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’.

Simplified Marxist dialectics

Mia asked:

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Mia, may I say that if you are studying dialectical materialism in middle school then you are already intellectually advanced! Most people never study this subject, and I was only introduced to it at university.

However, I personally, would never apply dialectic materialism to understanding natural history and evolution: as it is designed to be applied to understanding the pressures working within and shaping societies. Different mechanisms work within nature and I do not feel qualified to pass comment here.

What follows is my own basic interpretation of the matter. Quite simply, a society would be structured on the assumption that the people in charge, group A, would wish to keep their privileged position and construct laws to maintain this arrangement. In doing so, they keep the people who are not in charge, group B, effectively oppressed.

While this situation continues, group B would gain knowledge or develop new material technologies or develop new material needs and desires. This force from below would eventually overturn group A’s superiority, possibly by revolution, and group B would then be in charge of society.

While group B are in charge, they repeat the behaviour of the previous rulers by maintaining their privileged position and constructing legislation to uphold this arrangement. In doing so, they keep a new group of people who are not in charge, group C, effectively oppressed.

Group C would be expected to gain knowledge and develop new material requirements and the process of new groups in society asserting their authority would continue with group C becoming dominant. On some accounts this process would continue forever, and on other accounts, a state of abundant material wealth would emerge negating the need for further changes of a ruling group.

This sort of approach is often credited to Marx and Engels although their ideas built upon Hegel’s previous theorising. Marxists, communists and socialists often favour this approach as it allows an understanding of the development of western societies. For instance, societies where the royalty acted as dictators gave way to feudalism when a wider aristocracy asserted its authority and demanded a share of power; liberal societies replaced feudalism as the bourgeois asserted their authority and again gained a share of power. However, this approach can also be used to anticipate what future societies may look like:  to explain, socialist societies may expect to replace liberal societies when the majority of workers assert their authority and relieve the bourgeois of their power.

For further reading, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Karl Marx ( ) and section 4.3 entitled ‘Functional Explanation’ is particularly useful here. Also, the Wikipedia entry on Dialectical materialism ( describes how persons following Marx and Engels have interpreted and used this theory. With regards to predicting the future and explaining why socialism has not yet overturned liberalism, you might like to read my previous article entitled, Why did Marxism Fail?

Are there basic, universal virtues?

Celo asked:

Are there any basic universal virtues? Do virtues change based on time, place and social context?

Answer by Paul Fagan

If we accept that human beings evolved from apes, which had to live together in some harsh environments, then it would be sensible to assume that virtues evolved and allowed them to survive this experience. For instance, the virtue of sharing would have been essential in order to share food in times of scarcity. But prior to sharing food, one would have to realise that one of your compatriots was hungry and this would require one to have the virtue of compassion. From this simple scenario, it should be noticeable that plural virtues were seemingly necessary for the survival of our ancestors. Hence, it may be expected that there should be basic, universal virtues lodged within human beings.

The problem for our ancestors is that they may have also had to face adversity of such a magnitude that it outweighed these basic virtues. For instance, if you only could obtain enough food to ensure your own survival, then you would need to be able to override both virtues of sharing and compassion. Consequently, the basic virtues may have been accompanied by an innate rationale which was also important.

With regard to the second part of your question, inquiring whether virtues change with time, place and social context, then it is certainly true that moralities may change on this basis: the society that one finds oneself in often sets the morality that one believes to be righteous (please see my previous articles What is a moral environment? and The consequences of cultural relativism). To explain, if a society exists with little food, then eating moderately may be considered to be a virtue: in order to ensure food for all. However, in a society with an abundance of food, having a voracious appetite may be considered virtuous: as less food would go to waste. Here differing virtues have been constructed, and although both are based upon the asset of food, they differ markedly due to food’s availability.

Although we may see ethical values changing both through time and place, there would be opponents to the above argument, who may claim that too much emphasis is being placed upon the exterior behaviour of persons. They may believe that there is a deeper, underlying morality that links human beings: for example, they may note that whatever society we live in, we all feel the same disgust when our leaders abuse their positions of power to enrich themselves. The problem here is that not all persons would be disgusted and some may be pleased that their leaders have done ‘well’ for themselves; moreover they may wish to do likewise if placed in the same position of power. Hence, a complex tapestry of virtues and rationale seem to be operating at all times

In concluding, although there are specific values that we may recognise as virtues, they are often intertwined with other values that we may not. It is not an area where philosophers may give a simple answer, and it may be worth the inquisitive reader’s while to consult with psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists in order to gain a fuller view.

Rawls and justifiable inequality

Isaiah asked:

When discussing Rawls, do you believe that some inequality is justifiable in order to maximise the well-being of the worst off?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Life is full of inequality and whether one accepts this, wishes to eradicate this, or wishes to mitigate this, will depend upon one’s personal viewpoint. Rawls wished to lessen the inequality of societies and his stance is now explained.

If we accept that the worst off are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, as Rawls did, then many would feel obliged to tackle this problem. Rawls’ feelings upon the matter are explained in great detail in his book entitled A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999: 57-73): in particular, Rawls considered distributions of material wealth based upon talent to be unreasonable and he justified this position by describing how talent is distributed by a ‘natural lottery’ and how ‘this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective’ (Rawls 1999: 64).

In tackling the problem, Rawls offered his difference principle, which may be viewed as a device that allows the most favoured groups to benefit from their talents provided any social and economic inequalities are ‘to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged’ (Rawls 1999: 266). Rawls effectively helps the worst off by harnessing persons’ collective desires to better themselves and maintains a profit motive within society in order to do this.

As already noted, individuals will have very differing views as to whether this is the correct approach to take and many other schools of political philosophy are highly critical of Rawls and a few of their views are now aired. Libertarians would number amongst the critics, and Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia felt that Rawls erroneously viewed the ‘natural abilities’ of the individual as a ‘collective asset’ (Nozick 1974: 228-9). Libertarians may wish to increase the level of the profit motive in order to benefit society; based on the rationale that more goods will be available to society if the talented can exercise their talents fully. Whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, many communitarians would favour a system where the least talented are incorporated within working life: as opposed to being assured an improvement in their well-being due to their disadvantage. Here, cooperation is far more important than competition and communitarians would believe that a happier society should arise.

Furthermore, some commentators would see internal faults within the difference principle. Many alleged faults of Rawls’ work are described in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (Kymlicka 2002: 70-75). In particular, one criticism that is influenced by his work would indicate that the difference principle could result in a grossly unfair arrangement for the hardest workers. To explain, if enough people in a society prefer the good of leisure time to the good of money, then they will not work too hard, and it will fall disproportionately upon society’s hardest workers to improve the lot of the worst off.

In this light, gaining a single person’s opinion as to the validity of Rawlsian thinking will possibly not give the best judgement on his work. It should be noted that it will be decided by a society as a whole, and not by individuals, whether they wish to live via Rawlsian principles. In fact, the reader may like to view the following video clip produced by The School of Life that explains Rawls’ motives and influences: . It is interesting that the video asserts that the application of Rawlsian principles would produce societies similar to those of Denmark and Switzerland, and if the video is right and you also admire these countries, then you would probably feel that Rawls’ thinking is justifiable.

Knowledge versus ethics

Kenneth asked:

Which is better, being knowledgeable or being ethical?

Answer by Paul Fagan

At first glance, the way this question is phrased seemingly begs a simplistic answer, but with some consideration a few differing answers may be uncovered and three are illustrated here.

Firstly, from an individual viewpoint very subjective answers may arise. If being knowledgeable is considered to be paramount to living a worthwhile life, then a person holding this opinion will tend to view being knowledgeable as being better. Of course, some will hold the opposite view.

However, from a second collective viewpoint, the question is intriguing as there seems to be a very strong relationship between being ethical and having knowledge. As an example, those living in the present age will generally be aware that climate change is occurring and that it needs to be tackled. But consider the following scenarios detailing how persons who are not equipped with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change may be perceived:

  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who inadvertently tackles the problem will be perceived as a person who lives a good life.
  1. A person without knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive will be perceived as a blameless person.

In these two examples, those without effective knowledge would not really be judged as acting either particularly ethically or particularly unethically.

However, notice how the addition of knowledge into the mix intensifies the judgment that may be collectively felt:

  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle change and who tackles the problem will be expected to be held in high esteem.
  1. A person with the knowledge of how to tackle climate change and who remains inactive can be expected to be held in low esteem.

The introduction of knowledge into the equation allows persons to be perceived as more ethical if they act upon that knowledge, as in case 3: but it also allows persons who ignore that knowledge to be perceived as the most unethical, as in case 4.

A consensus of opinion is likely to give most praise to the person who is both knowledgeable and ethical, and supporters of such a view may argue that being knowledgeable is ‘better’ as the most ethical behaviour is dependent upon first acquiring knowledge.

However, a third point should be noted: being knowledgeable does not necessarily mean that you will act ethically, as in case 4. Certainly, human beings often act irrationally, are not perfect and may even make choices that are not in their own interest. Hence, some may argue that acting ethically for its own sake, as in case 1, should be valued as a better life as it has not been tainted by human failings; moreover, some may even encourage living such a life and following the person’s actions.

Overall, individual subjectivity, human collective psychology and reasoning may give different opinions as to whether knowledge or ethical behaviour is a superior good. Bearing these in mind, readers may be asked to arrive at their own opinion on the matter.

Robin Hood’s moral tendencies

Julia asked:

How did Robin Hood act if one judges his motifs according to the ethical models of Immanuel Kant, the principle of usefulness of J. Bentham and J. Mill?

Answer by Paul Fagan

The actions of Robin Hood, in particular his ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’, have provided many philosophers with food for thought for many years. In particular he provides a dilemma for deontologists such as Kantians; often leaving the way for many to claim that his actions were utilitarian in nature, providing actions that Benthamites and followers of the Mill family may promote. In fact, before reading this piece, the reader may initially like to visit an interesting and succinct website entitled ‘Moral Dilemmas – The Robin Hood Problem’ (

For deontology, the dilemma may be briefly described here. Robin Hood’s actions would satisfy notions of Kant’s ‘good will’ as they are directly acting out a moral obligation by assisting those in need: nevertheless, the act of robbing a person is using that person as a ‘means’ to produce a result, when according to Kantian theory, people should only ever be used as ‘ends’.

Such dilemmas have generated a seemingly continual stream of discussion and have necessitated Kant’s original work to be adapted and modified (and should the reader be interested the pros and cons of deontology, further reading is provided by Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy’s entry entitled ‘Deontological Ethics’

That said, the dilemma leaves room for the individual observer’s own feelings to be exercised and show partiality: if a person values the act of helping the needy they would favour the first horn of the dilemma, while those upholding the notion that persons should always be considered as ‘ends’ would favour the second.

Moving to look at the situation form a utilitarian perspective, then such difficulties would not expect to be as pronounced. Immediately, a redistribution of goods in the manner of Robin Hood, would cause an increase in overall happiness, or utility, in society. Of course, the persons being robbed would suffer some grief but if they were robbed of goods that they could spare, then the utility value of these goods when given to the needy would be enormous. To elucidate, if Robin Hood robbed five coats from a man with a wardrobe full of coats, and distributed the proceeds of the robbery to five shivering persons, then the whole of society benefits! Five persons may now go about their business, and although the victim may be upset, on balance the asset of five coats being used in society, rather than residing in a wardrobe, should really benefit of all.

Additionally, utilitarian acts may often be judged by their long term results. For instance, if the persons newly equipped with coats, now produce long lasting goods as a consequence of their warmer life, such as building houses that may be used in the future, then an aggregating amount of utility benefits society.

To conclude, Robin Hood’s actions are problematic for deontologists but he may be viewed far more favourably by utilitarians.