Social Contract Ethics can trace its roots beck to Plato's Republic.
Plato has his character Glaucon argue for a social contract definition of
justice. Some of the more famous philosophers who have argued that Ethics
results from mutual agreement would include Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and
Kant. The two most important contemporary social contract theorists are
John Rawls and David Gauthier.
For more details, see the articles:
"Contractarianism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at URL=http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism/.
"Contractualism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at URL=http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism/.
"Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at URL=http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism-contemporary/.
Social Contract Ethics is a very popular alternative, especially for those initially attracted to the idea that our common sense of Morality arises from the conventions that happen to exist in our society. In answer to the question of why our society has landed on these particular conventions, Social Contractualism responds with the idea of a mutual agreement amongst the members of the society. What is common in the arguments of the various Social Contract philosophers, is the notion that moral rules find their legitimacy from their ability (in theory if not actually in practice) to secure the agreement of those for whom they will apply.
In taking this approach, these philosophers have taken Social Contract Ethics even further along the spectrum towards the Socratic concept of morality as self-interest. As such, a lot of philosophers, approaching Morality from the Social conception of Ethics, refuse to acknowledge that Social Contract Ethics is a moral theory at all. According to the Social conception of Ethics, Social Cntractulaism is a replacement of morality with pragmatics. From their point of view, it is a negotaited truce from Hobbes' "war of all against all."
However, the fact that this mutual agreement is always open to change, and in fact is always somewhat in flux, nicely deals with the situations where some members of our society argue that some of our common sense Moral rules ought to be changed. Instead of taking the conventions of the society as given, Social Contract Ethics advocates argue that its Ethical rules are such as to gain active agreement from those to whom they apply. Instead of Social Conventionalism's reliance on the self-interested acquiescence of the moral agent with the social conventions that current exist, Social Contract Ethics requires the active self-interested participation of the moral agent in the negotiation of the Ethical rules to be contracted.
Social Contract theories of Morality always have two key ingredients. First they always start with a description of the "prior conditions of man" -- the state of affairs assumed to hold before (or without) the contractual agreement. This is called either the "state of nature" by the modern political philosophers, the "original position" by Rawls and his followers, or the "initial bargaining position" by Gauthier and his followers. This is what Bargaining Theory(1) refers to as the "no agreement position." It is assumed to be the circumstances to which the bargaining parties return in case of failure to agree on a contract. In order to justify the contention that all relevant parties have or would agree to the social constraints set out in the contract, the "prior conditions of man" must be described as sufficiently less desirable than the current circumstances that obtain under the present social contract.
The second ingredient is a description of the parties to the contract in terms of their rationality (it being assumed that, ceteris paribus, all parties will come to rational decisions and judgements, and will not fall prey to irrational, emotional, or otherwise biased choices) and motivations (it being assumed that, ceteris paribus, all parties will be motivated to seek their own self-interests). It is also assumed, of course, that all parties recognize and acknowledge that there is some potential for personal gains from social interaction and cooperation, regardless of the degree of ignorance or involvement envisaged.
There is wide diversity amongst the theories that are gathered under the label of Social Contract Ethics. They vary across a number of dimensions:
Motivation -- What motives are attributed to the moral agent in agreeing to the contract. Some theories assume pure self-interest, and thus are firmly in the Personal Ethics camp. Other theories assume some degree of "Other Caring" focus, and are more or less in the Social Ethics camp.
The Nature of the Contract -- Is the contract supposed to be a real historical contract, a defacto contract, or a hypothetical contract. Our historical knowledge of the first "societies" beyond kin-related tribalism offers no evidence that any historical contract was ever actually made. And even if such a contract is imputed (based on the receipt of benefits), the assumption that modern members of society are bound by decisions in antiquity, is highly problematical. It is certainly clear that in modern societies, the questionable authority of a defacto contract has never been publicly acknowledged. Therefore, almost all modern Social Contract theorists work from the idea of a hypothetical contract. This is what would be agreed to, theoretically and hypothetically, if people actually did sit down and negotiate a contract.
The Degree of Information -- Is the moral agent, in negotiating the (theoretical and hypothetical) contract, fully aware of his/her current status and disadvantages? Or is the agent hampered to some extent by some degree of ignorance about his/her current status? Or is the agent negotiating from a position hidden completely behind Rawls' "veil of ignorance"?
The only morally relevant consideration is whether one's behavior conforms to the rules encoded within the Social Contract. Therefore, one need only pretend to abide by the social contract. Motivations and internal thoughts on the matter are morally irrelevant. Since one behaves "morally" only in their own self-interest (not because they have an objective moral obligation to do so), then if they can behave in ways that are opposed to others' self-interests but still within the contracted rules, they have done nothing wrong.
Social Contract Ethics fails to naturally invoke moral duties protecting the interests of those who are outside the social contract structure -- such as children, the mentally retarded, the infirm aged, and foreigners. These people cannot assent to the contract, and since they cannot harm someone else, there is no reason to make a contract with them. Why not just kill a retarded person, or your aged grandmother, just because we don't want to expend the resources to care for them? Rawls attempts to address this flaw with his "veil of ignorance." The social contract is negotiated by people who do not know what position they will have in the society. So it would be rational to ensure that even those who cannot consent to a contract are properly cared for. But Rawls is assuming that those who will negotiate the contract are rational and reasonable by his standards. And that is not a foregone conclusion.
Social Contract Ethics shares a lot of flaws with Social Conventional Ethics, stemming from the problem of defining the limits of the population that is to be included within the jurisdiction of the contract. There are no moral principles governing which rules can be contractually agreed to. So the rules decreed by the Social Contract must be considered arbitrary, and variable between societies. Different societies (contracting populations) will have different moral codes. No two social groups will have exactly the same set of Common Values. This is the natural result of the fact that the determination of who is the be considered as within the contracting population will differ between any two social groups because they will consist of separate sets of individuals each with their own individual sets of goals and priorities and self-interested view of what is mutually desirable.
There can be no standard that can be used to judge one set of moral codes as better or worse than another set. To a modern Canadian, to suggest that is it morally correct to mutilate a woman's genitals to deprive her of any chance to enjoy sexual relations would seem ludicrous. But to many brought up within Islam, this is the proper moral thing to do. To suggest to an orthodox Jew that they should enjoy a ham sandwich for lunch would be regarded as highly immoral and terribly irreverent. Therefore, the eating of pork or the mutilation of women cannot be regarded as inherently right or wrong in and of itself. It is a matter of social attitudes, which will vary from culture to culture. The moral code of your own social group has no special status. It is merely one among many equally acceptable standards of social behaviour. While a popular attitude among adherents of the "Multiculturalism" school of social etiquette, it tends to become less comfortable as the differences in cultural practices become wider. Is female circumcision morally acceptable or is it morally unacceptable abuse?
There can be no "Universal Truths" in Ethics. There can be no moral standards that hold for all peoples in all social units. Each social group will develop its own ethical truth, based on its own set of Common Values. If there are any congruencies between the ethical principles of two societies, it is coincidental or historical and not the result of any basic underlying Ethical Universal. Rawls' "veil of ignorance" does not address this concern, because even behind the veil, people from different cultures will view the contract negotiations from differing perspectives. It is therefore mere arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other cultures, with their own socially contracted system of ethics, against our own moral standards. It was morally right for the Romans to keep slaves, and to hold jousts to the death in the Coliseum, and to indulge in infanticide of baby girls in favor of baby boys. That we regard these things as terribly immoral is irrelevant. The Common Values of their culture made these activities Morally correct. It is what those peoples would have agreed to even "behind the veil of ignorance" because that was their culture.
Finally, there is the "Deep Genesis" challenge. Are the rules and restrictions, duties and rights, that arise out of the (theoretical and hypothetical) contract negotiations simply arbitrary? Or is there something deeper that makes some particular contract results "better" than others? In the social contract that "governs" the morality of Modern Western civilization, women are considered to have the same moral and legal status as men. In the social contract that "governs" the morality of many Islamic countries, that is not the case. Is one better approach better than the other? Why? The Hobbesian strain of Social Contract Ethics appeals to the moral agent's self-interest to respond to the challenge of "Why be Moral"? The rules agreed to in the contract are supposedly in the moral agent's best interests -- all things considered. But what constitutes the moral agent's best interests? Is it just their arbitrary whimsy? Or is there a deeper genesis behind the concept of a person's "self-interest"? The Kantian strain of Social Contract Ethics appeals to the dictates of reason to respond to the challenge of "Why Be Moral?" The rules agreed to in the contract are supposed to be dictated by the principles of reason. But what motivates the moral agent to be rational? And what is it to be rational? Is there a deeper genesis underlying what sorts of behavior and motivations we consider "rational"?
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(1) Muthoo, Abhinary; "A Non-Technical Introduction to Bargaining Theory" at URL=<https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/amuthoo/publications/simpbarg.pdf>.