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Rousseau's General Will and the Problem of Consent

Jones, William Thomas (1987) Rousseau's General Will and the Problem of Consent. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 25 (1). pp. 105-130. ISSN 1538-4586. doi:10.1353/hph.1987.0001.

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Rousseau's General Will and the Problem of Consent W. T. JONES THERE ARE ALMOST as many views of Rousseau's general will as there are writers on Rousseau. Some hold that what he says about the general will is either a truism or else false? Others equate the general will with natural law.~ Others again find in the general will anticipations of Hegel. 3 More, perhaps, agree with a recent student of the subject who, holding that Rousseau "formulated the question badly," concludes that he "appears genuinely unable to make up his mind about what constitutes the general will and how it comes to be. ''4 Thus, despite radical differences in interpretation, the nearly unanimous verdict--one might almost say, the general will--on the general will is unfavorable. I believe that Rousseau's critics are themselves partly to blame. For the most part they have anachronistically 5 assumed him to be interested in problems that interest them and have not asked themselves what problem concerned him. No wonder, then, that he appears to them to be confused. The problem that concerned Rousseau was a moral problem--the problem of demonstrating that political organizations can have a moral foundation. I am much indebted to Brian Barry, John Benton, Bruce E. Cain, Gary Cox,Alan Donagan, Edward Green, Morgan Kousser, Lee C. McDonald, J. Donald Moon, Roger Noll, Charles R. Plott, Alan Schwartz, and Charles Young for commenting helpfully on an earlier draft of this paper. x For instance, John Plamenatz in Man and Society, 2. vols.(NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 1 : 394. " For instance, Franz Haymann in "La loi naturelle dans la philosophic politique de J.- J. Rousseau" in Annales de la Societ~Jean-Jacque Rousseau 3~ (1943-45): 96-97. s Among them--alas!--at one time the author of this paper, for instance in his Masters of Political Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, x947), 2:265. 4 Richard Fralin, Rousseau and Representation (NewYork, 1978), 79, 86-87. 5 For an illuminating discussion of the anachronistic tendencies of many twentieth-century historians of philosophy see Philosophyin History, edited by Richard Rorty,J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1x-14. [105] lo6 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Rousseau understood that some compulsion is necessary, and he was well aware that most states have actually been founded on, and maintained by, force. The only question was whether compulsion is compatible with morality: was it possible to design a political organization in which "a man can be free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own" (IV, ~: lOl; 440)?6 If freedom and compulsion cannot be reconciled the notion of a moral political organization is only a "vain and chimerical illusion." The phrase is Kant's, not Rousseau's, and Kant of course was discussing the problem of reconciling freedom of the will with Newtonian physics. But the phrase, and even more the thought, would have been congenial to Rousseau. However, whereas Kant's reconciliation of personal morality and physical determinism depends on the obscure metaphysical notion of noumenal causality, Rousseau 's reconciliation of political morality and political compulsion depends on the notion of a general will, and that, as I shall argue, is an empirical concept. If political organizations have such-and-such an organizational structure--this is Rousseau's claim--a general will among the citizens emerges, and they will consent to be compelled. In a word, political morality depends on the consent of the citizens, and the consent of the citizens depends on there being a general will. That is a necessary condition for the existence of political morality. Thus, though the focus of this paper is narrow, the topic is of central importance to Rousseau--and not only to Rousseau. It is of central importance to all those who agree with him that the morality of any political order depends on the consent of those subject to it. But does his concept of a general will solve the problem of consent? In this paper I shall argue that Rousseau's claim is largely, though not entirely, warranted. I believe that a careful reading of The Social Contract shows that...

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Additional Information:© 1987 Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Official Citation:Jones, W. T. T. "Rousseau's General Will and the Problem of Consent." Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 25 no. 1, 1987, pp. 105-130. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hph.1987.0001
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ID Code:82222
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:09 Oct 2017 22:08
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