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"Is it necessary that there is a consensus among citizens if the general will is to prevail?"

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Introduction

"Is it necessary that there is a consensus among citizens if the general will is to prevail?" First a broad definition of consensus which may later be modified. Defined as the "concord of different parts or organs of the body"1 the application to the members of any system seems natural. Defined secondarily as "the collective unanimous opinion of a number of persons"2 we have to consider very carefully about what extent and kinds of consensus we are talking about. A further definitional point this time from Rousseau himself. Rousseau sees an individual under the social contract as playing two roles at once. The individual as a citizen is a member of and indivisible from the sovereign. This can be seen in light of the other role of the individual which is as a member of the state, a subject. "Those who are associated in [the public body] take the name of a people, and call themselves individually citizens, in that they share in the sovereign power, and subjects that they put themselves under the laws of the state" What comprises this 'general will' on which Rousseau bases his quest for the 'Principles of political right'? The general will can be seen as distinct from a sum of coinciding private interests. ...read more.

Middle

(Levine Engaging Political Philosophy p87.) The general interest then can exists separate form the wants of any or all members of the body politic. If this is the case then the general will prevails only if it is 'discovered' by a relevantly high majority of the people in any given decision. Levine uses the analogy of a jury in court case. The jurors opinion about what they may want to happen independent of whether he/she is guilty or not, but these must be put aside and the case judged against a yardstick of truth on a matter of fact. A consensus opinion about what is in the general interest in this case may or may not be a correct one and therefore may not be the general interest - theoretically even unanimity is no absolute guarantee of a correct decision. A form of consensus is a necessary not a sufficient condition for the general will to prevail in such circumstances. Rousseau deals with this problem by "promoting a politics that forges the kind of community in which there is a strong consensus on ends, a community in which citizens do discover general interests"(Levine p87) In this community we can return to the idea of the general will as producing a consensus in itself. ...read more.

Conclusion

In our system of representative government it is not the people who are sovereign, but rather parliament. This makes a consensus of the people less important than a consensus of the representatives in parliament and in particular the parties. As well as parliamentary sovereignty we operate an adversarial system. Whether this would allow the kind of consensus necessary for the general will to prevail. The acceptance that the 'loosing side' is wrong is not always feature of our system of democracy. The opposition party are defeated on nearly every issue in the House of ommons. Having said this there is a strong tradition of adherence to the rule of law by both sides of any argument. Consensus is not always the symptom of a prevailing general will the example of the Hobbesian sovereign single actor does not constitute the general will. In Rousseau's society the general will would be represented by a consensus, but in a modern democracy the general will is hard to discern due to the preferential rather than the 'jury' nature of the system described above. If it was to prevail in the long run however the appearance would be one of consensus. Notes : 1. OED 2. OED ...read more.

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