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Social Contract Essay

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Discuss the view that morality is a social contract (30 marks)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” and what he is trying to show is that a social contract is binding on the members of a society, everywhere he is bound to be moral. The sources and reasons for the upholding morality (that is what is right and what is wrong) has been questioned since the days of Plato and one answer was given by Thomas Hobbes – a contractarian answer. A contractarian believes that human beings are self-interested and it would be rational for him to co-operate with others.

Hobbes developed this view by making us aware of the (imagined) ‘state of nature’ in Leviathan (1651) in which people were present before any form of social cohesion and organisation. Hobbes asserts that at this time, everyone would look out for their self-interest but this would involved a great deal of hostility and an inability to do things out of fear (a human’s self-interest could be to steal from you and thus cause you fear). Life would be a torment; “war of all against all” is how Hobbes puts it.

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The solution to this is cooperating between people. The implication of this is that there is no morality independent of what people in any given society think. There are however problems with this namely historically there has never been any contract. If we looking historically, we have made agreements (be it the Fourth Geneva Convention or the Magna Carta) but there has never been a collective social moral contract. Humans appear to be innately social. Indeed, it is not even just humans – ants appear to work in colonies. Further, a contract would only be understood by a social being.

As a result of there being no contract (factually), it would seem to make the idea redundant for if I haven’t signed anything, why should I be obligated? Although we can object and say that Hobbes isn’t saying that people sat around and signed a codified document rather what he is suggesting is that if we were to imagine the state of nature to be the case, it would justified for us to accept such a contract hence giving a justification for us to be moral (as well as the existence of societies). However, there seems to remain one problem. By saying that societies develop morality and that there is no morality independent of this, it leaves us with the problem of cultural relativism.

For it would be right in a society to kill all the enemies if that’s what society determines, in the case of the Nazis it would be the Jews, yet seldom do we find someone who would actually call this moral and not demand action be taken. We could however say that the contract applies universally and that we have not reached the “signing”. Yet this is not what the contract is saying, for even if we were to accept that rules applied universally – is the contractarian approach really telling us about morality? No! Even if something benefits me that may not the reason why I do it and definitely not the reason it is moral. An absolutist would say that rules are moral in themselves, regardless of the time or society in which they agreed.

Locke develops the idea that there need be no actual agreement by saying that it is a ‘tactic’ agreement. This means that a person who seeks to reap the benefits of society implicitly agrees to social contract and if I don’t then I am free to leave. However am I really free to leave? It would not seem so. To leave, I would most likely have to leave – this would not only mean having a passport to go to a different country, which would have it’s own set of rules but meaning that to get to the airport I would have to abide by the road rules lest I wish to be arrested.

Even if Hobbes is correct in saying that there is no actual contract, we are left with why should we honour the agreement? Indeed, if we are self-interested as Hobbes says then surely when the time came, we would act in a self-interest way? This view can be illustrated by Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’; there is a hot air balloon and in the basket lays a child – there is a sudden gust and the balloon starts it flight. Five men grab onto the rope of the balloon, alas there is another gust and if all five men carry on holding on then the child will be saved. This did not happen. All but one, were left clinging on to the rope. What’s even more so apparent is that if I am sure that I will get away with doing something “immoral”, why shouldn’t I do it? If I knew I wasn’t going to be caught stealing money then it would be in my self-interest to steal it.

Hobbes’ answer to the aforementioned question is a ‘Sovereign’. This means that there is someone to enforce the law (the terms of the contract). By doing this, it would show that when acting against the contract and giving primacy to self-interest, it would not be in our long term self-interest to do so. However this still doesn’t answer the question as to why someone who knows they will not get caught should be moral. Indeed, there are many people who are criminals and it is only found out after they have died.

Also, there seems to be a different argument put forward by David Gauthier who argues that to there is no need for a sovereign because those of us who have dispositions to altruism, will in the long term have more benefits than those who are shot-sightedly self-interested. This view is strong in the sense that it shows that human beings are genuinely altruistic with a purpose of doing so and thus not having an over pessimistic view of humans (thus the lesser need for a sovereign).

There are further problems with the social contract approach. When a terrorist has a hostage, he can use the hostage to dictate the terms of an agreement. This means that despite this being unfair, or even immoral, he can ask for however million pounds and for him to be pardoned of his act. This is obviously immoral and wrong. This situation is analogous to the state of nature period and someone strong dictating the terms which are not moral such as making all children workers.

Furthermore, we could take the view of Marx and Thrasymacus (from Plato’s Republic) who say that the social contract is a means of social control by the minority. This means that the powerful and rich people’s interests can be carried out under the veil of morality. An example is the respect for property which, by no coincidence, is what the ruling class have. This means that the weak can be exploited and the rulers can maintain their position.

We can criticise Marx for not taking into account that people do not steal because they do not want to offend the ruling class but this is not what Marx is trying to say. Indeed, what he is saying is that this is the correct reason why people do not do such things and through instruments such as religion and education (throughout history) they have been taught these rules and regulations. However John Rawls argues in his ‘Theory of Justice’ that to counter this, we must decide the terms under a veil of ignorance in which nobody is certain for their position and so everyone will be fighting for minority rights in case they are within that minority; nothing is assured!

If we posit Hobbes’ view as truth then we also find ourselves holding a pessimistic view of life for we have ample opportunity to break the rules of the contract yet we do not. If we were to hold Hobbes’ view societies would long be over because we could no longer trust people because they would take such selfish actions. To say that people don’t mug each other in fear of being caught is not plausible. Surely the actions of a mother or a carer in the slums seem to show that we do not act just for self-interest.

Further, is Hobbes really giving an accurate account of morality? We can indeed have a contract but is the only reason we do not break it because we fear the courts? Surely this isn’t morality but a preference of prudence in an action but this view does not correlate with what we express. If someone were to say ‘Stealing is wrong’, they do not mean that it is better if you don’t because it is more sensible, they mean it is a morally irreprehensible action.

Hobbes’ view is also put under fire by alternative views, Richard Dawkins argues that altruistic behaviour can lead to evolutionary success and is thus embedded in our genes. There was never a conventional agreement rather because it is mutually advantage behaviour helps our evolutionary success, humans do it. So it is not because it is mutually advantageous that we choose to do it but we do it because it is advantageous and has helped us reach this stage. This, of course, is not the only alternative view – others view moral as what the Bible says or even the Quran. We could even take the utilitarian approach and say that what is moral is the thing that obtains the greatest number of people’s happiness.

To take this view is, as said, to ignore every instance of altruism. However what about blatant acts of altruism? The egoist could say that subconsciously we gain self-gratification from doing right things. However, again, it does not follow that I am doing these things because I want self-gratification. In the case of Mother Teresa, it is not plausible that she only did those things because she wanted self-satisfaction. As the egoist claims that everything is in some way selfish, it negate the idea of selfish and selfless as it distorts the distinction and leaves nothing but motives – which is not a direct accurate description of the world.

Thus to conclude, to hold the view that morality is defined, described and prescribed by a social contract ultimately fails. Alternative ideas not only, in some cases, have scientific backing but also have a more accurate representation of the real world. The view is both pessimistic and would lead to the powerful being on top and the weak being exploited. Thus we must conclude as Hume did and say that there is not historically validity (among other things) to this claim.

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