The Human Condition:

General Will – January 16, 2022

Show of hands

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the term “general will” (volonté générale) to represent the desires and intentions of a community or nation as a whole. This is supposedly the embodiment of a collective consciousness that exists, makes decisions, and expresses demands apart from the individuals living and working in that community or nation. If you can just find and express that “general will,” then politics becomes so much easier. Stick with the popular opinion, and you can’t go wrong.

I don’t believe it. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “general will” or popular opinion or collective consciousness above, beyond, and overriding what individuals decide and do. Minds are individual things. People’s brains are isolated inside a bony box, communicating with the outside world through spoken words, printed and electronic messages, and seen and remembered images. But their thoughts are private and ultimately powerful in deciding what a person will do. Or so I believe.

This is not to say there aren’t some beliefs that most people in a community or nation share, notions they were born into, reflecting the culture established by their parents and grandparents. Everyone is shaped by their family and tribe, the church or party their tribe belongs to, and the values learned at their “mother’s knee.”

The lucky ones are also taught enough caution and skepticism that they eventually question everything, including the “home truths” with which they were born. That is the great thing about the human mind: it can hold two or more opinions at once, weight them, evaluate pros and cons, chances and likelihoods, and reflect on personal experience to decide which opinion is more congruent with perceived reality. And that’s all anyone has, because “ultimate truth”—aside from obvious, empirical conclusions like “water is wet” and “fire will burn”—is not promised to anyone.

And this is not to say that ideas are not floated in a community or nation by popular influencers, political parties, and the news and social media. It happens all the time. And in the last decade or two, it happens more and more, now that the internet makes available many more pieces of information—good and bad, hopeful and hateful—which people in general can then either accept and prize or reject and despise. But that acceptance or rejection is still subject to individual thoughts, desires, acculturated understandings, and personal whims—all of which occur within that bony box.

But the thing about consensus notions and any actual “general will” is that they are … general. That is, they are not specific and do not actively support any particular program or prescribe its parameters. Those specifics are open to interpretation, weighing, evaluating, and other acts of individual thinking.

Yes, Western Civilization has been on an upward moral path in the past couple of centuries, ever since the rationality of the Enlightenment tempered the religious fervor of the Reformation. People—or at least those who read, write, and think—are more inclined these to a broader view, with more tolerance and generosity, more caring for the social good than the simple me-and-mine of family and tribe. This is not something you see in many other parts of the world. But that generous, tolerant spirit is still not a prescription for any one program of welfare payments or public health care. People are still able to weigh the costs and benefits, evaluate the subtle impacts on personal responsibility and motivation, and argue about specifics.

Rousseau’s volonté générale is an interesting idea in the abstract. It is suitable for being theorized about and debated by philosophers and academics. It belongs on the syllabus, along with economic and cultural Marxism and Freudian psychiatry, as an artifact of philosophical thought. But it is a poor thing upon which to base a real-world approach to politics and social order. That way lies madness.