NOTES / A form of morality based on evolving social contracts built up from an assumption ofequality. 

May 30, 2020 
I’ve copied the full entry for Contractualism from the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in order to comment on it in context and to attempt to synthesize and simplify it for my own (and maybe other’s as well) understanding. 

1. What is contractualism?

Scanlon introduces contractualism as a distinctive account of moral reasoning. He summarises his account thus:

  • An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement. (Scanlon 1998, p. 153).

But Scanlon’s version of contractualism is not just concerned with determining which acts are right and wrong. It is also concerned with what reasons and forms of reasoning are justifiable. Whether or not a principle is one that cannot be reasonably rejected is to be assessed by appeal to the implications of individuals or agents being either licensed or directed to reason in the way required by the principle. 

Scanlon’s version offers an account both of (1) the authority of moral standards and of (2) what constitutes rightness and wrongness. 

As to the first, the substantive value that is realised by moral behaviour consists in a relation of “mutual recognition”. As to the second, wrongness consists in unjustifiability: wrongness is the property of being unjustifiable. The wrongness of an action is not to be equated with the properties that make it unjustifiable. Rather, it is to be equated with its being unjustifiable; the character of wrongness is captured by the higher order fact that wrong acts are unjustifiable. What wrong acts have in common is that they cannot be justified to others. Thus the various moral considerations that guide our substantive moral reflection are unified by a single normative subject matter. In this way, contractualism guides our substantive reflection about wrongness. Wrong is the primary moral predicate; right is defined as “not wrong”. One reason for focusing on wrong is to draw attention to the domain that contractualism is concerned to map, concerning what it is for one person to have been wronged by another.

Moral requirements determine what it is to respond properly to the value of persons as rational agents. The distinctive value of human life lies in the human capacity to assess reasons and justifications. Therefore, appreciating the value of a person involves recognising her capacity to appreciate and act on reasons. The way to value this capacity is to treat persons in accord with principles they could not reasonably reject. In doing so, the agent is guided by a principle that can rightly be characterised as one that the person herself authorised that agent to be guided by, in thinking about the appropriate way to relate to her. Contractualism illuminates the compelling Kantian insight that we ought to treat persons never as mere means but always as ends in themselves. It interprets this as treating them according to principles they could not reasonably reject.

2. How does contractualism differ from other social contract theories? 

Contractualism appeals to the idea of a social contract. It attempts to derive the content of morality (and, in some versions, also the justification for holding that we are obligated to follow morality) from the notion of an agreement between all those in the moral domain. Contemporary moral philosophy offers several other interpretations of the social contract tradition. It is useful to distinguish contractualism from these alternatives.

Contractarianism has its roots in Hobbes, whose account is based on mutual self-interest. Morality consists in those forms of cooperative behaviour that it is mutually advantageous for self-interested agents to engage in. (The most prominent modern exponent is David Gauthier. See Gauthier 1986.)

By contrast, any form of contractualism is grounded on the equal moral status of persons. It interprets this moral status as based on their capacity for rational autonomous agency. According to contractualism, morality consists in what would result if we were to make binding agreements from a point of view that respects our equal moral importance as rational autonomous agents. Contractualism has its roots in Rousseau, rather than Hobbes: the general will is what we would jointly will if we adopted the perspective of free and equal citizens. 

Contractualism offers an alternative to contractarianism. Under contractarianism, I seek to maximise my own interests in a bargain with others. Under contractualism, I seek to pursue my interests in a way that I can justify to others who have their own interests to pursue.

We next distinguish contractualism from the specific moral theory of Kant. Kantian moral philosophers seek principles to which all rational agents would agree, under certain idealised conditions. In order to reach such an agreement, Kant notoriously needs to abstract away from many (some would say too many) concrete features of our moral lives. (See Onora O’Neill’s gloss on the notion of agreement in Kantian ethics; O’Neill 2003.)

Contractualism departs from Kant in various respects. In particular, it offers a substantive account of the normative force of morality, based on the value of a relation of mutual respect. 

Reasonableness is not taken to be something that can be demonstrated outside the moral point of view. Another difference is that contractualism seeks principles that no one can reasonably reject, rather than principles all would agree to.

However, Scanlon’s contractualism has Kantian elements, as it seeks a free agreement that elucidates both freedom and equality. We might say that contractualism gives expression to ideas latent in Kant’s discussions of the Categorical Imperative (especially in the Formula of Humanity and the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends, rather than the more familiar Formula of Universal Law). Indeed, as we shall see in section 5, Derek Parfit argues that, despite their differences, contractualism does coincide with the best interpretation of Kant’s moral theory.

The most influential recent social contract theorist is John Rawls. Rawls’s contract differs from Scanlonian contractualism in two key ways. (1) Rawls’s contract is more Kantian, as he seeks principles everyone would agree to, rather than principles no-one could reasonably reject. (This contrast is especially marked if we consider Rawls’s Dewey Lectures (Rawls 1980), where his work is at its most Kantian.) (2) Rawls’s contract is political—it aims to set the general social framework for a liberal society, rather than determining moral principles. As a result, Rawls places the parties to his agreement behind a veil of ignorance, where they do not know many key facts about their own identity. This is to ensure that the resulting principles of justice embody Rawls’s commitment to liberal neutrality. For Rawls, we ought to follow the principles that it would be rational for everyone to choose, if they had to choose those principles without knowing anything about themselves or their circumstances. Because each person knows that they could end up being anyone, each must have concern for all. In essence, Rawls uses self-interest behind a veil of ignorance to represent a commitment to justice, construed as fairness to all.

Contractualism, by contrast, invokes no veil of ignorance. I know my own circumstances. It is not self-interest combined with ignorance of self that makes me take account of everyone’s interests, but rather my concern to justify myself to everyone else. This motivation is a key feature of Scanlon’s contractualism. 

All social contract theorists—even contractarians—agree that agents want to justify themselves to others. However, for the contractarian, such a desire is merely strategic—justification is instrumentally useful because it enables me to get others to do what serves my interests

For the contractualist, by contrast, agents are morally motivated by an intrinsic desire to justify themselves to others. Having this desire is part of what it is to be a moral agent.
Despite these differences, contractualism does have several points in common with other social contract theories. In particular, contractualism aspires to provide a non-utilitarian theory that grounds moral status on a universal trait of persons—rational moral agency—and thus provides general principles whose scope is global. It is to this contrast with utilitarianism that we now turn.

3. How does contractualism differ from utilitarianism?

Contractualism is an impartial moral theory. In contemporary moral philosophy, the main impartial moral theory outside the social contract tradition is utilitarianism. 

Utilitarianism takes persons’ moral status to be grounded on their capacity for well-being and suffering, and takes well-being to be the sole moral value. It takes the appropriate response to this value to be to promote it. Utilitarianism is thus a consequentialist moral theory—morality is concerned with bringing about valuable outcomes.

There are three fundamental contrasts between contractualism and utilitarianism. The first difference is one of scope. (1) Utilitarianism applies to every area of morality, while contractualism covers only the realm of what we owe to one another. Scanlon himself acknowledges that this is not the whole of morality. We return to this difference in sections 12 and 13.