Sunday, May 08, 2011

Individual Reason vs. General Will in Democracy, or, not as opposed as is sometimes thought

Much of the modern support for democracy comes from a revised notion of what human beings are like that says that everyone is an autonomous individual who through their possession of reason can dictate where their life goes successfully, and through that can also make effective decisions about the direction of the community and of the bigger political entities that they're part of. In this conception, the workings of democracy and of representative government are thought to be the result of the addition of individual decisions based on reason to each other, that collectively come up with a good course of action. A rival, and often misunderstood, notion relies on the idea of democracy in action being the realization of the collective will of the community, with the fact of it being the will of the community sometimes improperly thought of as justifying it. This mischaracterization is very far from the case.
The idea of a 'general will' and most of the objections to the terms coming off of 'the will of the community' comes from Rousseau's "Le Contrát Social" or "The Social Contract". Rousseau, though, doesn't phrase the discussion of the general will in terms of a sort of self validating series of community decisions, where the reason that the decisions are right is because they're made by the community, which is somehow by definition always right. Instead, the general will refers to the will of the community that exists after the institution of the community has been established and folks have agreed to live by the laws and decisions of the community. People in this set up are autonomous individuals in a fundamental sense, but in choosing to recognize a system of government or of decision making, as well as a codified set of laws, they give up some of that autonomy to the new set of institutions, agreeing to honor and live by the decisions that the council or what have you have made and to obey the system of laws that they've recognized. Following Rousseau's thought, this is necessary because having multiple systems of government overlapping, all claiming the same kind of jurisdiction over problems doesn't really work, and the same can be said for having multiple codes of law claiming to be what people can expect to face and to live by. The general will, then, is the collective will of individuals acting within their capacity as citizens of whatever sort of polity they're part of.
Political groups, whether they be village councils, community decision making bodies, or higher sorts of representation, can be changed and reformed in their structure and composition, as can laws. What I think that Rousseau was concerned with is having a system in place that could make society work without it facing constant challenges to its fundamental structure over and over again. Whether this fear was justified or not is another thing. General will is not primal will but will within a created and therefore somewhat artificial context, a context created in order to perhaps reflect a real formation, like a real town, neighborhood, county, but that was not identical with it. Not the direct expression of the group but instead an expression of individuals' preferences as people who have a specific identity that itself has been created by common consent.

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