David Gauthier’s Moral Contractarianism

David Gauthier’s Moral Philosophy

Another contemporary philosopher who follows in the tradition of Hobbes is David Gauthier of the University of Pittsburgh. In his influential text, Morals By Agreement, he argues that voluntary compliance with moral rules, even in the absence of enforcement, is in one’s rational self-interest. Specifically, he contends that one should become a constrained maximizer, a person disposed to cooperate with others on the condition that they expect others to cooperate.  We can all do better by voluntarily cooperating, considering the cost of establishing and maintaining enforcement agencies.

Like Harman, Gauthier contends that bargaining may resolve contract disputes, and he advances an entire bargaining theory to support this claim. Unlike Hobbes and Harman, Gauthier’s moral theory depends less heavily on self-interest. If morality and self-interest coincide, Gauthier claims, then morality would be easy; we would just follow our interests. But this seems to be mistaken since morality and self-interest often conflict. Gauthier believes that morality calls upon us, at least sometime, to constrain ourselves from self-interested pursuits. On the other hand, he admits, if morality is not self-interested then you have no reason to be moral. It is from this paradox that morality derives.

What Gauthier has in mind echoes Hobbes. We must constrain ourselves to be moral, but because constraint allows us to live peacefully, it is ultimately self-interested. In the end, Gauthier agrees with both Harman and Hobbes that morality is grounded in self-interest and that moral constraint is the price we pay for a civilized society. But how exactly does Gauthier say that self-interest leads to morality? 

Gauthier’s Theory of Rationality

Gauthier develops his theory of morality as part of a theory of rational choice; in essence, morality is both self-interested and rational. We might begin by considering the conception of rationality central to his theory. For Gauthier, practical reason is strictly instrumental. This is sometimes called the maximizing notion of rationality. Accordingly, to be rational is to be disposed to act in a way that maximizes the satisfaction of one’s interests, interests here are understood as one’s considered, but nonetheless, subjectively determined preferences. On this conception of rationality, one’s preferential interests need not be exclusively in the self, but preferential interests of the self, which may include interest in others.

The notion of rationality used here derives from that employed by economists in the classical tradition. The individual is the ultimate unit of analysis in this tradition. Individuals are assumed to make choices on the basis of their preferences and beliefs about the world. The choice is rational in this sense when it is consistent with those beliefs and preferences. Effects of human action and interaction are then explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of the individual choices producing them. As we will see, the effect of choices that are economical and, hence, individually rational may be nonetheless collectively harmful but at the same time avoidable. In a nutshell, to avoid collectively harmful outcomes, we must adopt what Gauthier calls “morals by agreement,” those principles we can all agree to for our mutual benefit. This is the essence of morality.

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