Chapter 7 Social Contract Theory


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For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

At this point we have considered five different approaches to understanding and explaining ethics – Relativism, Divine Command Theory, Natural Law Theory, Psychological and Ethical Egoism. Each of these at first might have seemed to offer a reasonable account of the origins and nature of moral principles, or in the case of egoism of why moral principles are best ignored. But then each also turned out not to hold up very well to critical analysis. Let’s briefly look back at what went wrong in each case, since maybe that might help us find a way to move forward in our quest to find a basis for morality and ethics.

Relativism claimed that morality is nothing but a set of culturally dictated rules and that as a result of this, that there are no moral universals. Even if relativism may seem obvious to some people, in the end, it seems to overstate its case. Is there really no such thing as something that is just plain wrong? And does relativism really succeed in establishing that there really are no universal rules underlying particular cultural norms. If there are deeper common rules that transcend cultures, the relativistic claim that particular cultural rules are binding on us because there are no others would lose its force. And finally, relativism fails to provide a convincing answer to the question “Why should I listen to what my culture tells me I should or shouldn’t do?”

Divine Command Theory, on the other hand, appealed directly to an authority that supposedly commands universal assent, God, as the basis for moral rules. But this theory ran into trouble as well, since it rested everything on an appeal to authority. The problem here is that simple appeals to authority fail to provide any reasons why we should follow the commands of even an absolute moral authority – “Is it because God commands me that I should follow the rules, or should I follow these rules because they are really the correct rules?” Neither of these options really provide reasons to accept a set of rules – the first says follow the rules or else, and the second says that there are reasons to follow the rules but fails to provide them. So we are left not really having any idea why we should bother following the rules.

Next, natural Law Theory claimed that we should orient our lives according to what nature dictates by striving to fulfill our natural capacities and by avoiding anything “unnatural” that violates the natural functions built-in to our bodies and minds. Once again, however, this theory failed to provide a convincing reason for us to follow human nature. Even if we could all agree about what our natural capacities and functions really were, we can always still ask, “But why should I do what my nature tells me I should do?” Unlike other animals who have no choice but to follow their natures it is always an issue with us humans whether we should do what our instincts tell us to do or not.

Psychological Egoism in contrast to these last theories, dismissed ethical rules are unrealistic. But it turned out to have little explanatory power and amounted to nothing but a cynical dismissal of ethics. Thus once again the question of why strive to be a good person reasserts itself.

Finally Ethical Egoism attempted to show how ignoring ethical demands was in fact the best way to achieve the social good. This position, it turns out was not well defended, nor in the end did it even seem logically coherent. Here too we are left with an unanswered question – if focusing on oneself is the best way to achieve the best outcome for all of us why should we even care about this outcome in the first place?

I hope a pattern is becoming apparent here. Each of these theories tried to solve the problem of explaining and/or justifying moral principles with its claim to have found the source of the basic moral rules that govern our lives together in society (or in the case of egoism why such rules are beside the point). In spite of the differences between these sources of moral rules, however, all of these theories leave something out. They all fail to spell out why it is that we should listen to any rules in the first place. All assume that the job of ethical theory is simply to find the source of ethical rules and that once we have found it we are done. Now it might strike you that this is an unfair criticism of these theories since each of them does at least suggest a reason why we should comply with the rules. Why should we take culturally dictated rules seriously, or why we should listen to the commands of God or human nature, or build a society based on the powers of “invisible hand” of market driven competition? If we don’t we will fail to fit in with those around us, or we will end up being punished by God, or we will fail to find the true fulfillment that Natural Law Theory claims we can only get by following our true natures, or we will act in a way that is counterproductive to a good social outcome.

This is not enough, however, since wherever the demands to conform to any rules come from it is always possible just to ignore them. I can simply ignore my culture, God, human nature, and even the demands of me, myself and I if I want to. The rules of human conduct are not like the laws of nature, since they depend in a crucial way on choice. Even rules that supposedly come from outside of us still depend for their existence as rules on something inside of us, our freely granted consent to follow them. And if this is true, it seems less important to figure out where the rules of society and morality come from than it is to address the question of what it is about those rules that would encourage us to comply with them in the first place. After all, rules that nobody felt any reason to comply with would automatically cease to be rules, as anyone who has had first hand experience of a child in her “terrible twos” knows all too well. A stubborn two year old who has just learned the power of the word “no” doesn’t have to do anything at all, no matter who says so. Likewise with ethical rules, we can and should all ask, “Why should I follow the rules in the first place?”

Social Contract Theory, as our next approach to ethics is called, is an attempt to answer the question of why we should follow the rules of the social game when we have a choice not to. In contrast to all of the other theories we have looked at, it doesn’t just assume that saying where these rules come from is enough to get them to stick. Instead it tries to explicitly ground the rules governing our social lives in our ability to make free choices.