Skip to main content

Contractualism

CONTRACTUALISM

Contractualism, as a distinctive account of moral reasoning, was originally advanced by T. M. Scanlon in his widely admired paper "Contractualism and Utilitarianism" (1982) and was later elaborated on in detail in his book What We Owe to Each Other (1998). Drawing on an understanding of the significance of the social-contract metaphor that has its roots in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, rather than Thomas Hobbes, contractualism offers distinctive and interrelated answers to two central questions of philosophical theorizing about moral reasoning. First, what explains the importance of morality for people motivated to comply with the requirements of morality? Second, what kinds of reasons support judgments that particular acts or types of acts are right or wrong? Consequentialism provides what is undoubtedly the most familiar answer to this question. Contractualism seeks to provide a plausible alternative.

The contractualist account of why those who seek to comply with the requirements of morality care about being so guided presupposes a general approach to understanding the nature of value. The central idea of the presupposition is that to take something to be of value is to have reasons to regard it positively and reasons to act in certain ways with regard to it, some of which are required by the value of the thing in question. For instance, one's appreciation of the value of The Last Supper might take the form of planning trips to go and admire it, watching documentaries about it, reading scholarly works that deepen one's appreciation of it, worrying about its deterioration due to age, and debating the merits of various proposals to restore it with others who share one's passion.

Recognition of this value need not express itself in one's attitudes in these ways, though they are certainly rationally appropriate ways of responding to the value. But not all ways of engaging with something of value are optional. Some reasons for engaging with something of value in particular ways are reasons that all persons capable of making evaluative judgments are required to take account of in their practical deliberations. A person's indifference to The Last Supper does not alter the fact that he has reason not to ridicule or disparage it (even in his thoughts), not to urinate on it, not to attack it with a can of spray paint. These reasons, which are demanded by respect for the value of the The Last Supper, apply to all individuals irrespective of their particular tastes and inclinations. Such reasons can be usefully characterized as categorical reasons.

Just as there are categorical reasons that flow from the value of the The Last Supper, so there are categorical reasons that flow from the value of human life. The distinctive value of human life, on the contractualist account, lies in the human capacity to assess reasons and justifications, to select among various reasons for wanting one's life to go a certain way, and thus to actively live and govern one's life (Scanlon 1998, p. 105). We have reason, then, to have certain attitudes toward, and give consideration to, the interests of others in our practical deliberations, namely, out of respect for the value of others as rationally self-governing beings. Failure to do so is a rational mistake, a failure to respond appropriately to all the relevant reasons for our behavior. This conclusion follows from the theory of value presupposed by contractualism and a specific characterization of the value of human life, neither of which are distinctively contractualist.

In answering why complying with morality matters to people who are morally motivated, contractualism holds that there are more than just rational reasons for respecting the value of another human being. Intuitively, there is a significant difference between failing to respect the value of a human and the kind of failure of respect exhibited by, for instance, proposing to film a rock video in the Sistine Chapel or building a McDonald's on the Great Wall of China. What accounts for the difference, according to contractualism, is the value of mutual recognition. Rational creatures living their lives in ways respectful of one another's value as rational creatures creates a special relation between them, a moral community of the kind that Immanuel Kant called the "Kingdom of Ends" and "a systematic union of various rational beings through common laws" (1902, 4: 433). It is the kind of moral community that John Stuart Mill had in mind when he spoke of "unity with our fellow creatures." Respecting the value of others as persons, then, has a special importance for the morally motivated because they value the kind of relationship with others created by so living. This ideal of a moral community is at the heart of the contractualist characterization of moral reasoning.

Standards must guide individuals in their deliberations if they are to live on terms of respect for one another's value as persons. Contractualism characterizes these standards as principles for the general regulation of how individuals ought to deliberate in various situations. It asserts that those who care about the justifiability of their conduct toward similarly motivated others cannot reasonably reject these standards as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement. Thus, principles that the morally inclined cannot reasonably reject play an important interpersonal role in regulating how individuals should relate to one another. They do so by fixing the attitudes and treatment that individuals are entitled to legitimately demand, and have demanded, out of respect for each other's value as rational creatures. In other words, these principles fix legitimate expectations concerning how individuals should deliberate in various situations. On this account, one person wrongs another when he fails to regulate his deliberations as the other is legitimately entitled to expect.

Whether or not a principle cannot be reasonably rejected is assessed according to the implications (broadly construed) of licensing individuals to reason as required and permitted by the proposed principle. Contractualism is both more restrictive and more permissive than consequentialism concerning what counts as a relevant implication of a proposed principle. It is more restrictive in that it does not regard as relevant facts about the aggregate value of the outcome likely to result from general compliance with the principle. The only relevant considerations are those that have to do with the implications of a principle for the life of an individual with a particular point of view. Different relevant implications can emerge from consideration of a principle from different points of view. This restriction on relevant implications rules out appeals to the aggregate value of an outcome as relevant for assessing a principle. One outcome may be worse than another with respect to aggregate value without being worse from the point of view of each individual. Contractualism and consequentialism are thus diametrically opposed on the relevance of considerations having to do with the aggregate value of potential outcomes.

Contractualism is more permissive than consequentialism in counting, as relevant, considerations that have nothing do with what is likely to happen as a consequence of individuals being licensed to treat one another in certain ways. Consider, for example, a principle that licenses a designated authority periodically to force randomly chosen individuals to serve as test subjects for dangerous medical experiments. In addition to the consequences for the lives of some unlucky individuals, contractualism will also allow as relevant consideration of the fact that such a principle would turn the bodies of individuals into a form of public property. That is, it would undermine the exclusive authority of individuals concerning decisions about how their bodies are to be used, a prerogative that plays a fundamental role in an agent's understanding of his life as his own.

Assessing the validity of a principle requires both identifying the relevant considerations that ought to be taken into account in its assessment and combining them in a judgment about whether it is reasonable to reject the principle. Consequentialists claim that the right way to combine relevant implications of a principle is to aggregate their value. This sum is then compared to the aggregate value of the implications of possible alternatives. The valid principle is the one whose implications sum to the greatest aggregate value.

Contractualism adopts a different approach to this problem. Contractualism starts from the position that what the morally motivated person cares about is that his comportment toward another person be justifiable to that person as respectful of that person's value as a person. Justification to another requires that one's comportment toward the other be justified in light of what that person cares about. A principle is justifiable to a person, then, if he has reason to judge it to be justified (even if he himself does not recognize that reason) in light of the values that structure his particular point of view.

The central contractualist insight is that respect for the value of another as a person requires not merely that one take the implications of one's actions for that person's well-being into account, but that one be guided, in one's thinking about one's comportment toward that person, by a principle justifiable to that person. The impact of a possible principle on any person's well-being may be relevant to assessing the principle, but it will be so derivatively, as a consideration picked out as relevant by the master consideration of what is justifiable to that person. One's conduct may have negative implications for another, but if one has been guided by a principle justifiable to him, he has no grounds for complaint on the grounds that one has failed to give his interests the kind of consideration in one's deliberations that he is owed out of respect for his value as a person. If, in how one relates to another, one is guided by a principle that is justifiable to him, that principle can rightly be characterized as authorized by him.

Principles that no one can reasonably reject, then, enable individuals to relate to one another on terms of mutual respect for the value of one another as persons. They do so because a principle that no one can reasonably reject is justifiable to any individual from his point of view, provided at least that he values living with others on terms of mutual respect.

To arrive at a valid principle, we have to combine the implications of a proposed principle to arrive at an all-things-considered judgment about whether it is reasonable to reject the principle. At the heart of the contractualist approach to doing this is the requirement that a valid principle be justifiable to anyone from his own point of view. Assessing a proposed principle requires that one consider the point of view of the individual who stands to be most seriously burdened by it. Can such an individual reasonably reject the principle? On the contractualist account, that depends on the implications of a plausible alternative principle for those with other points of view. If every alternative principle to one that seriously burdens you will more seriously burden someone else, then you cannot reasonably reject the principle, as another individual's having to bear a burden that could be avoided by your bearing a lesser burden is justifiable to you. A valid principle is justifiable to the person who has the strongest reason for wanting to reject that principle.

This approach to how all the relevant implications of a principle are to be taken account of in an all-things-considered judgment of its validity stands in sharp contrast to that favored by consequentialist accounts. According to consequentialism, a principle that seriously burdens an individual can be justified by appeal to the aggregate value of the benefits secured under that principle for those with other points of view. Contractualism does not permit trade-offs of this kind among persons. A principle that seriously burdens you may secure benefits for others whose aggregate value outweighs the burden it places on you. But that fact has no bearing on whether the principle is justifiable to you, as it does not point to the viewpoint of another to whom any other principle, which does not so seriously burden you, would be justifiable. Under contractualism, our motivation for morality rules out aggregative considerations as relevant for the assessment of principles.

Consequentialism has a hard time making sense of commonsense prohibitions against treating others in certain abominable ways in circumstances where the consequences of doing so have great positive aggregate value. Nonconsequentialists argue that there is no problem in understanding the rationale for these prohibitions if one locates the basis for claims of wrongdoing in the very character of the prohibited way of treating others. One way of trying to articulate more clearly what the nonconsequentialist has in mind is the Kantian injunction to treat others, never as mere means, but always as ends in themselves. Contractualism, in locating the basis of a person's claim to have been wronged in his having been treated in a way not justifiable to him, powerfully illuminates the compelling insight to which Kant's injunction draws our attention.

See also Constructivism, Moral; Discourse Ethics; Hobbes, Thomas; Locke, John; Rawls, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Contract.

Bibliography

Kant, Immanuel. Gesammelte Schriften. Vols. 129. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1902. Page numbers of this edition are printed in the margin of translations in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant.

Scanlon, T. M. "Contractualism and Utilitarianism." In Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, 103128. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Rahul KumarM (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Contractualism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Contractualism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contractualism

"Contractualism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contractualism

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.