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Tyler Zimmer

on 5 October 2016

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Contractualism in a Nutshell
Contractualism in Action
Next week...
Learning Objectives
Understand and apply contractualism.
Discuss some standard objections to contractualism.
Compare and contrast with Kantianism and consequentialism.
We might ask:
Why be moral?
Why submit to the authority of moral rules?
Basics of Contractualism
Moral rules should be a matter of
between rational individuals, and
that collective agreement is the source of their authority over our actions.
Moral rules are right
only if
they would be agreed to by free and equal persons under fair conditions.
The fair procedure does not select certain actions because they are right...

rather, certain actions are right simply because they would be selected by the fair procedure.
Remains silent
Remains silent
(Years of Prison)
(Years of Prison)
(Years of Prison)
(Years of Prison)
John Rawls's Contractualism
In order to select principles that are universally binding, that are actually authoritative for all... we have to imagine what we would all agree to if we were reasoning under fair conditions.
In order to determine this, Rawls asks us to use a specific procedure... he calls it the "
Original Position.
John Rawls's Contractualism
The "
Original Position
" is a test, a procedure for determining which moral rules are best.
It says to imagine that you're reasoning behind a
Veil of Ignorance
so that you didn't know all sorts of key facts about yourself.
You don't know your class, social status, gender, race, nationality, etc.
You don't know whether or not you come from a wealthy background, etc.
You only know you want to have as good a life as possible.
John Rawls's Contractualism
When you're reasoning behind the veil of ignorance, all you want to do is get the best deal for yourself. You don't bring any prior assumptions about ethics to bear.
But because you're behind the veil, you can't bias things in your favor since you don't know who you are, what class/race/gender/etc. you are. It's not possible to rig the procedure to yield a biased outcome.
Because you're behind the veil, you'd do well to be careful not to select moral rules that might leave you in a bad situation once the veil is lifted.
The best strategy would be to try to minimize the chances that you'll wind up severely disadvantaged.
John Rawls's Contractualism
Review the possible social positions you might occupy. Right now you don't know which one you are.
Examine the proposed moral rules on the board. Should you accept them? Would it be in your self-interest to do so? Why or why not? Remember that you're only motivation is self-interest and nothing else.
Keep in mind, you don't know what status you'll occupy once the veil lifts. Avoid risking disadvantage. Play it safe.
Take a look at the card specifying your social position. Are the choices that were made behind the veil fair to you, given the social position you've been assigned on the card?
Knowing what your social location is, do you wish you had chosen differently when you were reasoning behind the veil?
John Rawls
T.M. Scanlon
Contractualists answer: we all have reason to want there to be moral rules because if there were none,
social cooperation for mutual benefit
would be impossible, and then we'd all be much worse off.
rules should we choose?
The only way everyone could see the rules governing cooperation as legitimate, as authoritative, would be if they were in some way linked to
what we would all agree to under fair conditions
Contractualists are
What does this mean?
Which rules best enable cooperation?
For all individuals, if they're rational, it seems true that they won't see a moral rule as authoritative unless they can see it as rationally justified from their own perspective.
Thus, we need to find rules that
everyone could see as justified
to ground cooperation.
We need rules that
could accept as the basis for cooperation.
should we think there need to be moral rules anyway? Can't we do just fine without them?
To answer this question, contractualists can point to
"Prisoner's Dilemma"
situations to prove to us that it is
in our interest
to have moral rules that govern our conduct.
Life would be
much worse
for everyone without social cooperation.
Some examples of Prisoner's Dilemmas:
Fisherman in the Chesapeake Bay
who compete against one another end up overfishing it completely.
Tour de France cyclists
increasingly take performance-enhancing drugs to remain competitive, even though each individually might rather not take them, other things equal.
Two gangs competing for market share
find themselves spending more and more money on weapons, resorting to increasingly violent tactics even though, other things equal, both would prefer that there were peace.
Nation states competing at the global level
economically and militarily refuse to sign binding agreements reducing carbon emissions, even though everyone has an interests in avoiding the effects of global warming.
In all cases, competition makes it too risky for either party to come forward and cooperate, even though everyone would benefit from it.
If we were in a "
state of nature
" where there were no rules, then we would have a mess on our hands... the world would be a "
war of all against all
" in which life was "
nasty, brutish and short.
T.M. Scanlon's Contractualism
"An act is wrong if its performance would violate moral rules that
no one could reasonably reject
as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement."
The intuitive idea is that morality has to do with what we could justify to one another. If we could not justify doing something to someone else, that is, if we have reason to think that they could reasonably reject our rationale for performing it, then it's wrong.
Wrongess = unjustifiability to others.
If at least one person could be expected to reasonably reject a rule, then it is morally wrong.
T.M. Scanlon's Contractualism
We should treat others in accordance with rules that they could not reasonably reject.
Contractualism doesn't test moral rules by adding up total pleasure/pain... it asks the question "is there any individual who is affected by this rule who could reasonably reject to it?"
This gives us a moral guide: try to relate with other people on terms that they could not
Reasonable vs. Unreasonable Rejection
The Redundancy Objection
1. Contractualism says x is wrong if and only if x is forbidden by rules nobody can reasonably reject.
2. Anyone can reasonably reject a rule on the grounds that it permits actions that are wrong.
3. So, a rule that nobody can reasonably reject is a rule that permits no actions that are wrong.
4. If we don't already know which actions are wrong, then we cannot use contractualism.
5. But if we do already know which actions are wrong, then we don't need contractualism.
should we have moral rules at all? Is it rational for us to submit to the authority of morality?
The Paradox of the Prisoner's Dilemma
Everyone would be better off if there were cooperation. Everyone would benefit.

But it is too risky for any particular individual to try to initiate cooperation without risking being a "sucker."
The result, then, is something nobody individually wants: a competitive, non-cooperative situation that produces sub-optimal results for all.
Scene from
The Godfather
Without some stable rules to hold one another accountable, there would be chaos. We'd be stuck in a situation where it would be too risky (irrational) to cooperate with others, even though some scheme of stable cooperation would be beneficial for all.
Therefore, even though moral rules constrain our freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want, it is still in our interest to submit to them and see them as authoritative.

Thomas Hobbes's Argument in
Prisoner's Dilemmas are very bad. It is in our interest to find a way to exit them.
In order to exit prisoner's dilemmas we need terms of cooperation, i.e. ethical rules, that bind the conduct of all, that ensure mutual accountability.
rules should we adopt? Which set of rules best enable us to cooperate for mutual benefit?
Which moral rules are best?
The Social Contract
Eliminate welfare payments for single-mothers.
Elimination of Estate Tax for large ($1mil+) inheritances.
Implement Stop-and-Frisk policing policy.
"Gender Parity" in Political Representation.
Tie funding for public schools to local property tax revenue.
Why have moral rules at all?
Which rules should we have?
Most moral theories only address this question
Contractualism begins by asking a more fundamental question
The contractualist solution here is to use a
, a
"social contract,"
in order to give us a sense of what a fair agreement on moral rules among everyone would look like.
As long as the procedure is fair and unbiased, whatever rules it selects should be fair and unbiased, too.
As we've seen, the whole reason we want for there to be authoritative moral rules that are binding on everyone, is because these are necessary in order to ground social cooperation.
Thus, we're already half-way there in terms of deciding which rules are best: we should select the set of rules that
best enables stable, mutually beneficial social cooperation among all.
OK, but how do we know what everyone would agree to?
We need to make sure it is set up in a fair, unbiased way, so that everyone could see it as in their interest to use it to determine rules that all should have to obey.
In particular, we want to find out: what sorts of rules would we all agree to under fair conditions?
What sorts of background conditions might make an agreement
? We need to avoid building these into our model.
The source of their rightness is the fact that they would be chosen by the correct procedure.
When reasoning behind the veil of ignorance...
You are only motivated by self-interest. Your only motivation is to get the best deal for yourself, given the odds.
You don't know key facts about yourself, such as your class, gender, race or nationality... thus you can't rig the rules to benefit your specific identity.
Your task is to act strategically: what is your "best bet" given that you don't know certain facts about your self?

Moral rightness
about figuring out what we could justify to people, what they could agree to.
Moral wrongness
= ways of treating people that they could not agree to, that we could not justify to them.
Morality and Agreement
If someone would freely to agree to something under fair conditions, it couldn't be wrong.
Another Prisoner's Dilemma
50% odds win
100% of food.
0% lose
50% of food
100% of food.
Food in the clearing...
What's the smartest course of action here?
What would we lose if we didn't have stable social cooperation for mutual benefit?
on prisoner's dilemmas
Full transcript