Is morality the result of a social contract?

18 Nov, 2021

David Gauthier in Why Contractarianism? recognises a great need for a system that explains morality beyond a subjective standard. Gauthier believes that a good moral system does not need a foundational justification (1991, p.18), but gives a systematic explanation for the way morality appears in our world. His attempt to create such a system hinges upon, not religious or Kantian conceptions (which he implies are opposed to rationality), rather on reason alone. Social Contract Theory, or Contractarianism, suggests that morals emerged in society because morality was a benificial to the welfare of all people. Laws **emerge based upon a social agreement; i.e. we do not murder because its mutually advantageous that we don't. In this essay I will discuss how Gauthier poses contractarianism to rationally explain morality, demonstrating two major failures of his system.

Gauthier’s contractarianism relies on our most intrinsic motivator, self-interest. Not only are human beings concerned with the wellbeing of themselves above other life forms – but in an evolutionary world, where the chief end of lifeforms is survival – self-interest is the most rational form of motivation for any moral system. In order to achieve a rationally moral society, therefore, requires the maximum number of individuals to possess the freedom to fulfil their self-interests. According to social contract theory, the best way to achieve this (and arguably the way it historically manifested) is to enforce moral constraints upon individuals. These constraints must be decided, independent of an agent’s preference (1991, p.23). Any moral constraint can be considered given that:

  1. it would be accepted as mutually advantageous by any individual in society.

  2. no group benefits or is disadvantaged by the imposed constraints. According to Gauthier’s

contractarianism, the reason people are constrained from lying is that everyone accepts the there is a mutual advantage of truth-telling, and no particular party benefits more from the practice of truth-telling. Gauthier deems contractarianism completely rational, as it explains why we behave toward one another in terms of self-interest, and explains why rational individuals would agree to be morally constrained.

The first weakness of Gauthier’s contractarianism is its failure to correctly explain true virtue. While Gauthier does not need to justify why moral behaviour exists, he does need to account for it in a way that extends beyond moral constraint. It is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that acting morally is not merely about constraining bad behaviours, but also involves exhibiting good behaviours. For example, a purely rational being who is only self-interested could find no reason to help an old lady cross the street, nor save a drowning toddler, even if it posed no risk to the rational being. These are clearly virtuous acts and foundationally good, hence need a systematic explanation. Even if helping old ladies cross the street abided by principle (1) and could be accepted by any member of society, it would transgress rule (2) as it directly benefits one group of individuals, old ladies, over another. While we may deem old ladies worthy of accepting such benefit, contractarianism leaves no room for such an assessment. Since contractarianism views morality in terms of constraint, it fails to account for any moral yet ‘irrational’ behaviours that may benefit vulnerable individuals.

The second major flaw in Gauthier’s view is its failure to explain moral behaviour toward non-rational entities, such as animals and plants. Torturing animals for fun is clearly an immoral practice. The contractarian must explain why this is so on purely self-interested terms. Since animals are not considered to be among rational beings, they are excluded from being disadvantaged at the expense of a human’s desires, making principle (2) redundant. Principle (1) only explains morality in as far as it affects interactions between other rational beings. In fact, to limit someone’s ability to fulfil their specific desires (torturing animals) without rationally explaining how a constraint is mutually advantageous, is against the very essence of contractarianism. This practice would be, if anything, considered amoral. It has nothing to do with the relationship between rational beings. Some seek to avoid this objection by arguing that we should consider animals as rational beings, thus making them relevant to contractarian principles. However, even if we gave animals moral consideration it would mean they would be held equally accountable to moral constraint. This would both condemn animals for eating other animals and force them to become herbivores as well as destroy the very essence of what constitutes a rational being. Such implications are absurd and would cause contractarianism to offer little in explaining morality.

Gauthier’s contractarianism attempts to explain morality in terms of self-interest. Not only does it not account for morally good behaviour, but it fails to condemn morally bad practices.