Rachels, Ch 6: The Idea of a Social Contract


1.      Political philosophy deals with origin, justification and limits of government/state authority

         a.      Feinberg’s “liberty limiting principles” concern the limits of legitimate government authority over the individual.


2.      What is authority?

         a.      Not simply power, but legitimate power

3.      Authority is prima facie (on the face of it) bad, because it involves

         a.      Violation of individual autonomy (self-governance)

         b.      Inequality of power

4.      Authority as a necessary evil

5.      What justifies authority?

         a.      What justifies the state having authority over the individual?

         b.      As when a police officer legitimately tells you what to do

         c.      In virtue of what does government have a right to exercise authority over individuals?


6.      Social contract theory of state (political) authority (justifying state authority over the individual)

         a.      There is a social contract and you are part of this agreement

         b.      It gives the government the right to exercise power over you

         c.      You agreed to let the state tell you what to do

                   i.       You promised you would obey

7.      Why agree to creation of such an authority (the state)?

         a.      How did the state arise?

8.      Answer: To avoid a state of nature

9.      State of nature is situation where there are

         a.      No laws, no government, no police, no courts and everyone is looking out just for herself

10.    State of nature is highly undesirable for all

         a.      Why? Because

                   i.       We have the same needs

                   ii.      Resources to satisfy those needs are scarce

                            (1)    So we are in competition for them

                   iii.     We are equal in power

                   iv.     We have limited altruism

         b.      Without organized way of adjudicating conflicts (e.g., state/government) there is a constant state of war of one against all

                   i.       Hobbes: “And the life of man, solitary, nasty, brutish and short”

11.    We agree to the social contract to avoid this state of nature

12.    It is in each person’s self-interest to cooperate and get out of the state of nature

         a.      E.g., Without cooperation there is no division of labor and we need this for a better life

13.    To get the benefits of mutual cooperation we must have guarantees

         a.      That we won’t harm each other

         b.      That we will keep our agreements (otherwise, we can’t rely on each other)

14.    Need government to provide these guarantees

         a.      Government: a system of laws, courts, police

15.    Summary

         a.      Why is government authority legitimate according to social contract theory?

                   i.       Because we gave the government power to enforce laws necessary to avoid a state of nature and in order to get the benefits of social cooperation

         b.      Why should I obey the law?

                   i.       Because I promised to (agreed to) do so to get the benefits of social living


16.    Social Contract Theory of Morality

         a.      Morality is

                   i.       A set of rules necessary for social living

                   ii.      That rational people will agree to accept

                   iii.     For their mutual benefit

                   iv.     On the condition that others will also follow the rules (reciprocity)

17.    Social contract theory of morality answers the questions:

         a.      Why be moral? Why obey moral rules? Why reasonable to be moral?

18.    Because:

         a.      We agreed to obey the rules

         b.      It is in our self-interest and to our advantage to live in a system where the rules are obeyed

         c.      Our compliance with these rules is the price we pay to make sure others comply


19.    Morality (restrictions on pursuit of self-interest) can be based on self-interest

20.    Morality as a way out of a prisoner’s dilemma of self-interest

         a.      When each acts purely in his/her self-interest, we are all worse off than if we all limited our self-interest and respected interests of others (benevolence)

         b.      But unless we have guarantees that others will also restrain their self-interest, we would be best off ignoring the interests of others


         c.      Four possibilities

                   i.       You are selfish, and others are not (best for you) (free rider)

                   ii.      Every one is benevolent (2nd best for you) (cooperation of ordinary morality)

                   iii.     Everyone is selfish (2nd worse for you) (war of all against all)

                   iv.     You are benevolent and everyone else is selfish (worst for you) (you are the sucker)

         d.      Rational self-interest without guarantees drives people to iii, for whether others are selfish (iii and iv) or benevolent (i. and ii.) it is always better for you to be selfish (iii. is better for you than iv and i. is better for you than ii)

                   i.       Since this is true for each person, it is rational for each person to be selfish and iii is the result

         e.      ii is a better result than iii, but we can only reach ii, if we have guarantees insuring that people keep their agreements to be benevolent.



Prisoner's dilemma You are selfish you are benevolent  
Others are benevolent i. Best for you; you are the free rider ii. 2nd best for you; cooperation of ordianry morality  
Others are selfish iii. 2nd worse for you; war of all against all iv. Worst for you; you are the sucker  



21.    Which laws/moral rules are legitimate?

         a.      Those necessary for social living:

                   i.       For example, prohibitions on murder, assault, theft, lying, promise-breaking

         b.      Laws not necessary for social living are illegitimate

                   i.       E.g., Laws prohibiting prostitution, sodomy, fornication, private drug use

                   ii.      Are these necessary for social living?

                   iii.     If not, they are illegitimate laws, with no claim on us

         c.      Example: How is social living hampered by private, voluntary sexual activity

                   i.       “How does it benefit us to agree to such rules?”

                   ii.      “Would seem that what people do behind closed doors is outside the scope of the social contract”

22.    When is it permissible to break the rules/laws?

         a.      When terms of contract broken

                   i.       When benefits of social living are given to some and not others

                   ii.      Those not given the benefits, do not have the burdens of social living (obeying the law)

         b.      E.g., Civil disobedience during the civil rights movement can be seen as legitimate and reasonable response to a violation of the social contract

                   i.       We accept the burdens of social living (obeying the laws) in order to gain the benefits of social living

                   ii.      But for African Americans, many of the benefits of social living were not extended to them (did not have the same rights as other Americans), and so they were released from the contract and from the burdens of social living


23.    One: Social contract is a fiction both historically and currently

         a.      No one in the past signed up and people today did not agree to obey any rules

24.    Reply

         a.      While no explicit consent was given, implicit consent exists

                   i.       Implicit consent to follow rules of the activity (game, dance) one joins

         b.      By accepting the benefits of social living we are implicitly agreeing to the burdens as well (to obey the law and morality)

         c.      Worries about implicit consent

                   i.       Staying on the ship instead of jumping into the ocean means that one agrees to obey the rules of ship’s master?

25.    Two: Problem of duties to beings that can’t be part of the contract and can’t reciprocate or benefit us

         a.      If moral obligations between individuals arise (are created by) agreeing to obey moral rules on the conditions that others do

         b.      Then for those who do not (or cannot) agree, no moral obligations exist (they have none to us and we none toward them)

         c.      So animals, infants, mentally impaired humans, and future generations are not owed any duties on the social contract view (and that seems implausible)

                   i.       Future generations example: Because future individuals can’t provide reciprocal benefits to us, we have no obligations toward them, for it is not in our self-interest to accept such obligations

                   ii.      The idea that we have no obligations to them is not plausible and so the theory has a deficiency

Study questions on Rachels, Ch 6: Social Contract Theory

1.         Explain the origin of the state and government according to the social contract theory. How does the theory justify state authority? Why does state authority need to be justified? What is authority?

2.         What is the social contract theory of morality? Define and explain it.

3.         Why might a proponent of the social contract theory worry about the objection that the social contract is a fiction? How might such a proponent respond to this objection?

4.         What is the difference between an implicit and explicit consent?

5.         How could someone who held to the social contract theory of morality argue that they have no moral obligation to obey the anti-drug and anti-sex laws?

6.         Explain how the social contract theory of morality could morally justify the civil disobedience on the part of blacks in this country in the 1960's.

7.         According to the social contract theory of morality, is it morally wrong to murder another human being in a state of nature? Explain why or why not.

8.         Explain why Rachels thinks the social contract theory has problems accounting for our obligations to animals, infants, severely retarded people, and future generations. (Hint: consider the role of reciprocity in the theory.)