Perhaps the most difficult and quasi-metaphysical concept in Rousseau’s political philosophy is the principle of the general will. As Rousseau explains, the general will is the will of the sovereign, or all the people together, that aims at the common good—what is best for the state as a whole. Although each individual may have his or her own particular will that expresses what is good for him or her, in a healthy state, where people correctly value the collective good of all over their own personal good, the amalgamation of all particular wills, the “will of all,” is equivalent to the general will.
In a state where the vulgarities of private interest prevail over the common interests of the collective, the will of all can be something quite different from the general will. The most concrete manifestation of the general will in a healthy state comes in the form of law. To Rousseau, laws should always record what the people collectively desire (the general will) and should always be universally applicable to all members of the state. Further, they should exist to ensure that people’s individual freedom is upheld, thereby guaranteeing that people remain loyal to the sovereign at all times.
Rousseau’s abstract conception of the general will raises some difficult questions. The first is, how can we know that the will of all is really equivalent with the common good? The second is, assuming that the general will is existent and can be expressed in laws, what are the institutions that can accurately gauge and codify the general will at any given time? Tackling these complex dilemmas occupied a large portion of Rousseau’s political thought, and he attempts to answer them in The Social Contract, among other places.