Gilbert Harman’s Moral Contractarianism

Modern theories of contractarian morality derive from the moral and political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1569). Hobbes believed that morality has it roots in the human desire to survive and flourish. To escape a state of nature humans agree to self-interested rules and then find ways to mutually comply with those rules. Perhaps less well-known is how many contemporary moral theories also derive from Hobbes’ insights.

Gilbert Harman’s “Actual” Contract

Following Hobbes, the contemporary Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman has argued that morality consists of the moral conventions to which self-interested persons have actually agreed. (The best source for Harman’s moral theory is his book, The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics.) To support his thesis, he shows how this view explains many otherwise inexplicable moral puzzles. For example, why do we take the duty not to harm others to be greater than the duty to help them? Harman proposes that this rule results from a real bargaining process between groups of unequal power. No group wants to be harmed, but the duty to help benefits the weakest groups. Since the weak are less powerful and influential in the bargaining process, the rich and powerful dictate that only a weak duty to help others will exist. In that way, the rich and powerful can be protected from harm by a strong duty but not inconvenienced by a strong duty to help others. Or consider that we have virtually no moral duties toward non-human animals. We can explain this easily if our moral relationships with animals arose through a bargaining process in which animals had no say. Thus, Harman contends that morality results from an actual contract between rational bargainers.

But what happens when we reach an impasse in the bargaining process or some moral puzzle appears un-resolvable? Harman suggests that we begin by making explicit the role self-interest plays in moral bargaining. For example, the rich and powerful tend to emphasize freedom and property rights, while the poor and weak tend to emphasize equality. If self-interest was made more explicit, it would lend greater clarity and honesty to moral disputes.

Some more enigmatic moral disputes–say moral vegetarianism—revolve around principles other than self-interest. If moral rules are conventions, then all must accept that they have no privileged moral status when it comes to understanding morality. The vegetarians, as a group, share principles that most others do not. Since we do not violate the self-interest of vegetarians by eating meat, they should be tolerant of our practices.

Similarly, with abortion, if anti-abortionists admit they have no privileged access to moral truth, but accept principles that others do not, they will be inclined to be more tolerant. Of course, Harman admits abortion is a tougher case and that anti-abortion sentiment might survive a convention that dictates otherwise. But eventually we will reach a compromise, one favoring the pro-choice side, since self-interest plays a less significant role, Harman believes, for the pro-lifers. In other words, since morality is grounded ultimately in self-interest, moral rules that oppose people’s interests will defer to more self-interested rules.

Harman’s conclusion here exemplifies contractarian thinking; moral rules must be in an individual’s self-interest and, if they are not, they will not ultimately survive because not enough individuals will be motivated to abide by them. In fact, the fundamental tenet of the contractarian approach to morality is that any rule of social constraint is an arbitrary imposition upon us unless everyone’s compliance can be shown to promote one individual’s preferences, concerns, interests, etc.

Of course there are those “unconditionally cooperative” individuals who will act altruistically whatever the cost and abide by their agreements even when it is not in their self-interest. They could be masochists! However, such individuals are in the minority. And there are other ways to justify non-self-interested actions to people. Religious, political, and familial institutions–as well as a number of philosophical arguments–have tried to convince persons to forego their self-interest for some greater good. Nevertheless, this has always been a difficult if not impossible task and, on the whole, not very successful. Consider how difficult it is—even with an enforcement agency in place—to prevent individuals from pursuing their self-interest. People cheat on their taxes even with enforcement in place! Per-haps morality would have a more firm foundation if one could demonstrate to all individuals that moral rules are in their self-interest. If moral rules cannot satisfy this requirement, then we have no reason to follow them. This emphasis on harnessing, rather than repressing, self-interested behavior is the hallmark of the contractarian approach.

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