The philosopher Rousseau discusses a number of ideas which are relevant in various ways to the world of today. The Enlightenment idea of the State of Nature is quite prescient in itself, given later discoveries about evolution. Human beings evolved to function in certain environments – these environments may not have been the most optimal from a human perspective, but the conditions which our psychology and biology are best suited for. Rousseau’s conception of the State of Nature as a kind of optimum position is close to what the evidence suggests today.
Rousseau’s conception of the General Will, however, has been highly criticised as totalitarian and dangerous. This is for two main reasons – first of all, Rousseau provides little explanation as to how to achieve this General Will, and therefore it would be easy to supplant it with the will of a dictator or party. Secondly, the idea that people could be ‘forced to be free’.
These issues are clearly present in Rousseau’s writings – however I do not believe that Rousseau or his concept of the General Will should be entirely discarded. There are, after all, entire groups of beings which are incapable of determining for themselves what would be in their best interests – animals, children and so on. Many political theories seem to lack a real idea as to how to properly address the care of these beings. They are left to the whims of individuals, or communities, or governments.
I came to the conclusion that the only moral way to decide on the treatment of those who require outside assistance is through the combined intellect and compassion of all of humanity. This is very similar to Rousseau’s concept of the General Will.
Although the details would be too much to discuss here, I believe there are possibilities for answering the first issue as well. It should be possible to develop a form of consensus based decision making which works on a large scale and within suitable time frames. Even the simple first-past-the-post representative democracy we have today is a form of consensus based decision making when we consent to respect the outcome of elections.
It would therefore be a mistake in my view to discard Rousseau altogether. He can still provide us with a source of inspiration both through his beautiful writing and his political thought.