Welcome to Part 2 of my discussion of Will Kymlicka's essay on social contract theories in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics.
In Part 1, I covered the history of the social contract tradition. I closed by pointing out the flaws in the initial attempts to put meat onto the bones of the social contract. In this post, I look at Kymlicka's discussion of two more contemporary approaches to the social contract.
These two approaches have different visions of the purpose of a social contract. The first approach sees the social contract as an agreement for mutual advantage. That is: as a a mechanism for placing rational constraints on self-interested behaviour. This school of thought draws on insights from Thomas Hobbes and so is known as Hobbesian Contractualism.
The second approach sees the social contract as an impartial procedure that secures some ideal of equality or justice. Writers in this school of thought often draw inspiration from Kant's third variation of the categorical imperative: that people should be respected as ends in themselves not as means to an end. Given this inspiration, this variation on the social contract is called Kantian Contractualism.
Let's look at the merits and demerits of each approach.
1. Hobbesian Contractualism
Hobbesians embrace the supposed moral neutrality of the natural world (in which we are embedded). They claim that scientific inquiry proves there are no natural or innate moral rights or duties. Instead, there is a natural psychology of preference satisfaction, with all preferences being of equal worth.
This implies that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a preference to kill another person. However, if preferences like this were to be generally satisfied, it would be detrimental to my interests and to the interests of others. Thus, it is mutually advantageous to place some constraints upon our ability to satisfy our preferences. The role of social contract is to work out what these constraints should be. The contract is what emerges when self-interested people bargain in the interests of mutual advantage.
This results in the construction or artifice of a moral order. We can only really talk about "right" and "wrong" once this order has been constructed. In other words, we cannot speak of natural rights: rights are created in the contract.
Hobbesianism is predicated on an assumption of factual equality. It is believed that people are roughly equal in their capacity to harm and be harmed. It is this rough equality that allows for the contract in the interests of mutual advantage to be made.
However, there are some problems with this concept of equality. First, it is not necessarily true that all people are roughly equal: the elderly, the young, the diseased and the disabled may not have the ability to harm others in equal measure. It would seem that they could be ignored in the Hobbesian compact.
Second, technology affects equality. It may do so in a positive or negative way. On the positive side, it may help to level the playing field between the able-bodied adults and the disabled. This may force us to bring these seemingly disadvantaged people within the terms of the social contract. On the negative side, unequal access to technology may perpetuate or accentuate innate differences.
Kymlicka thinks Hobbesianism is fatally counter-intuitive, that it overturns too many basic intuitions that we have about morality. For example, in the fact that it sees rights as the product of the social contract, not the foundation for a social contract. He thus thinks Hobbesianism should be viewed as an alternative to morality, not a variant thereof.
This conclusion seems unwarranted. Hobbesianism is deliberately counter-intuitive (albeit "rational" according to its proponents). And it is not a form of nihilism. It allows for genuine right and wrong to emerge from the compact.
2. Kantian Contractualism
The second, and perhaps more popular, version of contemporary social contract theory looks to the contract as a device for ensuring equality. The most famous invocation of this comes in the shape of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. And I will focus on it here.
Unlike the Hobbesian, the Kantian thinks individual human beings have an innate or natural moral worth ("ends not means"). This innate worth validates a substantive moral equality. This is very different from the factual equality used by Hobbesians.
For Rawls, the social contract is a hypothetical, but useful, device for making determinate the basic intuitions of justice that are shared by equally worthy human beings. The key to a legitimate social contract is that it must be made in a situation that respects this equal moral worth.
The problem for Rawls is that we are not now, nor were we ever, in such a state. Society is often profoundly unequal: accident of birth can lead to privilege or privation. What we need is some thought experiment that abstracts us away from the present state of inequality.
This is where Rawls invokes the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance". The original position is an artificial and hypothetical situation that guarantees impartial bargaining over the contents of the social contract. In this original position, each person is placed behind a veil of ignorance. This veil prevents them from knowing where they will end up in the new social order: they could be a pauper or a prince.
Because they do not know where they will end up, the people will try to ensure that the contract "raises the floor" as much as possible. In other words, they will try to ensure that wealth is distributed as equally as possible, with any surplus going to the poor.
The problem for Rawls and other Kantians arise from the presumptions they make about people's intuitions of justice. For example, Rawls assumes that people in the original position will be prudential, i.e. they will try limit the risk to themselves that might stem from the new social order. But it may be that people are willing to gamble because they prefer a system that rewards effort and risk-taking.
Rawlsianism has proved popular among moral psychologists, who often try to manufacture an "original position" and explore how people might really bargain in such a scenario. This can help determine whether Rawls's intuition of prudence was correct. This theme is explored in some depth in Marc Hauser's book Moral Minds.