Summary of “The idea of a Social Contract” from The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels

An explanation (in catalan) about "The idea of a Social Contract" from 
The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels.

Hobbes’s argument

Let us think there is no God, no altruism nor moral facts. What is the role of moral in this situation? Thomas Hobbes, who was arguably the foremost British philosopher of the 17th century, thought of moral as rules for living in society. From the point of view of Hobbes, human beings are not bad, they just have needs, and in order to understand that, we have to analyze the four basic facts about the condition of human life by him: first, we have all same basic needs, but we are alike in other needs (equality of need). Second, our resources are limited, which means we all have to fight for surviving (scarcity). Third, no one is so superior to else (the essential of human power). Last but not least, even people is not selfish no one will lose in a conflict of interests (limited altruism).

Hobbes theorized that when we do not (or did not) cooperate between ourselves then we stay (or stayed) in the state of nature, a state without government, laws, police or courts. In conclusion, the state of nature is a continual fear and danger of violent death. To escape from the state of nature we need to cooperate which means having a guarantee: not to harm one another, and to establish rules called the social contract. To sum up, in words of James Rachels: “the state exists to enforce the most important rules necessary for social living, while morality consists in the whole set of rules that facilitate social living”.

 The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Imagine you live in a totalitarian country, and suddenly the police arrest you. You realize they are just looking for a scapegoat. Moreover, they give you two choices: confess against Mr. Smith or not confess against him.

You do not know anything about Mr. Smith, but you know they offered him the same options. In addition, they said to you and Mr. Smith that depending on your choices you will stay a long time in prison, a few years, or none. As you can see in the table if both of you do not confess there will be a penalty of a year for both of you, however if one confesses and the other one does not, the one who did not confess will “enjoy” 10 years in jail. At last but not least, if both of you confess your penalty will be shared: 5 years per person. Besides, you know he will soon choose in another room, so you cannot talk to him for an agreement.

Morality as the solution to a Prisoner’s-Dilemma-type problem

This hypothetical situation of Prisoner’s Dilemma is more common than we believe, because is just a situation with two specific conditions: what other people do affect your interests and a paradoxical situation where if you pursue your individual interest it could be worse than pursuing the interest of both parties.

Probably you are asking yourself ‘what I should do?’. You can be benevolent [do not confess] or egoist [confess], and your partner too. At first, you can think that if you are egoist, you will make a good choice. Firstly, because you may become a free rider, which means you obtain all benefits. Secondly, because if both of you are egoist you go into a state of nature with no cooperation rules. However, the other one can think the same as you, and then, no one can realize their objective: stay in jail the shortest time possible. Therefore, the second best option, called ordinary morality (both of you are benevolent), is actually the best option to fix the dilemma. Because of that, you must think upon a cooperative way and you need to obey the rules of mutually respectful social living.

Some Advantages of the Social Contract Theory of Morals

What moral rules are we bound to follow, and how are those rules justified?

Some moral rules are necessary (prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying…) if we want to cooperate. However, there are other rules, which we considered as morals, and they are not necessary (prohibition of prostitution, sodomy and sexual promiscuity). In that case, according to the social contract, if a rule does not threaten you, it is out of your business. We can say that this is reasonable in long-term life in a society in which the rules are accepted to our advantage.

Under what circumstances are we allowed to break the rules?

We have justified the punishment of lawbreakers’ behavior in a two different ways. First, because the State have to enforce the primary rules necessary for social living. Second, because they have violated the fundamental condition of reciprocity, that consists of agreeing to obey the rules on the condition others obey them as well.

Now, suppose you must choose between your own death and the death of five other people. You can think in order to be moral that you must to sacrifice yourself, but the Social contract theory argues that if the contract gave up your live, you are no better off than you were in the state of nature and then, the social contract would not have sense.

Does morality have an objective basis?

If we think as a social contract’s thinker we can determinate whether a particular act is morally acceptable by seeing whether it conforms to the rules. So it is not about custom or feeling, and the moral term “objective” disappears from our vocabulary.

The Problem of Civil Disobedience

Sometimes when a law is unjust, people think that they must refuse to obey it. However, some liberals denied that kind of disobeying because it is not legitimate. As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “The end justifies the means, even though the means are regrettable”. Moreover, what does the Social Contract suggest?

In order to gain the benefits of social living, we have to obey the institutions (obey law, pay taxes, and so on) that make it possible. However, if institutions do not provide to a group the terms of the contract, we can think that the contract is not being honored. In addition, if that group does not demand their clauses in the agreement, we can think that they accept the disadvantages. So they must, by “last resort”, deny their unjust treatment and get back the terms of the contract.

Difficulties for the Theory

There are two problems of the theory:

First, that Social Contract Theory is a historical fiction. It is known that Social Contract is a fiction in order to explain how people are. We know that nobody has ever signed a specific contract for improving our social living. Nevertheless, it is true that social contract is a kind of implicit contract, just like when you play a game. You do not sign any paper, but as everybody, you know the rules of the game.

Second, that theory does not work with animals and mental people. That is the most important difficulty for that theory because social contract does not take care about animals neither people with mental problems or people who have special needs. That theory only establish relations between normal people.


About - Àlex Agustí Polis -

Àlex Agustí Polis (Girona, 1991) Sóc blocaire, lletraferit, japonòfil empedernit i cinèfil encuriosit. Eclècticament esportista corredor i excel·lent gourmet.

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