PHIL 2304 Discussion Global Ethics Social Contract

March 8, 2022
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PHIL 2304 Discussion Global Ethics Social Contract

PHIL 2304 Discussion Global Ethics Social Contract

Do we have to sign into a social contract in order to live better lives? Why or why not? If you believe we do have to sign into a contract what are the basic tenants of this contract? If you believe we don’t, then how would life look better without this social contract?

Essay should be 2 to 3 pages long

The social contract was introduced by early modern thinkers—Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and John Locke the most well-known among them—as an account of two things: the historical origins of sovereign power and the moral origins of the principles that make sovereign power just and/or legitimate. It is often associated with the liberal tradition in political theory, because it presupposes the fundamental freedom and equality of all those entering into a political arrangement and the associated rights that follow from the principles of basic freedom and equality. From that starting point, often conceptualized via the metaphor of a “state of nature”, social contract theory develops an account of political legitimacy, grounded in the idea that naturally free and equal human beings have no right to exercise power over one another, except in accordance with the principle of mutual consent.

The social contract captures a consensus, sometimes built on explicit consent, sometimes on tacit consent, and sometimes it operates as a hypothetical account of what associates ought to consent to if they are reasoning well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau captured the hypothetical account of consensus with his idea of the “general will” (where associates reach consensus by privileging their collective interest over their particular interest) and the “will of all” (where the particular interests associates are aggregated without regard for the collective interest). Much more recently, John Rawls continued building on Rousseau’s argument by making an analogous argument through what he calls the “veil of ignorance” (behind which associates derive principles of justice without any knowledge the social, political, or economic status they may hold in the society they are envisioning). For both Rousseau and Rawls, these concepts are intended not as empirical accounts of how human beings reason but as normative accounts of how they ought to reason. In his adaptation of social contract theory to the international contest, Rousseau wrote, “Doubtless, this is not to say that the Sovereigns will adopt this Plan; (Who can answer for anyone else’s reason?) but only that they would adopt it if they consulted their true interests”[1] Likewise, in his account of the domestic social contract, Rousseau concedes that citizens may subvert the general will in favor of their particular will: “the general will is always right…. But it does not follow that the people’s deliberations always have the same rectitude.”[2]

I. Historical Origins of Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory follows from the principle of basic freedom and equality, but the idea’s genealogy originates as an alternative to critique the dominant theory of political legitimacy in medieval Europe. Prior to the work of Hobbes, Grotius, and Locke, the predominant view of political legitimacy drew on the patriarchal power of fathers over their children, going all the way back to the power granted by God to Adam. When Adam died, his eldest descendant inherited his authority by primogeniture. As ensuing generations were born, power continued to be passed on in this manner, from each head of household to his eldest descendant. Eventually, peoples divided and nations were formed, but all power continued to be derived from God and the principle primogeniture remained the standard by which sovereign power could be deemed legitimate. This account of sovereign power was articulated most prominently by Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha, published posthumously in 1680. For Filmer, the basic premise of social contract theory—that people were born free and equal, no one with authority over another—was both fiction and inconsistent with the word of God.[3]

According to Filmer, political relationships and obligations flow from historical and familial relationships and customs. Locke took on this argument directly in the first treatise of his Two Treatises of Government, published in 1689. In the second half of the text, Locke went on to describe an alternative to the Biblical, Filmerian account of political legitimacy. On Locke’s model, and on the model of all social contract theorists, individuals are extracted from the socio-historical constraints that Filmer emphasized and placed in an artificial construct, usually called a “state of nature.” From this starting point, social contract theory asserts the principle of consent in the place of primogeniture as the basis of political legitimacy.

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II. Elements of the Social Contract

There are two principal elements to the social contract. The first is an initial pre-political situation called a “state of nature” by the modern philosophers and the “original position” by Rawls, the most significant contemporary exponent of social contract theory. In this initial situation, all individuals are equal, they are all situated symmetrically relative to one another, and they all have some incentive to leave the initial situation in favor of some relative advantage gained by entry into civil society. The second element is a normative characterization of the parties to the contract. The parties are described as (1) motivated by self-interest, in as much as they will only agree to the contract if they perceive that they will benefit from social interaction; (2) concerned for the welfare of others, if only because they recognize that the advantages they expect to derive from the social contract will be conditional on their willingness to guarantee the same advantages to their counterparts; and (3) rational or reasonable with respect to the way they understand their own interests, the interests of others, and the just or moral principles that ought to govern their pursuit of those interests.

III. Questions Addressed by Social Contract Theory

As noted above, social contract theory has an empirical dimension and a normative dimension. The empirical dimension, which will be referred to as the question of “Origins” offers a historical account of the origins of the state. The normative dimension of social contract theory is an account of the principles of justice that make the state legitimate. Within the normative dimension of social contract theory, it is useful to distinguish between two more specific questions typically addressed in social contract theory: (1) What are the principles of justice that bind citizens in their relations with one another?; and (2) Under what conditions may the state legitimately act as the ultimate arbiter in relations among citizens? The social contract theory answers to both of these questions builds on consent, applied first to the principles of justice that govern in society and then to the establishment of a sovereign or state endowed with legitimate powers of coercion. In the rest of this article, the former will be addressed as the question of “Justice” and the latter as the question of “Legitimacy.”

While social contract theory begins, most notably in the work of Hobbes and Locke, as an account of the origins and legitimacy of the state, later thinkers like Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls have applied social contract theory to the international arena as well (drawing in part on Grotius’s outline of international justice in On the Laws of War and Peace). In these applications, states replace citizens as the parties to the social contract. The Justice component of social contract theory can be useful in thinking through the terms of international treaties, such as the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War (in which states mutually consent to the humane treatment of prisoners) or the UN Declaration of Human Rights (in which states commit themselves to work toward the realization of a variety of human rights). The Legitimacy component of social contract theory can be used to justify the alienation of power to the International Criminal Court or even to the UN itself.

IV. Application to the International Arena: Rousseau and Kant

The social contract offers an appealing justification of political power, because it reconciles the power of the state with the freedom and equality of each associate. For this reason, some have asked whether the social contract could be generalized beyond relations between the citizens of a single state to relations among states. Rousseau argues that states, like individuals, have an incentive to enter into a contractual relationship when there is “no common and constant rule for judging” the claims made by one against another.[4] Rousseau calls this contract a confederation, in which each party relinquishes any aspiration it may have for conquest in exchange for a guarantee that they will not be attacked by any of the contracting parties: “it is good for [the Powers of Europe] to renounce what they desire in order to secure what they possess.”[5]

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