The General Will

Even though the conceptions of human nature accepted by Hobbes and Rous- seau were essentially opposite, the type of gov- ernment that the two proposed was quite similar. Rousseau conceded that to live in civilized societ- ies, humans had to give up some of their primitive independence. The question that he pondered in his Social Contract is how humans could be governed and still remain as free as possible. It is in answer to this question that Rousseau introduced his notion of the general will. According to Rousseau, the general will describes what is best within a com- munity, and it is to be “sharply distinguished” from an individual’s will or even a unanimous agreement among individuals:


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This general will is to be kept sharply distinguished from what the members of a society may, by majority vote or even by unanimous agreement, decide is their good. Such a decision, which Rousseau distinguished from the general will by calling it “the will of all,” may be wrong. The general will, by definition, cannot be wrong because it is the very standard of right. (Frankel, 1947)

Each individual has both a tendency to be selfish (private will) and a tendency to act in ways benefi- cial to the community (general will). To live in har- mony with others, each person is obliged to act in accordance with his or her general will and inhibit his or her private will.

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