A Critique Of Discourse On Inequality, A Book By Jean-jacques Rousseau

How could Rousseau’s General Will eradicate the tendency of individuals not to be distinguished from one another as he had described in the Discourse On Inequality?

Rousseau, in his Discourse on Inequality, identifies the need for individuals to be different from others by living together. Rousseau claims that a General Will is able to control this tendency in order for a society’s functioning. Rousseau’s General Will, however, does not eliminate individuals’ tendency to differentiate themselves from one another. It only regulates it in certain ways to ensure that society can continue.

Rousseau points out two reasons why individuals are prone to be different from one another. It happens when people come together to accomplish concrete common goals (Keohane 1980: p440). From this, they found enjoyment in the social. This creates a competitive environment that allows people to make their own distinctions. Rousseau, in Discourse on Inequality, identifies agriculture’s invention as the reason for this distinction. It meant that people needed two things: property and workers to do it. Rousseau says that equality disappears as soon as one man requires the assistance of another (Gourevich 1997: P167). This refers more to moral and political equality (Gourevich1997) than to physical or natural equality. As people continue to live together, the wants (people to work for them and property) becomes needs (Gourevich 1998). This means that there is no longer an individual desire to stand out from others. “Amour proper” describes a nonnatural and factious form of self-love. Rousseau warned us about the dangers of toxic inequality. Because they are constantly able to distinguish themselves from the rest of humanity, the “amour appropriate” means that they can only be happy with having things (Gourevich 1998). In order to be able to possess property, one must also deprive other people of it (Gourevich, 1997). This creates inequality in society and forces people to interact with one another. Rousseau also identifies the phenomenon of wants becoming needs in societies (Gourevich 1997). Therefore, the individual’s desire to be happy is based on separating oneself from another by denying them property. Rousseau claims that luxury is the ultimate expression this need and leads to despotism. This has the potential of “completely evil”, as societies have started (Gourevich 1997 p202). This means that it will destroy the naturalness in people and create artificial men (Gourevich 2007 p186). Rousseau states that living within a society creates the potential for it to be destroyed if not managed. Rousseau found a solution: the General Will.

Rousseau believed men always act in the best interests of their interpretations (Keohane 1988), so it would seem strange for them not to give up their individual interests to be part society. Rousseau explains how people should follow the General Will in his Discourse on Political Economy (Cole, 1993). This is how the magistrate can keep control of society and prevent it from becoming despotic. Rousseau’s use of terror and violence alone would lead to society’s downfall (Cole 1993). Keohane says that moral behavior is to conform to the common interests. These common interests don’t represent an agreement to share goals, but a harmony among all personal interest. These common interests are created by the legislator, which is not possible in nature (Keohane 1988). Rousseau’s argument, while Hobbesian in the sense that only one power has the authority for legislating, is actually Hobbesian in the sense that citizens can choose to follow General Will. If they don’t, then the sovereign’s responsibility (Cole 1993).

Rousseau proposes the General Will as a solution to political inequalities caused by humans’ tendency to differentiate themselves from one another, as described in the Discourse On Inequality. The General Will doesn’t eliminate humans’ tendency to differentiate themselves from one another, but it does allow this tendency to be controlled. Rousseau’s ideas regarding property and specific wills will be used to support my argument.

Rousseau doesn’t suggest that property should be banned. This means that humans still have the ability to differentiate themselves from one another. Keohane (1980), says that property is still permissible under the Social Contract (which allows for the General Will being followed), and therefore individuals can still remain individuals. Keohane 1980 states that the sovereign is the owner of all property. This is because slavery is, in Rousseau’s view, a violation of human dignity. This compromise allows for individual liberty while maintaining authoritarian moral equality. Rousseau claims that one of our human qualities is our ability as free agents. The sovereign’s control over all property would violate man’s freedom to act freely. Discourse on Inequality shows that the foundation of society was created by having property, which Rousseau explained (Gourevich, 1997). Rousseau addresses the issue of how the wealthy purchase luxury goods and arts to differentiate themselves from the rest (Cole 1993). Rousseau thinks the General Will can end this. However, Rousseau suggests instead that luxury goods be taxed (Cole 93), to allow people to continue to distinguish their properties from each others.

Rousseau states that political society can be made up of smaller, more specialized societies. Each of these smaller societies has its own set interests, expressed in particular wills. The General Will should always be the first priority. However, people will sometimes choose to follow their own interests and go with the particular (Cole 1993:p133). Rousseau assumes that people will follow what is in their best interests. Rousseau insists that the legislature must set the General Will to ensure citizens will follow it. The legislator must, however, “bring all the specific wills into compliance with it [the general will]” (Cole 1993 p140). This is necessary to make sure the General Will is accomplished. Rousseau does not intend to eliminate the human tendency for individuals to be different, but rather ensure that the wills of the distinguished groups are in line with the General Will.

You could argue that smaller societies with specific wills conforming to the General Will is a way to remove their individuality and allow them to follow the same interests. Rousseau, however, does not require that the General Will govern all areas. Rousseau doesn’t specify what the General will must include, so it is up to each legislator to decide. Rousseau states that the legislator must make the General Will according to the population’s wishes in order to maintain patriotism and popular support. However, it is not true that the General Will will eliminate all human differences in social life. This was also demonstrated by the personal property example.

The Discourse on Inequality, in conclusion, identifies the human need to be different from others, particularly in the area of property. Because agriculture requires men to work to make others successful and for men to own their property, it also reflects the desire to be unique. People eventually feel the need to differentiate themselves in society as these wants and needs become necessities. Rousseau believes this can lead society to dangerous despotism, so he proposes the General Will. A General Will allows members to come together and work towards common goals, as set forth by a legislator. The General Will prohibits wealthy men and women from being so self-deprecating that they are unable to give back to others their humanity. However, the General Will does not stop people from identifying themselves as one another. Individuals still have the right to own their property. This makes them distinct from other human beings. Smaller societies in larger political communities still have their individual political interests. Rousseau believes these interests should be aligned to the General Will. But he doesn’t suggest eliminating smaller societies. It is possible for people to be different from one another under the General Will.


  • jacobcunningham

    Jacob Cunningham is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who resides in the Pacific Northwest. Jacob's teaching and writing focus on the use of technology in the classroom, and he is a frequent presenter at education conferences around the country. Jacob's work has been featured on sites such as The Huffington Post, Edutopia, and TechCrunch.



Jacob Cunningham is a 26-year-old education blogger and teacher who resides in the Pacific Northwest. Jacob's teaching and writing focus on the use of technology in the classroom, and he is a frequent presenter at education conferences around the country. Jacob's work has been featured on sites such as The Huffington Post, Edutopia, and TechCrunch.