Social contracts and self-interest

Seth asked:

If we expect contractors to choose rules based on rational self-interest, does this mean that social contract theories are fundamentally flawed?

The tendency to celebrate, condone, or permit self-interest as a justified motivation for creating social contracts: is this the corrupted heart of Atlantis that Plato warned us about? Should we be concerned about Plato’s warning (why or why not?) What would have to be done to ensure that a social contract does not experience the kind(s) of social entropy that Plato was concerned about?

There seems to be no reason why contractors would protect non-contractors: e.g. animals, trees, infants, or even rational human beings who (sometimes arbitrarily) aren’t contractors. Is this a problem? Why or why not?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In answering this question I concentrate upon social contract theorists of the Enlightenment and do not refer to classical philosophers; as I feel the main thrust of the question can be answered without the latter. However, I answer this question in a generalised manner, as not to get tangled in any fine detail.

It is possibly a diversion to focus upon the topic of ’self-interest’ when discussing social contracts. Of course self-interest is an important element, but if enough people share exactly the same self-interest, then a mutual interest really exists. Moreover, due to the way that social contract theories entrench mutual interest they do not necessarily ‘celebrate’ self-interest.

Generally, social contracts, like any form of contract, require ‘give and take’ from both parties. For instance in Locke’s idea of a social contract individuals agree to give a part of their wealth to society in order for their property to be protected. Locke felt that people would form into commonwealths where this protected people’s property better than in a state of nature.

Another notable, early social contract theorist was Rousseau. In Rousseau’s thinking, persons could be guaranteed a state of equality that most individuals purportedly enjoyed in a primeval age, before persons were subsumed by the then unequal societies. This could be achieved by individuals trading much of the independence that they could have enjoyed in a primeval age, for a more equal but regulated life.

With regard to just who exactly would be able to contract, then it would be right to think that social contract theorists of the Enlightenment would exclude ‘animals’ and ‘trees’.  Enlightenment thinkers would tend to believe that nature should be tamed for humanity’s benefit. However, in the current era, there is no reason why modern social contract theories could not consider the environment: in fact both Locke’s and Rousseau’s work could be adapted to this effect, as they both contain elements that may moderate the human exploitation of the environment: Locke believed that persons should take ‘enough, and as good’ as others from the world (from his Two Treatises); whilst Rousseau was keen on persons using resources to maintain their ‘subsistence’ (from his Social Contract).

Again, enlightenment theorists being the product of their age, would undoubtedly feel that ‘infants’ should be respectful to their guardians. For both Locke and Rousseau, children would be expected to observe any contracts agreed by their guardians; until they could live independent lives. However, Enlightenment children could expect treatment akin to the standards of their age, and this would include being protected by their guardians. In order to construct a modern contract, current social contract theorists would be expected to honour human rights legislation where a child’s treatment would be codified.

Finally, with regard to ‘rational human beings’ who do not wish to contract, then it should be realised that it is difficult for persons in the modern age to opt out of them. Most societies operate on a basis that could be described as a contractual agreement and it almost impossible to avoid them: unless one deliberately moves to live in the wilderness and rejects all of society’s benefits. In the Enlightenment, Locke would have allowed persons to go without the protection of a contract where they had made their own choice, and he prized such personal freedom: however, Rousseau could not have been expected to condone this state of affairs as he believed that rational persons could adhere to a contract and go along with the ‘general will’ of a population (from his Social Contract).  Here, the last word may be left to another early social contract theorist, namely Thomas Hobbes, who believed that if rational persons chose not to contract and live without protection, then their lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

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