Presentation on theme: "New Old Ideas Something to Think About. Contractarianism "Contractarianism" names both a political theory of the legitimacy of political authority and."— Presentation transcript:
New Old Ideas Something to Think About
Contractarianism "Contractarianism" names both a political theory of the legitimacy of political authority and a moral theory about the origin or legitimate content of moral norms. The political theory of authority claims that legitimate authority of government must derive from the consent of the governed, where the form and content of this consent derives from the idea of contract or mutual agreement. The moral theory of contractarianism claims that moral norms derive their normative force from the idea of contract or mutual agreement. Contractarians are thus skeptical of the possibility of grounding morality or political authority in either divine will or some perfectionist ideal of the nature of humanity. Social contract theorists from the history of political thought include Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Rousseau.
The most important contemporary political social contract theorist is John Rawls, who effectively resurrected social contract theory in the second half of the 20th century, along with David Gauthier, who is primarily a moral contractarian. There is no necessity for a contractarian about political theory to be a contractarian about moral theory, although most contemporary contractarians are both. It has been more recently recognized that there are two distinct strains of social contract thought, which now typically go by the names "contractarianism"and "contractualism."
Contractarianism, which stems from the Hobbesian line of social contract thought, holds that persons are primarily self-interested, and that a rational assessment of the best strategy for attaining the maximization of their self- interest will lead them to act morally (where the moral norms are determined by the maximization of joint interest) and to consent to governmental authority. Contractarianism argues that we each are motivated to accept morality, as Jan Narveson puts it, "first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others" (1988, 148).
Contractualism, which stems from the Kantian line of social contract thought, holds that rationality requires that we respect persons, which in turn requires that moral principles be such that they can be justified to each person. Thus, individuals are not taken to be motivated by self- interest but rather by a commitment to publicly justify the standards of morality to which each will be held. Where Gauthier, Narveson, or economist James Buchanan are the paradigm Hobbesian contractarians, Rawls or Thomas Scanlon would be the paradigm Kantian contractualists. The rest of this entry will specifically pertain to the contractarian strain wherever the two diverge.
Fundamental Elements of Contractarianism The social contract has two fundamental elements: a characterization of the initial situation, called variously the "state of nature" by the modern political philosophers, the "original position" by Rawls, or the "initial bargaining position" by Gauthier, and a characterization of the parties to the contract, particularly in terms of their rationality and motivation to come to agreement. The initial situation posits what in bargaining theory is called the "no agreement position," the situation to which the individuals return in case of failure to make an agreement or contract. This situation may be more or less hostile, and more or less social, depending on what the theorist sees as human nature in the absence of rules of justice. But crucial to all contractarian theories, there is some scarcity or motivation for competition in the initial situation and there is some potential for gains from social interaction and cooperation.
The second element of a contractarian theory is the rationality of the contractors. First, contractarian (as opposed to contractualist) theories usually take persons to be self-interested in order to justify rules of morality or justice. This is because persons are assumed to have given preferences and interests, that do not necessarily include the well being of others, which is taken to be a moral preference and as such not prior to morality. Such preferences are called (by Gauthier, following the economist Wicksteed) "non-tuistic" preferences. Secondly, persons are presumed to want the benefits of social interaction if they can be had without sacrifice of individual self-interest. (See Feminist Perspectives on the Self (Section 1. Critique) for a critique of this conception of the rational person.) Feminist Perspectives on the Self
These two aspects of the contractarian individual in part imply what Rawls called the "circumstances of justice": the conditions under which rules for justice could be both possible and necessary. Justice, and so a social contract, is only possible where there is some possibility of benefit to each individual from cooperation. Social contract theories take individuals to be the best judges of their interests and the means to satisfy their desires. For this reason, there is a close connection between liberalism and contractarianism.
However, that is not to say that all contractarian thought is liberal. Hobbes, for example, argued in favor of what Jean Hampton has called the "alienation contract," that is, a contract on the part of a people to alienate their rights to adjudicate their own disputes and self-defense to a sovereign, on the grounds that that was the only way to keep the peace given the nature of the alternative, which he famously characterized as life that would be "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Thus, given a bad enough initial situation, contractarianism may lead to the legitimation of totalitarianism. Another point of criticism that arises from the characterization of the parties to the contract is that they must be able to contribute to the social product of interaction, or at least to threaten to destabilize it. This is because each individual has to be able to benefit from the inclusion of all those included. But this threatens to leave many, such as the severely disabled, outside the realm of justice, an implication that some find completely unacceptable (Kittay, 1999).
Social contract theories also require some rules to guide the formation of agreement. Since they are prior to the contract, there must be some source of prior moral norms, whether natural, rational, or conventional. The first rule that is normally prescribed is that there must be no force or fraud in the making of the agreement. No one is to be "coerced" into agreement by the threat of physical violence. The reasoning for this is quite straightforwardly prudential: if one is allowed to use violence, then there is no real difference between the "contract" arrived at and the state of nature for the threatened party, and hence no security in the agreement.
However, there is a fine line between being coerced by the threat of violence to giving up one's rights and being convinced by the threat of penury to make an unfavorable agreement. For this reason contractarians like Gauthier are able to argue for a fair and impartial starting point for bargaining that will lead to secure and stable agreements. The second rule of contract is that each individual who is a legitimate party to the contract must agree to the rules of justice, which is the outcome of the contract.
Critiques of Normative Contractarianism Many critiques have been leveled against particular contractarian theories and against contractarianism as a framework for normative thought about justice or morality. (See the entry on contemporary approaches to the social contract.)contemporary approaches to the social contract Jean Hampton criticized Hobbes in her book Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, in a way that has direct relevance to contemporary contractarianism. Hampton argues that the characterization of individuals in the state of nature leads to a dilemma. Hobbes' state of nature as a potential war of all against all can be generated either as a result of passions (greed and fear, in particular) or rationality (prisoner's dilemma reasoning, in which the rational players each choose to renege on agreements made with each other). But if the passions account is correct, then Hampton argues, the contractors will still be motivated by these passions after the social contract is drawn up, and so will fail to comply with it. And if the rationality account is correct, then rational actors will not comply with the social contract any more than they will cooperate with each other before it is made.
Hobbes' state of nature as a potential war of all against all can be generated either as a result of passions (greed and fear, in particular) or rationality (prisoner's dilemma reasoning, in which the rational players each choose to renege on agreements made with each other). But if the passions account is correct, then Hampton argues, the contractors will still be motivated by these passions after the social contract is drawn up, and so will fail to comply with it. And if the rationality account is correct, then rational actors will not comply with the social contract any more than they will cooperate with each other before it is made.
This critique has an analog for Gauthier's theory, in that Gauthier must also claim that without the contract individuals will be stuck in some socially sub-optimal situation that is bad enough to motivate them to make concessions to each other for some agreement, yet the reason for their inability to cooperate without the contract cannot continue to operate after the contract is made. Gauthier's proposed solution to this problem is to argue that individuals will choose to dispose themselves to be constrained (self- interest) maximizers rather than straightforward (self-interest) maximizers, that is, to retrain themselves not to think first of their self- interest, but rather to dispose themselves to keep their agreements, provided that they find themselves in an environment of like-minded individuals. But this solution has been found dubitable by many commentators.
In an important article, "On Being the Object of Property," African- American law professor Patricia Williams offers a critique of the contract metaphor itself. Contracts require independent agents who are able to make and carry out promises without the aid of others. Historically, while white men have been treated as these pure wills of contract theory, Blacks and women have been treated as anti-will: dependent and irrational. Both ideals are false; whole people, she says, are dependent on other whole people. But by defining some as contractors and others as incapable of contract, whole classes of people can be excluded from the realm of justice. This point has been taken up by other critics of contractarianism, such as Eva Kittay (1999) who points out that not only are dependents such as children and disabled people left out of consideration by contractarian theories, but their caretakers' needs and interests will tend to be underestimated in the contract, as well.
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