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Can Rousseau’s concept of ‘General Will’ guide us in the modern world?

Rousseau’s conceptualisation of a ‘social contract’ between people and state which legitimised rights and obligations differed from the Locke's conceptualisation insomuch as it allowed a greater role for state action. In Locke’s conceptualisation, the social contract does little more than protect individuals from external danger, stop them from killing each other and maintain property rights. In such a system, therefore, people are generally free from other impositions of the state as they would be without a state at all (in a ‘state of nature’). These freedoms are often termed ‘negative liberties’ which are ‘freedoms from’ external restraints (sometimes used in conjunction with the term ‘natural liberties’). For Rousseau, however, the state can legitimately interfere in other areas of our lives in accordance with the ‘general will’, that is the will of the people as an entire sovereign block. This allows people to be free in other ways, ways in which they require some assistance (resource, skill, companion) to do so, for example, the freedom of even the poorest in our society to use the NHS free of charge (These are known as positive freedoms). Deriving quite what the ‘general will’ is might, of course, be a more complicated question. The thoughts of Rousseau and Locke were influential in the French and American revolutions and can still be placed in the ideals of those states today. We’ll be asking whether it is just the concept of general will which separates Rousseau and Locke, whether the concept of ‘general will’ is manifest in our democracies today, an ideal which we strive towards or a concept which we have moved beyond which adds nothing to our understanding of the modern world.

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  • Howard

    Hi Ben, mad traffic on the Abingdon Rd. Be a bit late. 😑

    November 30

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