Category Archives: Ethics – Contractarianism

Hobbes’ Political and Ethical Theories in Two Pages

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Moving in western culture from the ancient and medieval periods into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we approach modernity. The discovery of the new world, developments in commerce and industry, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the rise of the secular alongside the decline of Christianity transformed western civilization. Inevitably, natural law theory would be scrutinized. The major figures of the period—Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)—all tried, in one way or another, to reconcile the new secular ideas with traditional Christian morality. But the most revolutionary of all the new theorists was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed that ethical norms were not to be found in God’s cosmic plan but in our social and political agreements.

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought. Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavor desperately to fulfill their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honor, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease. Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power. Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori (natural, before experience) moral law that obligates them to constrain their behavior. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limited what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature. But this state is antithetical to our survival and so the desire for self-preservation expressed itself in another way which was Hobbes’ third thesis: fear of death and the desire for a good life incline us toward peace. Hobbes called this the law of nature. Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. The state of nature demands that we follow one of the two formulations of the self-preservation principle. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right of nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. These laws of nature bear no resemblance to the medieval concept of natural law; they simple demand self-preservation. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible.

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: though it is in our own interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

A Theory of Morality

While issues surrounding the nature of the coercive agency which guarantees compliance with the social contract lead to political theory, the agreed-upon rules constitute morality. Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. Thus, self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can easily see that killing, lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable.

But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to the theory they do not exist prior to human contracts. We create morality by our agreements within the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths. Prior to the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through moral discourse, a political mechanism, or violence. Hobbes’ detested the latter option.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well. Second it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t kill or lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high. Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives. Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption. And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—morality is in our self-interest.

The Problem of the Free Rider

Contract theory answers the question of why “we” should be moral, but not why “I” should be moral? Instead, why not be a free rider? That is, why shouldn’t I be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best by being immoral if I can get away with it. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move in order to deter individuals from choosing it. But this raises the problem of corruption and injustice among the coercive agencies—governments and their law enforcement departments. Perhaps then this problem is intractable, and there will be no solution until we change the hard-wiring of our brains.

A Brief Guide to John Rawls’ Moral Theory

John Rawls’ “Hypothetical” Contract

A thinker who espoused contractarian moral philosophy was the Harvard philosopher John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice is the single most influential philosophical ethics text of the past thirty years. Rawls’ contractarian approach differs radically from the approach of either Gauthier or Harman because it finds its inspiration, not in Hobbes, but in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.

Rawls begins by considering the original position where parties deliberate about the rules of right conduct that will be universally applicable in society. In the bargaining position, parties are impartial, that is, everyone’s interest count equally. This is guaranteed by the so-called veil of ignorance that hides from contractors any knowledge of themselves. You do not know your race, sex, social class, or nationality from behind the veil of ignorance. Although parties are self-interested and want to establish rules beneficial for themselves, in reality, self-interest is ruled out by the veil of ignorance because from behind it one cannot differentiate their interests from the interests of others.

The rules agreed to by rational bargainers behind a veil of ignorance are moral rules. This solution demonstrates a hypothetical way that contract theory could account for the rules favored by ordinary moral conscious-ness, since the veil of ignorance assures us that impartial rules will result. However, by mitigating the role played by self-interest, this type of con-tract radically departs from the account of morality given by Hobbes or any neo-Hobbesians.

It is important to keep in mind that the agreement that stems from the original position is both hypothetical and nonhistorical. It is hypothetical in the sense that the principles to be derived are what the parties would, under certain legitimating conditions, agree to, not what they have agreed to. In other words, Rawls seeks to persuade us through argument that the principles of justice that he derives are in fact what we would agree upon if we were in the hypothetical situation of the original position and that those principles have moral weight as a result of that. It is nonhistorical in the sense that it is not supposed that the agreement has ever, or indeed could actually be entered into as a matter of fact.

Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two such principles, which would then govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society. First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (i.e., to vote and run for office); freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest. It is a matter of some debate whether freedom of contract can be inferred as being included among these basic liberties.

The first principle is more or less absolute, and may not be violated, even for the sake of the second principle, above an unspecified but low level of economic development (i.e. the first principle is, under most conditions, lexically prior to the second principle). However, because various basic liberties may conflict, it may be necessary to trade them off against each other for the sake of obtaining the largest possible system of rights. There is thus some uncertainty as to exactly what is mandated by the principle, and it is possible that a plurality of sets of liberties satisfy its requirements.

The second principle is that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:

  1. a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
  2. b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

Rawls’ claim in a) is that departures from equality of a list of what he calls primary goods – ‘things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants’ [Rawls, 1971, pg. 92] – are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. His position is at least in some sense egalitarian, with a proviso that equality is not to be achieved by worsening the position of the least advantaged. An important consequence here, however, is that inequalities can actually be just on Rawls’s view, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family we’re born into) shouldn’t determine our life chances or opportunities. Rawls is also keying on an intuition that we do not deserve inborn talents, thus we are not entitled to all the benefits we could possibly receive from them, meaning that at least one of the criteria which could provide an alternative to equality in assessing the justice of distributions is eliminated.

The stipulation in b) is lexically prior to that in a). ‘Fair equality of opportunity’ requires not merely that offices and positions are distributed on the basis of merit, but that all have reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which merit is assessed. It is often thought that this stipulation, and even the first principle of justice, may require greater equality than the difference principle, because large social and economic inequalities, even when they are to the advantage of the worst-off, will tend to seriously undermine the value of the political liberties and any measures towards fair equality of opportunity.


In conclusion, it appears that contract theory is viable to the extent that individuals are relatively equal in power when the contract is both negotiated and renegotiated. But, in the real world, this does not appear to be the case. Thus, we always have an imperfect contract which represents the interests of the stronger, more interested, or more persuasive parties. Whether an “equilibrium” can be reached in the bargaining process is problematic, inasmuch as individuals rarely encounter each other “on a level playing field” even when interacting within the contract. So even though it may be the case that morality is, as the moral philosopher Gilbert Harman supposes, nothing more than the result of bargaining and power-struggling between various groups, we can still ask whether this should be the case. Many accept the “is” but reject the “ought.” And if they do, then morality “ought to be” more than just a contract between rational bargainers. (which is one reason why Rawls’ stipulates the veil of ignorance.)

Finally let us note how much of contemporary western civilization operates within a contract framework. We have contracts that govern our property, our mortgages, and our marriages. We have contracts that state who will speak for us if we cannot speak for ourselves and what kind of medical technology is deemed appropriate to sustain our lives. In short, we are a contract society. Whether this is for the better, only the reader can judge.


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.

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.