarian regimes that could use it to compel people against their actual will.

In spite of these difficulties, the concept of general will influenced political thinking during the formation of modern representative governments, and became incorporated in many aspects of civic planning, the judicial system, and institutions of social welfare.

See also

  • Popular sovereignty


  • Alexander, Gerard. The sources of democratic consolidation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. ISBN 0801439477
  • Levine, Andrew. The general will: Rousseau, Marx, communism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 0521443229
  • Neidleman, Jason Andrew. The general will is citizenship: inquiries into French political thought. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0742507882
  • Riley, Patrick. The general will before Rousseau: the transformation of the divine into the civic. (Studies in moral, political, and legal philosophy.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 0691077207

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2013.

General Philosophy Sources


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