Social Contract Theory, Contractarianism and Contractualism


Social Contract Theory – Laws are just iff they reflect the terms that free, equal, and rational people would except as the basis of a cooperative life together. (FoE 188)


Actions are morally right just because they are permitted by rules that free, equal, and rational people would agree to live by, on the condition that others obey these rules as well.  (FoE 189)


Basic Assumptions

  • Everyone is motivated by self-interest and is completely rational in pursuing their own self-interest
  • Everyone does best when we all agree to live by certain rules


Prisoner’s Dilemma

  • A situation where everyone would be better off by cooperating but to minimize risk and maximize gain through the direct pursuit of self-interest both become worse off
  • The prisoner’s dilemma is supposed to be analogous to the way people make economic/social decisions in society


State of Nature

  • The pre-contract state of human beings
  • Term was introduced by Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan
  • The state of nature is a “war of all against all . . . in which the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”
  • State of nature is a prisoner’s dilemma because by attempting to maximize self-interest everyone is made worst off
  • To get out of the state of nature we need two things
    • Rules that work to everyone’s benefit if followed
    • Someone to enforce the rules


  • Contractarianism offers a clear metaethical justification of moral rules
    • And this justification is rooted in self-interest which is an undeniable source of motivation
    • Provides a naturalistic and scientific explanation of what morality is and how it arises


The Problem with Contractarianism

  • The Fool Objection
    • Hobbes tries to show that even the person who is entirely self-interested ought (prudentially) to follow moral rules/laws of society
    • This is sometimes called “the freerider problem”
    • “What Hobbes could say is that it is never rational to behave unjustly in a well-ordered society.” (FoE 203)
      • Is that true?
  • SL thinks Hobbes cannot defend claim 1 but can defend 2 and 3, which he says is pretty good
    • Claim 1: No matter who you are, or what circumstances you find yourself in, it is always rational to act justly.
    • Claim 2: It is always rational to be a just person – the sort of person who values fairness, approves of just policies, tries to live an upright life, and becomes upset when learning of injustice.
    • Claim 3: For just people, it is always rational to act justly.
  • My argument:
    • Almost only counts in horshoes and handgrenades.
    • Morality is not horshoes or handgrenades.
    • So, almost is not good enough.
  • We’ll talk more about this issue as I think this is the crucial issue in determining whether this approach will actually work as an ethical theory


The Moral Community

  • Another objection that SL covers relates to the scope of the moral community
    • Contractarianism doesn’t seem to countenance  moral duties to people outside our contract, this could include animals, children, other societies, etc


Contractarianism vs Contractualism

  • The book, FoE, doesn’t explain this important distinction
  • Contractarians
    • Thomas Hobbes, Robert Nozick*, David Gautier, Gibert Harman
    • Contractualists
      • Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant*, John Rawls, Timothy Scanlon
      • Contractualism does not attempt to derive morality from pure self-interest (prudentiality), for contractarians there is nothing but prudentiality



Thommas Hobbes – Leviathan


Everyone is roughly equal (116)

  • This is not some philosophical statement about the absolute dignity of all persons, this is a crude statement of the facts
  • “The weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest”


From equality of ability arises equality of hope (117)

  • and competition and fighting (diffidence)
  • which leads to misery for all (prisoner’s dilemma)


This leads to a state of war (117)

  • a state of war of everyman against everyman (bellum omnium contra omnes)
  • the state of war is a the disposition to fighting i.e a fight can happen anytime
    • “For war consisteth no in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to conted by battle is sufficiently known by; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”
    • Everyman is enemy to everyman
    • There is no security
    • No industry because the fruit of industry is uncertain, No navigation or trade by sea, no commodious building, no large moving equipment, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, not arts, no letters, no society
    • Continual fear and danger of violent death
    • “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”


Nothing is unjust in a state of war (119)

  • in a state of war everyone has a right to everything
  • “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.”


What leads us out of the state of war? (119)

“The passions that incline men to peace are: fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason suggesteth convenient articles of peace upon which men my be drawn to agreement. These articles are they which otherwise are called laws of nature”


Natural law (jus natural) (119)

  • Hobbes asserts that natural is really nothing other than the right to one’s own self preservation



  • “By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments”
  • Hobbes uses a negative definition of liberty
  • Positive liberty includes rights to be given certain things (education, healthcare, basic standard of living, etc)


First Law (and Summary thus far) (120)

“as long as this natural right of every man to everything endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he may be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.”


The Second Law (120)

  • “From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavor peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.”
  • In the state of nature everyone has a right to everything, we get out of the state of nature by agreeing to renounce our right to everything if others are also willing to do so



“the mutual transferring of right is that which men call contract.” (121)


The third law

  • “that men perform their convenants made” (122)


The Commonweath/The Leviathan

  • The commonwealth ensures that the punishment for breaking contracts is sufficiently great and reliable such that it is not in anyone’s interest to break a contract or  more generally act unjustly in any way
  • “Therefore before the names of jusgt and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to comple mean equally to the performance of their convenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their convenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.”
  • The Leviathan refers to an absolute monarch
    • Hobbes thought this was the best form of government


The Fool (123-4)

  • Is it against reason (one’s interest) to follow through with contracts made?
  • Hobbes says “No”.
    • First – something may work out in your favor but that doesn’t mean it is wisely done.
    • Second – If you break your covenants you are removing yourself from society and putting yourself back into the state of nature, which is a bad thing. You will not be able to be received by any society. You might happen to fool some group of people but it is not wise (rational and prudential to assume that you will be able to do so).
    • A more formal reconstruction
  1. A rational person always prefers a state of peace than a state of war.
  2. If you break contracts (act like a fool) then you are removing yourself from a state of peace and putting yourself in a state of war.
  3. No breaking of a contract is ever guaranteed to go undetected.
    1. The odds of one’s being detected, no matter how small, and punishments that might result from that breach of contract always make it irrational to break a contract.


  1. So, breaking a contract is never rational (prudential).


Premise 4 is the crucial missing premise that seems somewhat implausible. Although 1 also seems somewhat suspect as well.

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