Contractualism as the Foundation for Morality

What We Owe Each Other by T.M. ScanlonIn the previous post I tried to show that grounding morality in objective, universal principles is difficult if not impossible. Rule-based systems are destined to fail because there is always a conflict between consequences and duties, utilitarianism and deontology. General principles will always conflict with patriculars, and vice versa. But the question still remains: how can we avoid the trap of relativism and ground morality is something workable?

That is the intent of this post, to propose a workable theory of quasi-objective morality. I won’t pretend that this is easy, but after thinking on the subject for some time, I’ve made my best effort to put something together that is flexible enough to accommodate the complexity of moral dilemmas yet specific enough to have explanatory and practical value.

What follows is a particular form of contractualism, influence by great thinkers like T.M. Scanlon and John Rawls. There is a list of resources from these thinkers at the end of the post.

Let’s begin with a definition and then build from there. Here is my proposed definition for a moral act:

An act can be considered moral if it can be rationally defended and accepted as moral by other independent rational actors occupying the “original position.”

First, any moral act must be rationally defended, meaning sufficient logical reasons must be provided in support of the act. We should remember that moral claims are not theoretical claims about how the world is; rather, they are practical claims about how we ought to reasonably act. So, claiming that it is moral to steal other people’s property because you feel like it is not a rationally defensible argument. We live in a society where we depend on and interact with others in reciprocal relationships, so morality must take into account this dynamic. An act is therefore moral or immoral in regard to its impact on others and to society in general, and we must be prepared to argue for or against acts within this context.

Second, your rationally defended argument must be persuasive to independent rational actors, or to individuals that are impartial and removed from the situation but that can otherwise evaluate rational arguments. The claim that you can steal because you feel like it will be rejected by independent rational actors on the grounds that this behavior, universalized, would lead to chaos and negative consequences for everyone. We can think of the independent rational actors as occupying John Rawls’ Original Position, whereby they make decisions behind a veil of ignorance. Ignorant of their own characteristics and circumstances, they evaluate actions based on consequences they may ultimately be exposed to.

An immediate objection to this definition is that appealing to convention can lead to immoral results. Can we really consider murder to be moral if everyone agrees to it? Is child sacrifice moral if practiced by a society that engages in this act willingly?

The answer is no, but there is no reason to suppose that independent rational actors would ever be persuaded by the argument that murder is always moral or that child sacrifice can lead to anything positive. Rational actors have an interest in approving acts that tend to generate positive consequences for themselves, others, and society. They would be more likely to approve a moral rule that claims all murder is wrong, but may also approve a modified rule that claims that some instances of killing is not murder, such as euthanasia for the terminally ill.

In this way, an open society that can freely discuss moral issues will propose, evaluate, accept, and reject various propositions that can be defended and accepted by rational actors, in the process continually updating moral guidelines, allowing for exceptions, and moving back and forth between general rules and particular circumstances (reflective equilibrium). Much of this will be captured in laws but also in cultural practices.

The process won’t be perfect: moral dilemmas do not have clear answers, and there will always be disagreement among people with different views. But, as long as the means of defending and discussing those actions are left open, the natural dialectical process will result in general moral progress over time. As society advances, and as we gain more scientific and technological knowledge, the moral acts defended and accepted become increasingly advantageous and effective, which is exactly what we see in modern secular societies.

For example, human sacrifice was widely performed in ancient times and was likely not considered an immoral act by the participants, as the sacrifice was thought to appease the gods, thus bringing a larger benefit to the entire tribe. This was a kind of utilitarian calculation meant to improve overall conditions. Humanity outgrew human sacrifice when we learned more about how the world actually worked and thought harder about human rights. As such, it became harder to rationally defend human sacrifice and have that argument accepted by others. The same process undermined witch burnings, slavery, and the subjugation of women.

These examples showcase that moral progress is possible, and that the underlying process of moral progress depends on four things:

  1. Increasing our scientific knowledge regarding how the world works and how we can reduce human suffering and promote human flourishing.
  2. Promoting our biological predispositions for cooperation, empathy, and reciprocation.
  3. Using rationality as the foundation to match what we know about the world and ourselves with the acts most beneficial and consistent with those facts.
  4. Maintaining an open society to freely discuss and debate moral issues.

As we learn more about the world, as we become more rational, and as we discuss moral issues more openly and frequently, we develop better answers and better living conditions. Through years, decades, and millenia of conversations, we will ultimately come to converge on answers that everyone is willing to accept on rational grounds. This process seems to be leading toward something like secular humanism.

The most obvious example is the Golden Rule, expressed as some variation of “treat others the way you would wish to be treated” or “do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” This is found within virtually all religious and secular ethical traditions and is a fundamental principle that any independent rational agent would accept.

The idea that you are expected to rationally defend your actions in society is part of the social contract; we all depend on others for our survival and therefore have a reciprocal obligation to act in ways beneficial to others in particular and society in general, and to defend those actions publicly. This is the essence of contractualism.

Contractualism helps to clarify moral dilemmas like the trolley problem and the fat man problem. Regardless of whether or not you would push the fat man off the bridge to save 10 people on the tracks below, you will feel compelled to justify your answer to others. We feel the obligation to ground our actions in rationality and in normal circumstances this works effectively.

Contractualism also shows how religion, overall, tends to impede moral progress by obstructing the four variables in which moral progress depends:

  1. Religion often gets in the way of science and impedes the objective understanding of the world and ourselves, leading to immoral acts based on factual misunderstandings (e.g. withholding medication and relying instead on prayer).
  2. Religion denies us of our natural biological inclinations (the repression of sexual urges and the blocking of our extension of sympathy to those outside the faith).
  3. Religion relies on faith for justification rather than reason, resulting in conflict and rigidity that cannot be resolved through compromise. Faith is not persuasive to those outside of the faith.
  4. Religion shuts down open debate on issues that it considers beyond discussion, preventing the dialectical process from taking shape.

Religion, or for that matter any system of dogma, secular or religious, impedes the dialectical process whereby the free exchange of ideas leads to growth in scientific and moral knowledge. But, despite the resistance, moral progress continues to occur from outside of scripture, which explains why most religious people ignore most of their scripture anyway and act according to the rules set according to rational, secular processes.

You may still ask the question: what about when no one is looking? Are we only acting moral to achieve the benefits society can provide to us? The answer is no, not entirely, although it is a factor. Another equally important factor is psychological consistency; without diverging into a discussion of the coherentist account of knowledge, we all usually make the attempt at consistency. In fact, cognitive dissonance is a well-known psychological concept that captures the discomfort we feel when our thoughts or actions drift away from the majority of our other beliefs.

The corollary to this is that as you become more educated, and start to think about and formulate more ethical principles (like the Golden Rule), you will judge your thoughts and actions in terms of their consistency with your other beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is then driving you to act consistently, and the more moral knowledge you have, the more consistently ethical you’ll behave. This is not a universal truth, but does seem to align well with the reduction in violence among more literate and educated societies.

Further reading

This post has outlined a rough sketch of my interpretation of the contractualist position, which can shed light on the full assortment of moral and political issues. This can never be covered by one author in one post, but I hope to have at least piqued some interest in this line of thinking. For those that want to explore this at a deeper level than I can provide, below is a list of resources that will get you started in coming to understand contractualism and related concepts, particularly reflective equilibrium:

And here are some popular accounts that have a contractualist spirit: