This theory of legislative government in which the

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This is where the General Will becomes relevant as a theoretical device that should
bring about this collective coordination. The General starts with asking a specific question,
namely: what kind of law would best advance the common interest? (SC, 1, 7). It is a will every
individual possesses, by taking a specific moral standpoint. It is a form of practical reason,
that leads us to different conclusions then when we ask what would law be in our own interest,
or advance our own position or the position of the group or faction to which they belong. A
consequence of this form of reasoning is that we are all using our reason to solve exactly the
same puzzle, namely what is in the common interest. And to this question there is only one
right answer. Under that assumption, the General Will assumes to unanimity through collective
deliberative reason, in which we all (ideally) come to the same conclusions. Second, since
asking what would be in the interest of all grants equal weight to the interests of all, this form
of thinking does not allow for fundamental hierarchies, and thus prevents individuals from
corrupting into vicious forms of amour-propre. Third, it unites authority with liberty, because
we arrive at the rules of conduct that we ourselves would prescribe to prevent ourselves from
lapsing into corrupted forms of amour-propre. At the same time, general laws leave room for
amour de soi, or for individuals to pursue their own good in their own way. In brief, and I quote
Rawls: “By following the General Will in its laws, The Social Contract sketches the principles
of political right that must be realized in institutions if we are to have a just and workable,
stable and reasonably happy society (Rawls, 2000, 214) (SC, 1, 7.)

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The General Will is thus the sovereign source of legislation. It prescribes rules with in
mind the question what would be good for all. This leads Rousseau to affirms a specific theory
of institutional design. First, there must be a clear distinction between legislative and executive
branches of government. Executive power is articulated only in particular acts (or decrees)
which are outside the province of law and therefore outside the province of the sovereign
which can act only to make (general) laws that apply to all (SC, III, 1). When if the legislative
branch would decide in individual cases, corruption through private involvement and interest
looms. Second, it involves a theory of legislative government in which the General Will is the
only source of legislative acts. This involves everyone voting (SC, II, 5) in a way that is
motivated by the common good and informed about the consequences of various proposed
laws (III.3) but not about other voters’ preferences (SC, II, 3). The laws enacted apply to
everyone and do not refer to particular individuals (SC, II, 4). The law with majority or (super-
majority) support is selected (SC, IV, 2). This is the General Will, and therefore the will of every
individual, irrespective of the way she voted. This is why each individual must, after the vote
has passed, take the collective judgment to be his own judgment, and affirm that law as her
own deliberative will.

Two Conceptions of the General Will

Yet there is ambiguity in Rousseauian scholarship what the scope of the General Will is. No
one disagrees about the fact that if the General Will is to be relevant anywhere, then it must
at least be the point of view from which the fundamental laws of a society are drawn. These
laws specify the most basic rights and liberties that defines the basic structure of how social
cooperation is organised. Violations of these rights are usually seen to have a profound impact
on the lives of individuals, and are usually captured in a constitution or bill of rights. Think for
example of a right to free speech, religious toleration or perhaps certain socio-economic
guarantees. In addition, based on the previous section it also seems obvious that decrees, or
acts in which the law is executes cannot be subject to voting because the individual decisions
lack the general nature of law and its proper will.

But there is a third category, that in fact makes up the bulk of legislative questions in
any established constitutional democracy, which neither fits the attribute of fundamental law,
nor that of decree; namely the body of non-fundamental laws. In this category falls any law
that does not involve constitutional amendment (either by adding to- or subtracting from that
body of law). Here we are concerned with questions that range from the near-fundamental
socio-economic issues, to the details of educational law, to more mundane laws such as high-
way speeds limits or dates of public holidays. Non-fundamental laws are still general in the

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sense that they apply to all, have an impact on all, but the effect on social relations is much
less profound then for constitutional laws. Still, because of their generality, they are not
decree’s either.

The question to which I seek an answer is whether these non-fundamental laws
require, at least for Rousseau, public justification. In the literature, we find two readings:
Usually, scholars do not pay special attention to this category of law and opt for a ‘wide’
interpretation. A good example is David Held’s (2006) standard text in Rousseau and
democracy. Here the assumption is that the social contract contains the principle that when
we decide about laws that govern all (whatever their kind), that then we take on the public
point of view. John Rawls is the exception to this interpretation. In his Lectures on the History
of Political Philosophy (2000) he presents what I shall call a ‘narrow’ reading of the General
Will, and argues that social contract contains a set of (distributive) principles and fundamental
laws that flow from the General Will, but which leave open a set of non-fundamental laws to
be answered within the scope of the constitution, and for which citizens are free to draw from
their self-interested perspective. In one of the lectures, Rawls says:

Thus, what provides the justification of political authority in society on matters of
political justice—an authority exercised through a vote of the assembly of the people—
is bona fide expressions of the general will. This will is properly expressed in
fundamental political laws concerning constitutional essentials and basic justice, or in
laws suitably related thereto. Fundamental laws are legitimate in virtue of their being
bona fide expressions of the general will (Rawls, 2000, 223) (Italics mine).

Note that the idea of a point of view, as used in these remarks, is an idea of deliberative
reason, and as such it has a certain rough structure: that is, it is framed to consider
certain kinds of questions—those about which constitutional norms or basic laws best
advance the common good—and it admits only certain kinds of reasons as having any
weight (Rawls, 2000, 231) (Italics mine).

Bearing in mind what has been said about the psychological underpinnings of the theory, we
can imagine that the choice we make here has profound consequences for how we understand
Rousseau’s social contract. The question is whether or not ordinary politics is the legitimate
domain of advancing one’s amour de soi. If that is the case, then this has deep consequences
for the kind of (political) liberalism we associate with Rousseauian democracy.

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Is the Narrow View Plausible?

But judging from Rousseau’s text, I think there are very strong reasons to reject Rawls’s
reading and to agree with held. Specifically, I look at four aspects of Rousseau’s doctrine, first,
at the emotional infrastructure of the General Will, second, at the way in which he uses the
terms ‘laws’ and ‘principles’, third, at his conception of republican liberty, and fourth, at his
democratic institutional features. In the last section I then ask what, if anything, there is to say
for Rawls’s interpretation.

First of all, throughout his work, Rousseau heavily stresses that the stability of the
General Will depends upon emotional attachments to the community, attachments to its
symbols, a collective conception of the good, collective festivals, and that collective life should
be “filling up every moment” of citizens’ lives. To mind comes a striking passage from A Letter
to d’Alembert3 in which Rousseau says:

Plant, in the middle of a square, a stake with a bushel of flowers and gather the people
around it, and you will have a feast. Do even better, make the spectators themselves
the spectacle; make them actors themselves; do it so that each sees and solves
himself in the other, so that all will be better united (LD, p.63). 

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