Rachels, Ch 6: The Social Contract Theory


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

2.      What is authority?

         a.      “The (legitimate) power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience”

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

         a.       Because it involves restriction on something intrinsically good, namely, individual autonomy (self-governance)

         b.      It also involves inequality of power (and equality of power is preferable)

4.      What justifies authority?

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

                  i.      As when a policeman legitimately tells you what to do

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

5.      Political authority as a necessary evil based on self interest and agreement/consent

         a.      To avoid anarchy (a situation of no government/laws)

         b.      To avoid a Hobbesian state of nature

         c.      Create political authority (government)

6.      For what types of reasons can government legitimately make laws (See Feinberg’s Liberty-Limiting Principles)

         a.      Non-controversial

                  i.      Prevent harm to others (Harm principle)

                           (1)    Prohibiting murder, theft, rape

                  ii.     For some (“libertarians”?) preventing harm is only legitimate reason government can make laws

         b.      Controversial

                  i.      Prevent harm to self (Paternalism principle)

                           (1)    Requiring seat-belts, helmets; Prohibiting suicide

                  ii.     Prevent immoral behavior (even if harmless) (Moralism principle)

                           (1)    Prohibiting on gambling, sodomy & other “sex offenses,” flag desecration, mistreating corpses

                  iii.    Prevent offense to others (Offense principle)

                           (1)    Prohibiting public obscenity (obscene billboards, curses), loud noises, bad smells, public nudity/sex (nuisance laws designed to prohibit)


7.      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

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

         a.      How did the state arise?

9.      Answer: To avoid a state of nature

10.    State of nature is situation where there are

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

11.    State of nature is highly undesirable for everyone

         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 (approximately)

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

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

13.    It is in each person’s self-interest to cooperate and to do this we need to 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

14.    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)

15.    Need government to provide these guarantees

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

16.    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 to get the benefits of social cooperation (and it is in our self-interest to do so)

         b.      Why should I obey the law?

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


17.    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)

18.    Social contract theory of morality answers the questions:

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

19.    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

20.    Morality arises out of this mutual agreement; where there is no such agreement (in a state of nature) there is no morality (no right/wrong)

**Skip section on Prisoner’s Dilemma**


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

22.    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) (you are a lone 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 ordinary morality

Others are selfish

iii. 2nd worse for you; war of all against all

iv. Worst for you; you are the sucker

**Skip above section on Prisoner’s Dilemma**



23.    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.      Are these necessary for social living?

                           (1)    E.g., Laws prohibiting prostitution, sodomy, fornication, private drug use

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

                           (1)    How is social living hampered by private, voluntary sexual activity?

                           (2)    “How does it benefit us to agree to such rules?”

                           (3)    “Would seem that what people do behind closed doors is outside the scope of the social contract”

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

         a.      When terms of contract broken because benefits of social living are given to some and not others

                  i.      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

                  iii.    Consider Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” p. 93

         c.      Worries:

                  i.      Makes most sense if think of African Americans as having no obligation to obey the specific laws denying them the benefits of social living (sitting while riding on the bus, sitting at lunch counter)

                  ii.     Or homosexuals, having no obligation to obey laws prohibiting their sexuality

                  iii.    Rather than a general release from obeying any laws (although treatment of African Americans at that time was so atrocious one might think they were released from social contract entirely?)


25.    Objection 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

26.    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?

27.    Objection two: Problem of duties to beings that can’t be part of the contract, 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 and future generations of humans are not owed any duties on the social contract view (and that seems implausible)

                  i.      Future generations: 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

                           (1)    The idea that we have no obligations to them is not plausible and so the theory has a deficiency

                  ii.     Animals: If morality is based on reciprocal obligations, then we have not duties to animals, as they can’t reciprocate (no moral duties to us)

                           (1)    But this is not plausible

Study questions on Rachels, Ch 6: Social Contract Theory

1.      What is authority? Why does (state) authority need to be justified?

2.      Distinguish between, explain, and give examples of these 4 grounds/rationales for making laws: Harm, paternalism, moralism and offense principles.

3.      Explain the origin of the state and government according to the social contract theory. How does the theory justify state authority?

4.      What is a “state of nature?” Explain how the idea of a “state of nature” fits into this justification for state/political authority?

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

6.      Explain the role of agreement/consent, self-interest, mutual benefit, and reciprocity is this account of the origin and justification for the state and for morality.

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.      How could someone who held to the social contract theory of morality argue that the anti-drug and anti-sex laws are illegitimate (an hence we have no obligation to obey them)?

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

10.    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?

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

12.    Explain why Rachels thinks the social contract theory has problems accounting for our obligations to animals and future generations. (Hint: consider the role of reciprocity in the theory and the notion of mutual benefit.)