Contractarianism as a Reductionist Program

With respect to natural and social sciences, I am a non-reductive physicalist.  I believe that biological, psychological, and social phenomena supervene on, but quite likely cannot be reduced to, physical facts.  With respect to ethics, though, I favor a reductionist approach.  I believe that morals can be reduced to biological, psychological, and social phenomena. 

To elaborate a bit, we have certain psychological abilities, namely the ability to maximize our utility by striving after what we most prefer, the ability to commit ourselves to long-term plans, and the ability to sympathize with the pains and pleasures that we ourselves do not currently feel.  I expect evolutionary game theory to explain why we have these three abilities.  More importantly for the purpose of this post, I claim that maximization, commitment, and sympathy are norm- and reason-giving faculties, which generate prudential as well as moral norms.  This is why I believe it possible to reduce morality to these psychological faculties without violating the is-ought gap.  For all I am claiming is that we can derive morality from our normative deliberations on morally neutral reasons given by these three psychological faculties.  And the best instrument of this reduction or derivation is the sort of contractarianism that Gauthier has developed. 

Philosophers nowadays recognize two broad varieties of contract theory.  One is contractarianism, and the other is contractualism.   Contractualism stems from Kant, and its contemporary proponents are Rawls and Scanlon.  Contractarianism can be traced back to Hobbes, and its greatest present-day advocate is Gauthier.  Perhaps the most important difference between these two variants is that while contractarianism clearly seeks to derive morality from a non-moral basis, contractualism arguably does not.  As Hampton (p.50) points out, Kant assumed the intrinsic value or dignity of individual persons as ends-in-themselves before conducting an inquiry into what people could reasonably agree to.  Ashford and Mulgan generalize this point when they observe that contractualism is “grounded in the equal moral status of persons”.  Hobbes, on the other hand, assumed that individual persons only have instrumental value or a market price in the state of nature, and sought to derive individual rights from rational self-interest.  Gauthier develops the Hobbesian line of thought in light of rational choice theory.  He seeks to derive morality from the application of rational choice theory to strategic contexts (i.e., game theory) involving utility-maximizing agents, without using any moral premisses in the derivation.  In contrast, Rawls for instance does use moral premisses in his derivation of the principles of justice from the original position.  For the original position makes use of the veil of ignorance, and no one would want to place themselves behind this veil unless they were already impartial.  So the assumption is a moral premiss requiring impartiality, which plays an essential role in deriving Rawls’s two principles of justice.

I hope we are now clearer about the distinction between contractarianism and contractualism.  Allow me then to recast the distinction in the following terms, which presents a starker contrast between the two variants of contract theory.  Contractarianism aims to reduce morality to non-moral constituents, by showing how these constituents figure in the derivation of morality.  On the other hand, contractualism only aims to show how certain aspects of morality derive from certain moral and non-moral constituents.  These are stipulative definitions, and although they have some continuities with the usual understanding of contractarianism and contractualism, I emphasize that contemporary philosophers do not have strictly these definitions in mind when they use these terms.  Now, according to these definitions, Rawls is a contractualist and Gauthier is a contractarian.  While Rawls shows how principles of justice can be derived from rational choice theory and impartiality, Gauthier aims to show how impartiality itself can be derived from rational choice theory.  The latter project seems intellectually more satisfying, although more ambitious.  But since Gauthier has already made so much progress in the project, I can pick up where he left off.

Some revisions do need to be made to Gauthier’s contractarianism, however.  Gauthier tries to derive morality as the product of agreement by utility-maximizing agents interacting with one another in strategic contexts.  I shall argue in a future post that Gauthier cannot succeed in this project so long as he relies on the exiguous basis of utility maximization.  This is roughly because maximization of individual utility sometimes requires that we violate our moral commitments, or disregard the dictates of benevolence.  But when we add that the agents are not only utility-maximizing, but also committed and sympathetic creatures, it becomes easier to derive morality as the product of agreement between such agents. 

Now, I know, you will raise the worry that commitment and sympathy seem to be moral features of agents.  To allay this worry, I can give you immoral and non-moral uses of commitment and sympathy.  As for commitment, a thief can be immorally committed to his lifestyle, even though burgling is a risky and difficult job.  And an artist can be non-morally committed to creating great works of art.  How about (Humean) sympathy?  Actors can non-morally sympathize with the characters whose roles they are playing.  And most people use sympathy in limited altruism towards the near and dear, which can result in immoral cases of nepotism, racism, etc.

Here is a further consideration that may silence your worry.  Prudence is the typical source of non-moral reasons.  The great moral skeptics or amoralists known to philosophical literature, such as Plato’s Thrasymachus or Hobbes’s Foole or Hume’s sensible knave, are non-moral but prudential creatures.  So it was thought by Plato or Hobbes or Hume that prudential reasons for being moral could convince them to be moral.  But think of what prudence involves.  It involves the ability to make long-term plans and stick to them even at the expense of foregoing immediate pleasures and suffering short-term costs.  In short, it involves the ability to make undeviating commitments.  It also involves the ability to simulate one’s future pains and pleasures, even though one cannot feel them now, so that they can now be taken into account in formulating a long-term plan.  And this ability is just what I mean by sympathy.  A utility-maximizing agent who lacks commitment and sympathy cannot be a prudential agent.  For he cannot stick to past plans if they require his failing to maximize utility in his present situation.  This feature of utility maximization is known as modular rationality.  A purely utility-maximizing agent, lacking commitment and sympathy, can make decisions only in short-lived modules, and cannot coordinate his life as a whole.

Prudence, then, requires commitment and sympathy in addition to utility maximization.  The norms of prudence can be reduced to the norms of commitment, sympathy, and utility maximization, roughly as follows.  Sympathy feeds anticipated future pains and pleasures into present preferences, commitment projects present preferences into future courses of action, and utility maximization aims at fulfilling present preferences thus informed by one’s past commitments and simulated future.  Since prudence is a non-moral source of norms and reasons, and can be reduced to commitment, sympathy and utility maximization, commitment and sympathy are a fortiori non-moral sources of norms and reasons.  So I can use commitment and sympathy along with utility maximization as a non-moral yet normative basis from which to derive the norms of morality. 

It is important to note, however, that I am not trying to reduce morality to prudence, or use prudential reasons to justify morality.  The reasons generated by maximization, sympathy and commitment are deployed in one way in the case of prudence, and deployed in another way in the case of morality.  One consequence of this is that I believe there can be conflict between prudence and morality.  In my opinion this is the right result.  Whether this conflict can be resolved by looking at the common sources of norms underlying both prudence and morality seems to be a complex matter I won’t examine in a long while.


  • Hampton, Jean (1991), “Two Faces of Contractarian Thought” in Vallentyne (ed.), Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays in David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement, pp.31~55.
  • I have provided links to the other sources, which are entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Contractarianism as a Reductionist Program

  1. Very interesting post.

    I’ve been reading Gautier (and those opposed) recently. I’m trying to wrap my head around these concepts.

    Best of luck.

    (Oh I see this was posted a long time ago.)

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your comment, it’s nice to know that someone else out there is taking an interest in Gauthier! His Morals by Agreement (1986) generated a lot of excitement when it first came out, resulting in three anthologies of discussion:

    [1] Paul, E. F., Miller Jr., F. D, Paul, J., and Ahrens, J., eds., The New Social Contract: Essays on Gauthier (1988)

    [2] Vallentyne, P., ed., Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement (1991)

    [3] Gauthier, D., and Sugden, R., eds., Rationality, Justice and the Social Contract: Themes from Morals by Agreement (1993)

    My impression is that the best articles are concentrated in [2], but the other two anthologies also contain some gems.

    It’s pretty clear to me that some devastating criticisms of Gauthier have been raised in these articles. For example, Gauthier claims to have derived impartial moral principles from a non-moral basis, but Goodin’s article in [3] argues convincingly that Gauthier smuggles moral assumptions through the backdoor (i.e., through the Lockean Proviso). Gauthier’s argument that it is more rational, from the point of view of self-interest, to be moral rather than immoral also fails, and this has been noted by several critics (e.g., Smith in [2]).

    Drastic revisions will have to be made to Gauthier’s system in order to meet these criticisms. Danielson in [2] proposes some interesting revisions in response to the sort of worry that Smith raises.

    I have a lot of respect for Gauthier’s work. The most valuable insight I find in it has to do with his position that the utility-maximizing conception of practical rationality has to be revised (i.e., modular rationality has to be given up), if there is to be any hope of deriving morality from practical reasoning. So my blog post presents a version of contractarianism that builds on this insight, and the hope is that it can successfully address the problems that plague Gauthier’s contractarianism.

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