Morality as a social contract tries to find a basis for morality in self interest. It works on the premise that if we can show it’s in everyone’s self-interest to be moral, then everyone has a reason to be moral. Our self-interest is better served if we cooperate with others – the basis for a ‘social contract’ – we agree to restrict our own actions in return for others doing the same.
Hobbes was an English philosopher who agreed with the social contract theory. He claims that human beings are naturally self-interested but that it is rational for them to behave morally in order to maximise this self-interest.
Hobbes begins his account of the origins of morality by asking us to imagine the ‘state of nature’ – by this he means the condition humans
would have enjoyed prior to any social organisation.
He thought that all human actions are motivated by the effort to satisfy our own desires and improve our own situation. Because humans are naturally self-interested, in this state we all pursue benefits without qualms as there is no such thing as right and wrong: anything goes.
Do you think this is how we do naturally act? Explain your answer.
The downside of everyone doing whatever they please is that there are no restrictions on how people may treat others. People would be in competition with each other for food and resources and this means everyone will live in constant danger of being robbed or killed. The result would be a kind of ‘war against all’ in which each of us would live in continual fear and danger of violent death. Given that the state of nature is bad for everyone, Hobbes reckons it is rational for everyone to want to escape it. Since the only escape consists in following rules which require cooperation between people (a kind of social contract) it is rational for us to agree to follow such rules so long as we can rely on others to do so too. So Hobbes is claiming that there is no such thing as right and wrong independently of what is agreed by people living in civil society.
Do you think you can have a ‘good’ morality without conforming to the same morals of the civil society you’re living in or is Hobbes right?
Hobbes claims we are self-interested creatures. If this is true then even if we made an implicit contract with everyone else in society when it comes to the crunch surely we are going to break the contract before we risk our own skins. It can be argued that cooperation is a high risk strategy. The fear and distrust of others means we are all highly likely to opt out rather than risk being the one left dangling. So does this mean that even if we had made a Hobbesian contract to bind ourselves together with others we are bound to resort to self-interest? – clearly it is to my own advantage if others behave morally, but if I’m given the opportunity to cheat and steal why not do so? But then if it is in my interests to break the rules, then surely others will have reason to do the same and the system will quickly descend into anarchy.
To answer this problem, Hobbes says we need a powerful sovereign to enforce the law. So the social contract involves handing absolute power over to the state. It is only if we know breaking the rules is likely to lead to more harm than good for ourselves that we can be protected from our selfish natures and so gain from the benefits of cooperation.
Social agreements may not really be to our advantage as not everyone has the same to gain from cooperation and from restrictions on their power. A strong individual might only enter a contract which seemed advantageous and would be able to dictate the terms of the contract. So the theory seems to allow that the weaker might become enslaved by the stronger.
Justice may be to the advantage of the stronger. Marx suggests that morality is an expression of the ideology of the ruling class. Those in power regard certain behaviours as required by moral principles, namely those which are in their own class interests.
Societies could fall into anarchy. Hobbes has shown us why it may be prudent to act according to the dictates of morality in a situation where we are likely to be caught and punished for breaking the contract. However, in most societies we have ample opportunities to break moral rules. So why don’t all but the most totalitarian states fall into anarchy? Also, if Hobbes is right and we are by nature selfish then we should have no problems with doing the wrong thing to make gains for ourselves. But we do have, suggesting that perhaps Hobbes is wrong to say we are by nature selfish creatures.
The social contract doesn’t actually give us a reason for “morality”. If Hobbes is right that we can only trust ourselves to act morally because of the fear of being caught and punished then it may be argued that our motives are not genuinely moral. This criticism rests on the plausible contention that moral actions must be motivated by the desire to do good, and cannot be self-serving.
A more recent version of the contract approach to ethics comes from John Rawls. This tries to overcome the key problem with Hobbes’ approach that individuals will not enter into negotiation over a contract on equal footing, meaning that in the state of nature those who are stronger are going to gain advantages over the others. For Rawls it is essential to a just social arrangement that each of us should be free from fear or having their rights violated and so, even if I happen to be in a minority, the majority cannot act in a way which benefits them at my expense.
To ensure that we come up with a system of rules which doesn’t unfairly benefit anyone, Rawls reckons the contract needs to be negotiated from a position of equality. The position from which we must negotiate the rules by which civil society is going to be organised must be one in which we are unaware of the place in society we are going to hold. In Rawls’ words we must negotiate from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ which ensures our impartiality. This approach sees moral reasoning as intrinsically to do with adopting an impartial perspective and emphasises the importance of fairness.
Other thinkers argue that morality has nothing to do with social agreements and develop different accounts of what determines our moral obligations. For example, utilitarians argue that that the morally correct action is whatever promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number, meaning that it may well be morally correct to break an agreement if doing so is going to produce a net gain in human happiness. If this is right then social agreement cannot constitute what is moral, but at best reflect it. Other thinkers have regarded moral duties as given us by God, for example in the Ten Commandments, and so independent of social conventions.
Certain things are wrong regardless of social convention
The approaches outlined above, while differing as to the source of moral obligation, agree that there exist moral principles which are binding on us irrespective of whether we have agreed to them. In contrast, the view of morality as social convention implies that whatever the agreements are that a society happens to have made they must be moral. So, if it happens that in the society in which I live it is regarded as morally acceptable to keep slaves. But surely, the objection runs, whether or not certain things are morally right is independent of whether people happen to believe they are right and happen to have made an agreement that these things are acceptable. Even in a slave-keeping society where the citizens have agreed that keeping slaves is acceptable, it would still be wrong to keep slaves.
The social contract approach presupposes moral obligation
As mentioned before, we have considered why anyone should be obliged to keep a contract that they had not agreed to and we saw that the idea of a tacit agreement could not account for moral obligation. However, the problem here runs deeper. For even if I have made a tacit agreement or promise, what is the status of this promise? What kind of obligation could there be for me to keep this promise? Presumably the answer would have to be that I am morally obliged to do so. But if I have a moral obligation to keep the contract, then the contract cannot be used to explain where moral obligations come from. So it seems social contract theories cannot explain the concept of moral obligation since they presuppose it in saying that we ought to keep the promise to stick to the covenant. Some social contract theorists, such as Locke, regard the state of nature as one in which moral duties already exist, but in so doing theirs is no longer a theory of the origins of morality. Social contract theory must presuppose the existence of moral obligations before it can account for moral obligation. Someone who doesn’t already accept the need for moral obligation cannot make sense of the idea of being obliged to keep the contract.