Wednesday 10/24

Contractarianism II

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Synopsis

Last time we considered and rejected an odd sort of consequentialist theory, one which privileges ones own interests over the interests of anyone else. Conceived as a moral normative (that is to say, prescriptive) theory about how we ought to act, Ethical Egoism fares pretty poorly. Why consider it at all?

Well, it is popular in some circles, which is always a good reason for discussing a theory, if only to be well-armed against it. Today, however, we considered Ethical Egoism not as a prescriptive moral theory, but as a descriptive moral theory--a theory which tells us not how we ought to act but in fact tells us how we typically or usually do act.

Indeed, the fact that people tend towards Ethical Egoism in justifying their actions was an important starting point for the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' ideas.

Hobbes, of Leviathan fame, realized that there are four important facts of the human condition, one of which is that people behave according to a limited altruistic (= limited Ethical Egoist) perspective. What this means is that people will generally act so as to promote their own interests, and perhaps the interests of just a few other people as well.

A second fact of the human condition is that there is a scarcity of resources. There simply isn't enough food or energy to go around, and the problem is getting worse.

A third fact of the human condition is that there is an equality of need. Each person has basically the same needs as the person next to them.

Finally, there is an equality of ability. Even though one person may be stronger or smarter than another, weaknesses like having to sleep and eat even out abilities in such a way that even the smartest and strongest have roughly the same abilities and liabilities as everyone else.

These four facts jointly entail the famous hobbesian state of nature; our challenge is to understand how to avoid the state of nature.

Recall that among the four important facts of the human condition, one is that people behave according to a limited altruistic (= limited Ethical Egoist) perspective. What this means is that people will generally act so as to promote their own interests, and perhaps the interests of just a few other people as well.

Now, all four facts put together imply the State of Nature, according to Hobbes. The State of Nature is not a happy state to be in. In fact it is a terrible, each man/woman for him/her self sort of state. It is something to be avoided at all costs.

Indeed, today we went on to show, using the People-Kibble example, how all these facts put together imply the State of Nature. The State of Nature, we found, is the opposite of one for all and all for one; it is each against each, each against all, and all against each.

Once we understand how the Four Hobbesian Facts of the Human Condition jointly entail the State of Nature, we recognize that eliminating any one of them allows us to avoid the State of Nature. That is, given sufficient resources, or different needs, or different abilities, or an altruistic nature, we halt our decent into the grim world Hobbes envisions.

Why, though, is being mostly egoistic so problematic? Isn't the point of ethical egoism to pursue our best interests, individually? Further, how do we avoid the state of nature?

The upshot of our discussion today is that we can avoid the state of nature provided we form a social contract with one another for our mutual benefit. This social contract, which is ordinarily implicit, consists of all the rules necessary for social living.

To see why ethical egoism is ultimately self-defeating and to help us grasp the concept of mutual benefit, we drew upon the classic Prisoner's Dilemma. The Prisoner's Dilemma was Hobbes' way of understanding how acting in our individual best interests as the Ethical Egoist would have it actually, and paradoxically, works against our individual best interests. We find that we are individually better off if we do what is not in our individual best interests and instead do what is in our mutual best interests.

According to Hobbes, this is the fundamental reason for the existence of the state. The state exists to make sure that everyone cooperates so that we can avoid the State of Nature. (Please note that this is a very simplistic summary of Hobbes' Leviathan.) At root the state is founded on principles which are necessary for social living. By considering principles necessary for social living, we construct the moral theory known as Social Contract Theory (SCT).

Next time we will conclude our discussion of Social Contract Theory by discussing a strategy for applying the theory: The Veil of Ignorance Strategy.

We concluded our discussion of Social Contract Theory today by reviewing the lessons of the Prisoners' Dilemma and discussing a strategy for applying the theory: The Veil of Ignorance Strategy. Consider the following case, which you might find helpful in thinking about how Social Contract Theory can be brought to bear on ethical dilemmas.

Case C

Now, our major moral normative theories--Utilitarianism (in all its forms), Kantian Ethical Theory (also known as deontology), and Social Contract Theory presuppose that the point of developing moral normative theory is to provide a kind of moral calculus which can sort actions into morally obligatory, morally permissible, and morally impermissible categories.

Yet it is agents--persons, that is--who act. Perhaps in focusing on their actions to the exclusion of them we get started down the wrong track. Instead we should be looking at the character of the agent and seeking to understand what makes for a person's having a good character versus a bad character. We take up this alternative next time after Quiz IV