Free will as a concept implies that someone can act following set rules, or make other choices (breaking laws is included). But who sets legal choices? Society? Or society in dialog with individuals? Or what is the principle?

If free will doesn't exist, who will set the rules and choices, or what will they be? Can someone represent mechanisms, how it will work if we are without free will?

(*) I didn't write "society" because society can be only in free will concept with laws set up - "contract" between society and people (?). If you have no individual or person "free will" the contract can't exist. And you have no society too. For example society before the liberty contract (but with people) calls "traditional society". TS ≠ S (also TS⊄S (it can be discussing a long...)), but FW = ø => S'≠ S at least.

Who are the people, what is the society'(S') without free will and who will set the rules of the New world (in theory)?

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    See e.g. The Rule of Law: "The Rule of Law comprises a number of principles of a formal and procedural character, addressing the way in which a community is governed." There are laws that govern the society: laws are set and maintained by appropriate institutions. NO dialog with individuals. Feb 3, 2023 at 9:48
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    Who set laws? It depends: in modern democracies the Parliament. In Afghanistan the Mullah. Feb 3, 2023 at 9:53
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    Social contract theorists assert that people enter a "social contract" in order to limit their freedom in exchange for some benefits that can be implemented at a social level.
    – Nikos M.
    Feb 3, 2023 at 10:16
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    Modern democracies are grounded on the so-called Separation of powers principle commonly ascribed to Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws (De l'esprit des loix, 1748). Feb 3, 2023 at 10:45
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    Study an ant colony for a while. Kids used to do that... Now I suppose they look at Twitter instead. Same thing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 3, 2023 at 11:26

1 Answer 1


From the clarificatory footnote, I think this question means to ask about Rousseau's account of the "general will" in relation to both the "social contract" theory, and the "free will" of individuals. The question supposes that if there is no free will, then there can be no social contract and hence no society. At least, there might be people going through the motions of having a society, such as producing texts called "laws" and people called "judges", but we may not be justified in calling this a "society" since it consists entirely of automatons who have not in fact consented to be governed, since they can't consent to anything.

While the idea of social contract has been explored by many authors, the formulation involving the collective will of society as a whole is strongly associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his work The Social Contract (1762). He supposes that people (who have free will) choose to identify as citizens of a society, and undertake to conform the choices they make in life to the "will" of that society. That "will" can be in the form of law, i.e. established rules of conduct. It would be nice if the laws were such that there was no tension between individual will, and what society collectively wills, but this does not always happen. Sometimes, people will want to do things that law forbids, and they might even break the law(!). It would also be nice if the laws comported with some notion of natural justice or ethics, but that cannot be guaranteed. But to some extent, we can say that there is a social contract in play insofar as citizens agree to be bound by the general will, and will comply with a law because their respect for the law and society as a whole is greater than their desire to break it.

A different view of social contract comes from Thomas Hobbes. Rather than saying that people idealistically subordinate themselves to the general will, he thinks that pure self-interest is enough to explain both the forms of society, and to provide a moral obligation to remain subject to its rules. If laws are being made by a tyrant who is nonetheless quite good at his job in terms of giving you a nice life, you have reason to obey his laws. On the contrary, Rousseau's theory sees such a society as illegitimate because the tyrant cannot be truly representing the general will (there are no mechanisms for aggregating individual free will and discerning what people want), and if the general will isn't present then citizens can't choose to agree with it.

Crucially, Hobbes himself takes a very low view of free will. He believes that while we can talk about "volition", this is so bounded by circumstances and human fallibility that it cannot rise to the level that Free Will proponents need it to have. People act according to their interests, but Will is not a transcendent thing that has any power beyond the choices that individuals make. In particular, philosophers in the line of Hobbes would reject the idea of "general will" or "the will of society" as an incoherent concept. They may still think there is such a thing as society, and even that there is a social contract which obliges citizens to obey its laws, but they do not found this concept on individual free will.

Suppose we take an even more deterministic view. If I am a citizen of the automaton-society of the first paragraph above, then per Rousseau there is no social contract at all. In a Hobbesian view, it is simply irrelevant whether the laws are produced by agents having free will, or not. If they are good for me to follow then I will follow them, and if the automaton-society defends my interests then I have an unfolding duty to continue to do so. There can still be a "social contract" because my obligation towards the sovereign is not dependent on whether its choices are freely willed. If I myself do not have free will either, I may still have moral obligations of this kind (at least, there are determinists who believe this).

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