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Contractarian (Social Contract based) Ethics

Contractarianism was originally used by philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to account for the legitimacy of political authority. If people could be thought of as agreeing in a kind of social contract to the establishment of some form of government , then that form of government could not be thought of as tyrannical or oppressive. This does not imply that governments are established by real contracts, real agreements among citizens; the social contract is a theoretical idea, not an historical one. To say that a government satisfies the requirements of the social contract doctrine is to say that people, who were not under a government, would find it rational to give up the primitive freedom that they would have outside of states, and agree freely to be subject to this kind of government. For this reason, social contract doctrines usually start from some imaginary “state of nature,” which lacks governmental institutions, and try to show the sort of political constraints it would be reasonable for people in that imaginary situation to contract into. 

It is this theoretical, imaginary feature of the social contract doctrine that makes it suitable as a basis for morality as well as for political institutions. Just as one can ask what form of government it would be rational for people to agree to, one can ask what moral constraints it would be rational for them to agree to. Indeed, it is a short-step from Kantian moral theory to contractarian moral theory. Kant himself defended a kind of moral contractarianism at certain points, and John Rawls, the most important of twentieth-century contractarian moral philosophers, considers his own view a Kantian one. What Rawls has added to contractarianism is, first of all, replacement of the “state of nature” (an imaginary situation without governmental institutions) by the “original position” (an imaginary situation in which people must decide on basic moral principles). 

Rawls has insisted that the decision in the original position is to be taken behind an imaginary “veil of ignorance,” which keeps the people in the original position ignorant of all facts about their own situations, though they retain general knowledge of history, economics, politics and so forth. The effect of the veil of ignorance is that people deciding in the imaginary original position cannot tailor moral principles to their own situations--rather they must imagine that they could be in anyone’s shoes and decide on principles in light of what would be best for anyone. For example, not knowing whether they are rich or poor, they cannot decide on, say, taxation or welfare policies because they know that they will personally benefit from such policies. They have to decide what would be better from the standpoint of anyone, or everyone, in the society. This feature highlights the moral, rather than self-interested, nature of the decision that is to be made in the original position.

The basic idea of contractarian moral theory is that, inasmuch as morality requires people to forego the pursuit of their self-interest (to avoid acts that would benefit themselves at a cost to others, such as lying or cheating or stealing and the like), a rationally defensible morality must provide benefits to people that make it rational for them to conform to the constraints of morality. This dovetails with Kantian morality because it gives pride of place to the notion that treating people morally is treating them in ways that they could rationally and freely endorse. What contractarianism adds to this is a focus on the sacrifices that morality requires and the benefits it must provide to make moral obligation reasonable for free people.

Contractarianism can be viewed as combining the best of Kantianism and of utilitarianism. Where a Kantian moral philosophy emphasizes treating people in ways they can accept, contractarianism tries to spell out the benefits that morality offers which make it reasonable for one to accept it. This requires that the benefits be of a very general nature--such as liberty, personal security, provision of general means to pursue one’s goals--that just about anyone can be expected to regard as benefits. In this way, contractarian moral theory shares with utilitarianism the focus on important and widely desired benefits. On the other hand, contractarians insist that people would not agree to be sacrificed for the well-being or others or for the aggregate good of society. Thus, contractarianism shares with Kantianism a stronger basis for protecting people’s individual rights than utilitarianism can provide.

The standard test of morality for a contractarian will be whether a proposed moral standard is such that, even with the constraints it places on people’s pursuit of their self-interest, it would be rational for all people, thought of a deciding together as so many individuals, and not knowing how they in particular will be affected, to agree to be subject to that standard. To see the plausibility of this approach consider the light it sheds on practices such as racism or sexism. Ask yourself if you would agree to either of these behind a veil of ignorance--that is, not knowing which race or sex you are. Without such knowledge, forced to judge as if one could be anyone, people will not agree to racism or sexism, since they might well be seriously disadvantaged by either. This shows the unfairness of racism and sexism very clearly since it shows that these are policies that could only be chosen by members of the favored race or sex--thus such policies only exist because they have been forced on the disfavored ones. 

The problems with contractarianism come from the difficulty of determining what people would all agree to as good behind a veil of ignorance, given the actual disagreements that people have over what is good and what is worth sacrificing for. For example, at least some people, say deeply religious fundamentalists, would not find liberty a benefit that would make it worth their while to refrain from claiming the right to stop others from acting in ways that they regard as sinful. On the other hand, the fact that contractarian morality can combine utilitarianism’s emphasis on concrete benefits with Kantianism’s refusal to allow the sacrifice a few for the benefit of the rest has made contractarianism an extremely popular and powerful moral theory among moral philosophers here at the end of the twentieth century. 

Resources on Contractarianism

[more resources in the section on Lawson's Crime, Minorities and the Social Contract

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains an entry on Contractarianism that is a helpful place to begin, with a history of the social contract (particularly Hobbes and Rawls), and presenting several challenges to contractarianism. 

Another helpful resources is Pure Contractarianism: Promise, Problems, and Prospects by Robert Bass. 

More information on Kantian thought

In 1971 a reclusive American academic revived liberal political philosophy with A Theory of Justice. Why did he write it? And why was it applauded and then ignored by the left? 

John Rawls Theory of Justice - contractarian ethics

Good Powerpoint/slide discussion of Rawls Theory of Justice

Brief discussion of Rawls and the Difference Principle

Brief outline of Rawls Main points

Moral Systems & Issues

Virtue Ethics
Teaching Ethics

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Application of Rawls in terms of race and crime: 

And I suggest we approach that problem from the perspective of John Rawls’s theory of justice: first, that we think about justice from an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” that obstructs from view our own situation, including our class, race, gender, and talents. We need to ask what rules we would pick if we seriously imagined that we could turn out to be anyone in the society. Second, following Rawls’s “difference principle,” we should permit inequalities only if they work to improve the circumstances of the least advantaged members of society. But here, the object of moral inquiry is not the distribution among individuals of wealth and income, but instead the distribution of a negative good, punishment, among individuals and, importantly, racial groups.

So put yourself in John Rawls’s original position and imagine that you could occupy any rank in the social hierarchy. Let me be more concrete: imagine that you could be born a black American male outcast shuffling between prison and the labor market on his way to an early death to the chorus of nigger or criminal or dummy. Suppose we had to stop thinking of us and them. What social rules would we pick if we actually thought that they could be us? I expect that we would still pick some set of punishment institutions to contain bad behavior and protect society. But wouldn’t we pick arrangements that respected the humanity of each individual and of those they are connected to through bonds of social and psychic affiliation? If any one of us had a real chance of being one of those faces looking up from the bottom of the well—of being the least among us¬Ť—then how would we talk publicly about those who break our laws? What would we do with juveniles who go awry, who roam the streets with guns and sometimes commit acts of violence? What weight would we give to various elements in the deterrence-retribution-incapacitation-rehabilitation calculus, if we thought that calculus could end up being applied to our own children, or to us? How would we apportion blame and affix responsibility for the cultural and social pathologies evident in some quarters of our society if we envisioned that we ourselves might well have been born into the social margins where such pathology flourishes?

If we take these questions as seriously as we should, then we would, I expect, reject a pure ethic of personal responsibility as the basis for distributing punishment. Issues about responsibility are complex, and involve a kind of division of labor—what John Rawls called a “social division of responsibility” between “citizens as a collective body” and individuals: when we hold a person responsible for his or her conduct—by establishing laws, investing in their enforcement, and consigning some persons to prisons—we need also to think about whether we have done our share in ensuring that each person faces a decent set of opportunities for a good life. We need to ask whether we as a society have fulfilled our collective responsibility to ensure fair conditions for each person—for each life that might turn out to be our life.

from Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Race and the transformation of criminal justice by Glenn C. Loury [Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Boston Review]

Rawls' Veil of Ignorance applied to Animal 'rights'

Although the usual basis for animal 'rights' is utilitarianism - taking into account the suffering of animals in calculating the greatest good for the greatest number -  there is also a contractarian view of animal rights

Rawls's theory holds that the just rules for a given real-world society are those that would rationally be chosen behind an imaginary "veil of ignorance," where the deciding parties are placed in an "original position" in which they have no idea of their personal qualities or the positions they will ultimately occupy in a real-world society. In the "original position," Rawls contends, parties will metaphorically "insure against" contingencies such as being poor or disabled, by arranging society to offer a social safety net for persons in those situations. However, what about the contingency of being a non-human animal? The author will argue that although Rawls intentionally left this contingency out, it should be included. The author comments on the profound changes to current law that would result if rules devised behind Rawls's veil of ignorance took into account the contingency that, in real-life society, parties would be not humans, but non-human animals.

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