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Contractarianism: Morality, Rationality, and the Context of Choice

Contractarianisme : moralité, rationalité et contexte de choix
Michael Moehler
p. 1-22

Résumés

Cet article porte sur l’utilisation de la théorie orthodoxe du choix rationnel dans le cadre du contractarianisme moral. L’article a trois objectifs. Premièrement, il clarifie la nature du contractarianisme moral et corrige un malentendu fondamental. Deuxièmement, il répond aux critiques qui découlent de ce malentendu. Il montre que ces critiques sont soit fondées sur une mécompréhension de la nature du contractarianisme moral, soit qu’elles ne s’appliquent pas. Troisièmement, l’article clarifie le rôle limité que la formalisation peut jouer dans le cadre du contractarianisme moral. Au mieux, une telle formalisation complète la théorie ; au pire, elle détourne l’attention de sa véritable nature et, plus généralement, du rôle central que le contexte de choix joue pour la justification des principes moraux dans la théorie morale contractarianiste.

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1. Hobbesian Moral Contractarianism

  • 1 For discussion of the differences among these positions, see D’Agostino et al. (2017) and Moehler ((...)
  • 2 Orthodox rational choice theory stands in contrast to evolutionary rational choice theory. For disc (...)
  • 3 In this sense, orthodox rational choice contractarianism represents a ‘functionalist’ approach to m (...)

1Moral contractarianism, as a distinct position in modern philosophy (in particular distinct from moral conventionalism and moral contractualism),1 originates with Hobbes ([1651] 1996) and has been furthered especially by Hampton (1986), Kavka (1986), Gauthier (1986), and my own theory (Moehler, 2018a; 2020a). In its explicitly Hobbesian form that employs orthodox rational choice theory as a method of justification,2 moral contractarianism assumes that agents are rational in that they aim to pursue their own interests and, if not constrained by social order, are sufficiently equal by nature to pose a threat to each other. Stated positively, moral contractarianism assumes that, for certain types of morally relevant (non-zero sum) social interactions, cooperation among rational agents is mutually beneficial if the agents refrain from destructive action and/or contribute positively to society.3

2Thus understood, the goal of moral contractarianism is to derive moral conclusions from nonmoral assumptions as traditionally conceived. The traditional understanding of morality assumes that agents value moral ideals at least partially for intrinsic reasons or embrace such ideals for altruistic or similarly motivated other-regarding reasons. That is, traditional moral theories assume that, as a basis for moral justification, agents are already vested in morality. Moral contractarianism, by contrast, does not assume that agents hold traditional moral ideals as a basis for moral justification, although it does not rule out such motivation. Moral contractarianism considers morality to be a means to an end that agents aim to reach, independent of the agents’ motivations to reach this end. Moral contractarianism defends a purely instrumental approach to morality.

  • 4 The late Gauthier (2013) changed his view. For the most recent, albeit brief, statement of his revi (...)

3Sometimes, the goal of moral contractarianism to derive moral conclusions from nonmoral assumptions as traditionally conceived is formulated misleadingly (even by defenders of moral contractarianism) as the goal to derive moral conclusions from instrumental rationality alone, in particular the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory. Gauthier (1986, 4), who was one of the most prominent defenders of (such orthodox rational choice) moral contractarianism for most of his career,4 states that his theory aims to derive moral conclusions as a “rational constraint from the non-moral premisses of rational choice.” Others, including Rawls (1971, 15), who do not even defend moral contractarianism, muddied the waters even further by making such claims.

4In this article, I clarify the fundamental misconception that underlies this claim. If the goal of moral contractarianism were to derive moral conclusions from orthodox rational choice theory alone, or “from nothing but the standard conception of instrumental rationality,” as Messina and Wiens (2020, 260) put it, then not some (as the title of their contribution suggests), but many doubts would be in order concerning the project of moral contractarianism. For the purpose of my argument, I focus on my own theory of moral contractarianism (Moehler, 2018a; 2020a), because it is the most recent of such theories, it is explicit about its goals and method of justification, and it exemplifies well the Hobbesian nature of moral contractarianism.

  • 5 Independent of historical accuracy, the contemporary significance of historical texts and theories (...)

5The grounding of moral contractarianism in Hobbes’s ([1651] 1996) moral theory is central to most theories of moral contractarianism. However, it is especially important for my theory, because the theory aims to derive a Kantian conclusion from Hobbesian assumptions. As such, in order for the theory to be successful, it must take its Hobbesian foundation seriously. Because Hobbes’s assumptions, or viable interpretations of them,5 represent the starting point for my theory, these assumptions do not require further justification for my theory. Based on Hobbesian assumptions, my theory justifies a weak version of Kant’s ([1785] 1998) categorical imperative as a principle of conflict resolution.

6The main argument of this article is simple. Although moral contractarianism employs instrumental rationality for the justification of moral conclusions, instrumental morality entails more than instrumental rationality. As such, in the context of moral contractarianism, formal models, if they are confined to the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory, do not necessarily challenge or refute a theory’s conclusions, because they do not necessarily capture all relevant moral assumptions. Although formal models may add rigor to argumentation, one must be careful not to draw conclusions that extend beyond the legitimate scope of such models because, even in the case of orthodox rational choice contractarianism, moral theory is more complex than rational choice theory. From a moral perspective, the context of choice (Hobbesian or otherwise), not formal methods, is central for the justification of moral principles in contractarian moral theory.

7The argument presented in this article applies more generally to formalization and model building. Despite potentially adding rigor to argumentation, the development of formal models requires many choices and simplifications that, ideally, capture together a theory’s core assumptions. However, there is no guarantee that the mathematical representation of formal models will fully or adequately capture a theory’s assumptions. Especially in the moral and social sciences, models often describe merely potential instantiations, variations, or specifications of a theory that, within the limited confines of formal models, may approximate the theory’s conclusion but not necessarily fully replicate it. Essential in such cases is not to blindly succumb to formalism, but to recognize the limitations of formal representation that is merely a means to an end, and not the end itself of social scientific inquiry.

2. Moral Contractarianism, Multilevel Theory, and the Peace Game

8The goal of moral contractarianism is to derive moral conclusions from nonmoral assumptions as traditionally conceived and not to derive moral conclusions from orthodox rational choice theory alone. Orthodox rational choice theory is a formal theory that, depending on its particular use, is employed to explain, predict, or prescribe behavior in different social contexts. The theory itself, however, has no moral relevance and, by itself, does not lead to meaningful moral conclusions. The game theorist per se is not a moral philosopher. Instead, as in the case of other social sciences, such as economics and political science, the main task of the moral philosopher is to determine the morally relevant context of choice in which orthodox rational choice theory is embedded to ensure that the theory leads to meaningful moral conclusions.

9In social contract theory, the morally relevant context of choice typically is captured by the state of nature description that serves as a baseline for the justification of moral conclusions. The state of nature description typically includes general assumptions about human nature (including assumptions about the rationality of agents), empirical conditions of social cooperation, and specification of certain fundamental interests (or shared preferences) that agents possess under the circumstances described. By their very nature, these assumptions that define the context of choice of a particular theory of moral contractarianism go beyond the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory and restrict the agents’ choice of principles. In fact, a core function of the context of choice is to narrow the choice set, often to a unique outcome, because a plurality of moral outcomes cannot always solve the moral problem.

10As such, in the context of moral contractarianism, orthodox rational choice theory alone never justifies moral conclusions. Instead, the context of choice, which is foundational to the application of orthodox rational choice theory and essential for solving the multiple equilibria problem that rational choice theory faces, plays a central role for moral contractarianism. Compared to other social sciences, particularly social sciences that aim to explain or predict human behavior, the task of moral theory is complicated by the fact that it is explicitly normative. Moral theory aims to prescribe the behavior of agents in morally relevant social interactions. Thus, because moral contractarianism aims to justify moral conclusions without presupposing moral assumptions as traditionally conceived, the context of choice and the use of orthodox rational choice theory must be free from traditional moral considerations.

11Conceptually, this task is not impossible. Assuming a constructivist approach to morality, although all moral assumptions as traditionally conceived are normative, not all normative assumptions are moral assumptions as traditionally conceived. For example, the principle of non-contradiction, which holds that contradictory propositions cannot simultaneously be true, is a normative principle. However, it is not a moral principle or a principle that is particularly controversial from a moral point of view. Moral contractarianism does not aim to contradict the logic of is-ought. Instead, it merely aims to derive moral conclusions based upon a combination of normative assumptions (such as the rationality of agents), empirical assumptions about human nature, and the conditions of social cooperation, without relying on traditional moral assumptions. As such, although moral contractarianism employs orthodox rational choice theory due to its nature as a purely instrumental theory of morality, instrumental morality entails more than instrumental rationality.

12My theory fulfills the core demands of moral contractarianism (Moehler, 2018a; 2020a; 2020b). The theory was developed in the context of my multilevel social contract theory that combines the traditional approach to morality (as captured by moral conventionalism and moral contractualism) with the purely instrumental approach to morality (as captured by moral contractarianism). According to multilevel social contract theory, as long as all members of society agree with their evolved systems of morality, the members can establish any moral principles that capture their interests and traditions. Multilevel social contract theory regards such traditional first-level morality as the primary source for the regulation of moral interactions because traditional first-level morality is tailored specifically to the conditions of particular societies and the moral ideals of their members. Agreement with their evolved systems of morality constitutes the first contract among agents.

13In deeply morally diverse societies, however, not all members of society agree on moral ideals as traditionally conceived or embrace such ideals. In this case, if the members of society, despite their divergent moral ideals as traditionally conceived or lack thereof, share an overarching goal that they aim to reach, such as the goal of ensuring stable peaceful long-term cooperation, then the purely instrumental approach to morality (as captured by moral contractarianism) has moral authority. That is, according to multilevel social contract theory, the domain of moral contractarianism is restricted to moral interactions in which all other traditional means of nonviolent conflict resolution have failed, and peaceful long-term cooperation is threatened. Agreement with a principle of conflict resolution for such conflicts constitutes the second contract among agents if, for simplicity, discussion is reduced to only two levels of the theory.

14The strategic aspects that underlie the choice of a principle of conflict resolution for second-level conflicts are expressed by what I call the ‘peace game’. Because the peace game starts when traditional first-level morality and all other nonviolent means of conflict resolution that require knowledge of specific historical facts, culture, and past interactions among agents have failed, including appeal to an independent arbitrator, any solution to the peace game must be ahistorical and universalizable. In this sense, any solution to the peace game must be Kantian in that, for justificatory purposes, agents cannot employ mechanisms that rely on moral ideals as traditionally conceived or specific empirical contingencies that are not instantaneously accessible and/or acceptable to all rational agents in such cases.

15Also, because all attempts to resolve conflicts through informed dialogue among agents have failed (that is, all such deliberative procedures could not resolve the conflicts in question), agents must find tacit agreement on a unique principle of conflict resolution. Although multilevel social contract theory suspends the demand for uniqueness at the level of traditional first-level morality to allow maximal autonomy for agents with regard to traditional social moral rules, the theory demands uniqueness for the derivation of the principle of conflict resolution for purely instrumental reasons, because that principle serves as the last common denominator to ensure peace. Due to these features of the theory, the agents’ choice situation in the peace game is best modeled by a simultaneous-move pure coordination game that captures the strategic aspects and mutual dependency of agents in their attempt to ensure peace.

16Despite referring to basic concepts of game theory, I do not develop a formal model of the peace game, for good reason. First, doing so would only distract from my main argument and not add much to its understanding. After my analysis of the Rawls-Harsanyi dispute (Moehler, 2018a, 67-92; 2018b), I am keenly aware of this danger. Discussions of the Rawls-Harsanyi dispute often overlook the significantly different contexts of choice that these two philosophers employ for their theories and that ground the justification of moral principles. My discussion of the Rawls-Harsanyi dispute clarifies that, from a moral perspective, the two philosophers define very different ‘original positions’ that, as a result of their different underlying moral assumptions as traditionally conceived, justify different moral conclusions.

17Second, recognizing the importance and nature of the context of choice, a formal model based on the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory alone would not necessarily allow me to capture all relevant moral considerations that underlie my theory. The reason for this is that the boundaries of orthodox rational choice theory in its standard formulation are not necessarily identical to the boundaries of moral theory (although the former are not necessarily inconsistent with the latter), not even for the domain of pure instrumental morality (Moehler, 2018a, 108; 2020a, 49). Even for the domain of pure instrumental morality, the context of choice of a moral theory (or parts of it), which ensures that the use of orthodox rational choice theory leads to meaningful moral conclusions, lies outside the bounds of orthodox rational choice theory. Instrumental morality entails more than instrumental rationality, and this feature is unproblematic for a theory of moral contractarianism as long as the theory does not rely on traditional moral assumptions.

18Specifically, for the derivation of the weak principle of universalization, I employ a rational actor model that I call the homo prudens model (Moehler, 2018a, 95). The homo prudens model is a particular Hobbesian model of rational prudent agency. As indicated, one of the main goals of my theory is to move from Hobbes to Kant by justifying, based on Hobbesian premises, a weak version of Kant’s categorical imperative that is represented by the weak principle of universalization. As such, in order for the theory to be successful, it must take its Hobbesian foundation seriously, although it does not need to justify this foundation. Hobbes’s assumptions, or viable interpretations of them, form the starting point for the theory. Most importantly, homo prudens is forward-looking and values her life together with the expected gains from peaceful long-term cooperation more than noncooperation per se in any particular conflict that threatens peace. Homo prudens has an overarching interest in ensuring stable peaceful long-term cooperation and to do so with the highest possible certainty.

19The particular Hobbesian model of agency that is captured by homo prudens, along with general assumptions about Hobbes’s state of nature and certain fundamental interests that arise for Hobbesian agents under such conditions, together determine the context of choice for the derivation of the weak principle of universalization. This context of choice ensures the Hobbesian foundation of my theory and its moral relevance, although the justification of the context of choice does not rely on traditional moral assumptions but follows from means-end reasoning. The context of choice defines the specific conditions in which standard orthodox rational choice theory is embedded and narrows the set of viable conclusions of the peace game, as becomes clear in the following section.

3. Homo Prudens and Two Fundamental Conditions

20In the context of the peace game, agents who reason in the mode of homo prudens are placed in a hypothetical decision situation that I call the ‘empathetic contractor theory’ (Moehler, 2018a, 117). The empathetic contractor theory is an idealized but empirically justifiable nonmoralized decision situation that aims to model agents’ real-world situations in conflicts in the strict sense defined. To this end, the empathetic contractor theory imposes a weak veil of uncertainty on agents that mirrors the agents’ level of uncertainty concerning their precise positions in future conflicts in the real world. The veil of uncertainty has one important implication. Under the assumption of rough natural equality, agents in the empathetic contractor position cannot be sure that they will dominate in all future conflicts in which they become involved. Instead, without knowing the precise probabilities and risk attitudes of others in such conflicts that may threaten their lives and/or the means for preserving their lives, the agents must expect sometimes to be the strong party and sometimes to be the weak party in conflicts.

21The goal of rational agents in the empathetic contractor position is to identify a principle of conflict resolution that defines the minimal behavioral restrictions that must be fulfilled in each conflict in order to maintain peace in the real world, because then rule-guided behavior can be explained by orthodox rational choice theory without introducing commitment power. As a result of Hobbesian instrumental, prudential considerations, agents in the empathetic contractor position will demand that any principle to resolve the peace game must fulfill two fundamental conditions.

22First, the principle must ensure that, in each conflict, agents can defend their interests maximally based on their actual capacities in the world in which they live, thereby ensuring that the agents receive a share of the goods in dispute that is proportional to their relative bargaining power. This condition is fulfilled by the standard Nash bargaining solution that represents a natural agreement point for rational agents in conflicts in which their bargaining process is morally unrestricted and independent of other traditional moral considerations, as in Hobbes’s state of nature.

  • 6 For discussion of the determinants of agents’ minimum standards of living, see Moehler (2018a, 115- (...)

23Second, and as a potential constraint on such behavior, the principle must ensure as a basis for conflict resolution that agents can maintain their existence as separate agents and satisfy their basic human needs (as expressed by the agents’ ‘minimum standards of living’ at subsistence level),6 if the goods that are in dispute permit it. Any viable principle of conflict resolution that can ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation in the real world in conflicts in the strict sense described must satisfy these two conditions.

24The first fundamental condition stems from the Hobbesian demand to derive moral principles that can ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation in the real world even in the worst case where agents (such as Hobbes’s Foole) attempt to free ride. According to Hobbesian realism, moral theory must be based on realistic assumptions about human nature and social cooperation in order to justify principles that, even in the worst case, work in practice. In the empathetic contractor position, agents know that their real-world selves will act as opportunistic case-by-case decision makers and thus, in each instance, will defend their interests maximally based on their actual bargaining power.

25As I stress, a principle of conflict resolution that does not consider the reality of such behavior will not be able to ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation from the perspective of the Hobbesian agents described (Moehler, 2018a, 115; 2020a, 50). For Hobbesian social contract theory, the actual behavior of agents that homo prudens must expect in conflicts in the strict sense defined in the real world (as exemplified by Hobbes’s Foole) is a core consideration for the selection of a principle of conflict resolution in the empathetic contractor position. This consideration is central for Hobbesian agents and answers the rationale for the first fundamental condition that is necessary to justify the weak principle of universalization.

26The second fundamental condition, which serves as a potential constraint on such behavior in the context of the social contract, stems from the Hobbesian demand to derive moral principles that can fully (that is, with the highest possible certainty) ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation in the real world. As I stress, especially in the context of Hobbes’s defense of monarchy, Hobbes is explicit about the overriding role that the goal of ensuring stable peaceful long-term cooperation plays for instrumentally rational prudent agents (Moehler, 2018a, 48; 2020a, 50). Hobbes rejects democracy as a viable form of government primarily because he does not believe that democracy can ensure peace absolutely, but can do so only under favorable conditions. According to Hobbes, for this reason, democracy is an unstable form of government.

27In contrast to Hobbes’s theory that develops this argument at the political level, my theory translates this demand to the context of moral theory. In short, under the assumption of rough natural equality among agents, in the state of nature no instrumentally rational prudent agent would agree with a principle of conflict resolution that does not ensure the agents’ survival (minimum standard of living) as a basis for conflict resolution in the real world, if the goods that are in dispute permit it. This condition is instrumental for ensuring peace in the real world and addresses the inherent instability in Hobbes’s social contract theory that stems from the fact that Hobbes’s absolute sovereign not only has executive and judicial powers (including the power to eliminate agents), but also full legislative power. Hobbes’s theory demands that agents surrender their autonomy to approve the specific moral principles by which they are governed.

  • 7 See Kavka (1984; 1986, 224-236) and Hampton (1986, 208-266), who argues that such ‘alienation contr (...)

28In certain situations, in particular when agents’ lives and/or the means for preserving their lives are at risk, such as in conflicts in the strict sense defined, this demand contradicts the core tenet of moral contractarianism because it may license moral principles that, strictly speaking, cannot be justified to all members of society from their prudential perspectives.7 In order to avoid this problem of instability, my theory internalizes Hobbes’s external sovereign by demanding that agents themselves decide on the moral principles by which they are governed. Doing so ensures that moral reasoning and prudential reasoning are aligned and, if agents’ prudential considerations are fulfilled, ensures the agents’ ongoing participation in society in the real world (I return to this consideration in Section 4).

29Based on these assumptions that define the particular context of choice for the derivation of the principle of conflict resolution, I argue that rational agents who reason in the mode of homo prudens would choose the weak principle of universalization, which is a stabilized, generalized, and universalized version of the standard Nash bargaining solution (Moehler, 2018a, 125). The weak principle of universalization defends morality in the form of ‘each according to her basic needs and above this level according to her relative bargaining power’. According to the traditional understanding of morality, the principle is morally unbiased and best fulfills the two fundamental conditions imposed by homo prudens. It imposes the minimal behavioral restrictions that are necessary to ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation among rational agents from the perspective of instrumentally rational prudent agents in the emphatic contractor position and thus represents the most beneficial means for such agents to reach this end.

30To be clear, although the normative content of the weak principle of universalization follows straightforwardly from the two fundamental conditions that, under the circumstances described, Hobbesian agents would demand to be fulfilled, the argument for the principle is not trivial. The core insight here is that in order to develop a conceptually coherent theory of moral contractarianism that can address the problem of compliance (the core problem that moral contractarianism must address), the theory must specify the minimal behavioral restrictions that, in each instance, are considered to be necessary by instrumentally rational prudent agents in order for the agents to reach their overarching goal, and then must postulate these restrictions in the form of a principle. If so, then freeriding is irrational because it directly threatens the agents’ overarching goal. In this case, the principle is self-enforcing and moral contractarianism can solve the problem of compliance internally without relying on a revisionist account of rationality that assumes commitment power, as Gauthier (1986) does, or relying on an external sovereign, as Hobbes ([1651] 1996) does. In the following, I further discuss the reasons that support the choice of the weak principle of universalization over the standard Nash bargaining solution in the empathetic contractor position.

4. Natural Equality, Bargaining Power, and Stability

31The standard Nash bargaining solution allows rational agents to impose their full bargaining power on others and thus potentially eliminate others from the peace game. The weak principle of universalization, by contrast, may restrict agents’ bargaining power in the context of the social contract in order to ensure that all agents can maintain their minimum standards of living as a starting point for conflict resolution, if the goods that are in dispute permit it. In other words, according to the weak principle of universalization, the standard Nash bargaining solution is applied only after agents’ minimum standards of living are reached. This condition ensures that all agents in the empathetic contractor position have an interest in establishing society and maintaining peace and thus have an interest in refraining from destructive action that may threaten life or take away the means for preserving it. This demand is expressed by Hobbes’s ([1651] 1996, Part 1, Chapter 15) laws of nature that can be viewed as dictates of prudence and lay out a roadmap to peace.

32To clarify, in the empathetic contractor position, rational agents who reason in the mode of homo prudens will not agree to a social contract that does not protect their existence as separate agents and ensures that they can maintain their minimum standards of living as a starting point for conflict resolution in the real world, if the goods that are in dispute permit it. The reason for this demand is that, in the empathetic contractor position, the agents do not know whether they will always be strong enough to ensure the means for their survival in real-world conflicts after the social contract is established. If the principle of conflict resolution does not ensure that agents, despite their best efforts to employ their capacities in the real world, will receive at least the means that they need to survive as a starting point for conflict resolution, if the goods that are in dispute permit it, then it is not rational for agents to enter the cooperative framework and comply with its terms, because future cooperation may not be possible for them. Without fulfillment of this condition, agents will take the means that they need to survive and potentially threaten the lives of others and thus return to the state of nature.

33Also, to ensure agreement among all agents in the empathetic contractor position, it is not sufficient that a principle guarantees agents’ minimum standards of living merely as an outcome of the process of conflict resolution for the specific cases of conflict described. From the perspective of instrumentally rational prudent agents, aside from not having to fear losing their lives, the main advantage of the social contract is the additional gains that stable peaceful long-term cooperation makes possible compared to violent conflict resolution. That is, two types of benefit follow from the social contract.

34First, establishing the social contract, and thus establishing society, protects agents from violent destruction of their lives and violent conflict more generally, if the agents follow the terms of the social contract. Second, maintaining society leads to additional gains that arise from stable peaceful long-term cooperation, because it allows the continuous accumulation of social and economic resources without violent destruction.

35If a principle of conflict resolution would guarantee agents’ minimum standards of living merely as an outcome of the process of conflict resolution, then some agents may be excluded from this second type of benefit that directly follows from the social contract. This scenario is especially relevant for the weakest members of society who live at their subsistence level and, in comparison to others, are so weak that they cannot expect to improve their positions above the subsistence level over time once society is established, even if they employ their capacities maximally in social cooperation.

36As I point out with reference to Hobbes’s ninth law of nature (Moehler, 2018a, 116), and a viable interpretation of this law, instrumentally rational prudent agents who decide on a principle of conflict resolution in a state of natural equality would not agree to a principle that systematically treats agents unequally with regard to the benefits of the social contract:

If Nature therefore have made men equall; that equalitie is to be acknowledged: or if Nature have made men unequall; yet because men that think themselves equall, will not enter into conditions of Peace, but upon Equall termes, such equalitie must be admitted. (Hobbes, [1651] 1996, Part 1, Chapter 15)

  • 8 For further discussion of Hobbes’s ninth law of nature, see Gauthier (2022b, 146-147). As Gauthier (...)

37Although agents are likely to have unequal bargaining power in the real world and thus will receive unequal shares from the additional gains that stable peaceful long-term cooperation makes possible (as reflected by the demands of the standard Nash bargaining solution), agents in the empathetic contractor position would not agree to a principle that, ex post, systematically treats the agents unequally by potentially excluding some of them entirely from one of the main benefits of the social contract that is one of the main reasons for agents to enter society.8 For Hobbesian agents, consideration of the worst-case scenario is central, because moral principles must apply especially under such conditions in the real world.

  • 9 See Fried (2003) for discussion of the plausibility of exit options in the context of the social co (...)

38This consideration is important, in particular because once agents agree to the social contract, they forfeit their right to destructive action. Also, after society is established, agents may not always immediately, or in each instance, have sufficient bargaining power to enforce such equality in the real world, especially if socioeconomic and/or political dynamics evolve that marginalize certain group members for certain periods of time or interactions. Moreover, once society is established, agents may find the cost of leaving society and returning to the state of nature to be prohibitively high, if such exit options exist at all in practice.9

39These real-world considerations stress the importance of the second fundamental condition for the choice of a principle of conflict resolution for Hobbesian prudent agents. Most importantly, this condition does not represent a moral assumption as traditionally conceived. Instead, it follows from agents’ prudential considerations in a state of natural equality in which the agents pose a threat to each other. In the context of the Hobbesian social contract, this condition must be fulfilled before the standard Nash bargaining solution is applied and is part of the relevant context of choice for my Hobbesian theory of moral contractarianism.

40In theory, the weak principle of universalization solves the problem of compliance without violating the demands of orthodox rational choice theory. From the perspective of homo prudens, following the weak principle of universalization in some cases of conflict in which the principle is valid but not in others (such as a mixed strategy that alternates randomly between cooperation and defection, or a tit-for-tat or grim strategy that alternates systematically), or following any other strategy in a potentially repeated game, cannot ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation.

41More generally, the folk theorems that postulate that (infinitely) repeated interaction among sufficiently patient and forward-looking agents can result in any outcome (in terms of average payoff) do not capture the specific type of social interaction that is expressed by the peace game. In addition, the folk theorems per se cannot help with equilibrium selection, which is central to the justificatory project of (Hobbesian) moral contractarianism, because the folk theorems are mere existence theorems.

42Some recent models that aim to formalize my theory, especially the game-theoretic model developed by Messina and Wiens (2020, 252-254), neglect the importance of the Hobbesian stability condition and incorrectly depict the peace game, for ease of modeling and mathematical representation, essentially as an infinitely repeated coordination game. In addition, to highlight only two further significant deviations from my theory, Messina and Wiens’s model inadequately captures two core assumptions and motivations of the peace game. First, it inadequately captures the assumption that stable peaceful long-term cooperation leads to additional gains from cooperation compared to violent conflict resolution. Second, it inadequately captures the assumption that agents may be eliminated from the peace game, if they fall below their minimum standards of living as a result of violent conflict resolution that stems from the systematic exclusion of some agents from one of the main types of benefit of the social contract.

43In some sense, Messina and Wiens’s model assumes that, for ease of modeling and mathematical representation, their version of the peace game takes place within an already established moral order that prevents (or limits the impact of) the worst case and does not fully consider the best case, whereas the goal of my theory is to justify a moral order that eliminates the worst case (which is a primary consideration for Hobbesian agents), if the goods that are in dispute permit it, while realizing the best case for instrumentally rational prudent agents in the context of the social contract.

44In other words, Messina and Wiens’s model does not fully consider the particular Hobbesian context of choice of my theory, and thus, cannot fully capture the theory’s core assumptions and type of social interaction captured by the theory. Nevertheless, if the two fundamental conditions that Hobbesian agents would demand to be fulfilled by a principle of conflict resolution for the conflicts described are considered, then Messina and Wiens’s (2020, 268) model, despite depicting the peace game differently, supports my conclusion. In short, different formalizations and variations of such formalizations are possible and, despite the limitation of formal representation, may approximate the conclusion of my theory.

45Relatedly, in response to Messina and Wiens’s article (2020), Alexis Louaas (forthcoming) developed a game-theoretic model that differs from Messina and Wiens’s model and supports the justification of the weak principle of universalization (or a particular version of it). Louaas’s (forthcoming) model essentially relies on infinitely repeated interactions among agents. However, the model is insightful in particular because, in contrast to Messina and Wiens’s model, it more adequately captures agents’ ‘patience’ with regard to future gains, and thus, agents’ willingness to substitute welfare across time, although real-world agents cannot be assumed to be infinitely patient.

46This consideration is central to Hobbes’s notion of prudence that, despite the fragility of social cooperation and human life, attributes to agents a strong interest in ensuring their future wellbeing and a willingness to forego potential short-term gains, if such behavior is expected to produce higher overall gains for the agents in the long term, which can be expected only if stable peaceful long-term cooperation is ensured:

The object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men, tend, not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring of a contented life. (Hobbes, [1651] 1996, Part 1, Chapter 11)

47This Hobbesian notion of prudence that is grounded in agents’ real-world nature is central to the homo prudens model and the two fundamental conditions that follow from it under the specific circumstances described (as discussed in Section 3). Based upon a distinctive Hobbesian notion of prudence, Louaas’s (forthcoming) game-theoretic model justifies the moral ideals of equality and reciprocity that are captured by the weak principle of universalization as a means to ensure peaceful long-term cooperation, and thus, justifies on nonmoral grounds the restriction of agents’ bargaining power and inequalities (see also Moehler, 2018a, 203-208).

48Ultimately, the game-theoretic models of both Messina and Wiens (2020) and Louaas (forthcoming) offer different ways to justify the weak principle of universalization as the unique principle of conflict resolution. The two models depict slightly different understandings of the peace game compared to my theory and adopt different modeling choices in order to translate the different interpretations to the confines of orthodox rational choice theory. The development of formal models requires many choices and simplifications that, ideally, together capture a theory’s core assumptions. However, there is no guarantee that such mathematical representation will fully or adequately capture a theory’s assumptions. Most often, in the context of moral contractarianism, models describe merely potential instantiations, variations, or specifications of a theory that, within the limited confines of standard orthodox rational choice theory, may approximate the theory’s conclusion but not necessarily fully replicate it. Such potential under-determination, however, does not imply that a theory (not even in the case of ideal theory) is necessarily uninformative or contestable, as Erman and Möller (2022) clarify.

49Specifically, there is no unique model to formalize my theory of moral contractarianism, which is one of the main reasons that I did not formalize the theory. As such, although standard game-theoretic models (many more such models are possible) may complement my argument (and may be useful in this limited way), they cannot necessarily challenge or refute it and, more generally, moral contractarianism. Such a conclusion would commit a methodological fallacy, because moral contractarianism does not aim to derive moral conclusions from the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory alone.

  • 10 See Gaus (2016, xv-xviii) for a thoughtful discussion of the use of (formal) models in moral and po (...)

50As indicated at the beginning of this article, instrumental morality entails more than instrumental rationality. Although formal models can provide insight and add rigor to argumentation in contractarian moral theory, one must be careful not to draw unwarranted conclusions that extend beyond the scope of such models. Argumentative rigor does not require formalization and, ultimately, moral theories that combine normative and descriptive assumptions are often too complex for the oversimplified and limited confines of formal modeling.10 As is true for all good scientific inquiry, it is essential that scientists understand the limitations of their models and the conclusions that follow from them. Good scientific inquiry does not blindly succumb to formalism, but it recognizes the limitation of the employed method of inquiry.

5. Concluding Remarks

51In this article, I have clarified the general methodology, goals, and nature of moral contractarianism and its use of orthodox rational choice theory. Despite a common misconception, moral contractarianism does not aim to derive moral conclusions from orthodox rational choice theory alone. Instead, it aims to derive moral conclusions from nonmoral assumptions as traditionally conceived. With regard to moral contractarianism, the main task of the moral philosopher is to define the morally relevant context of choice in which orthodox rational choice theory is embedded in order to determine the content of a particular social contract. Determination of the context of choice goes beyond the standard assumptions of orthodox rational choice theory and, in the context of the social contract, ensures that an otherwise formal theory with no particular moral relevance will lead to meaningful moral conclusions.

52If the domain of pure instrumental morality were to be identical to the domain of orthodox rational choice theory, then all bets would be off with regard to the choice of a moral principle, because orthodox rational choice theory supports different bargaining principles and, without making further assumptions, cannot necessarily conclusively decide among them. Orthodox rational choice theory faces a multiple equilibria problem. This fact, however, does not mean that orthodox rational choice contractarianism faces this problem too and is doomed to failure. In contrast to the rational choice theorist, the moral theorist has access to the full tool kit of pure instrumental morality to solve the multiple equilibria problem.

53My own theory provides a case in point. The theory does not introduce traditional moral assumptions for the justification of the weak principle of universalization. Nevertheless, it defines a particular context of choice that relies on Hobbesian assumptions concerning the state of nature and includes certain Hobbesian prudential considerations in order to justify a moral order that can ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation in a world in which agents are assumed to follow the dictates of orthodox rational choice theory, although doing so, without self-imposed prudential constraints, would prevent the agents from reaching their long-term goals.

  • 11 For further discussion of this point, see Moehler (2020b, 94-95; 2021, 8325-8329).

54Now, one may question my interpretation of Hobbes’s assumptions and the particular context of choice that my theory of moral contractarianism defines. However, if these assumptions are made, then the weak principle of universalization follows as the uniquely justified principle of conflict resolution for the conditions described. If different assumptions are made concerning the precise rationality of agents and their bargaining situation, or additional stipulations are made, especially morally substantial stipulations that are not part of my theory or even run counter to it (as some of the stipulations that Vanderschraaf 2020, 77-83; 2023 makes in support of his theory), then of course other bargaining principles may be adopted.11

55Despite these clarifications, the reader may conclude that the particular theory of moral contractarianism that I developed as part of my multilevel social contract theory pays too high a price to move from Hobbes to Kant and to lay out a moral theory that can accommodate deep moral diversity while still maximally respecting the autonomy of agents as a means to ensure, with the highest possible certainty, stable peaceful long-term cooperation among rational prudent agents. Also, one may question whether the theory provides the best interpretation of Hobbes’s assumptions or whether Hobbes’s assumptions are the most adequate assumptions for a theory of moral contractarianism whose goal is to ensure stable peaceful long-term cooperation, although probably no other philosopher in the history of moral theory has paid so much attention to achieving this goal and had such deep understanding of the (recurrent) failures of human nature. From the perspective of moral theory, these are the interesting questions to be addressed for the development of the best possible theory of moral contractarianism, Hobbesian or otherwise. Whether or not any of the answers provided to these questions can be formalized is not a central consideration.

I am grateful to J. P. Messina, David Wiens, and Alexis Louaas for engaging with my work. I would like to thank Mauro Rossi and two anonymous referees for their helpful suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this article. I dedicate this article to Jerry Gaus who significantly influenced my thinking in moral and political philosophy and who was instrumental in making the interdisciplinary field of philosophy, politics, and economics salonfähig.

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Notes

1 For discussion of the differences among these positions, see D’Agostino et al. (2017) and Moehler (2018a, 11-12; 2020a, 4-7; 2021). In modern philosophy, conventionalist theories have been defended by Hume ([1739/1740] 2000), Sugden (1986; 2018), Binmore (1994; 1998; 2005), Skyrms (1996; 2004), Alexander (2007), and Vanderschraaf (2006; 2019). Contractualist theories have been defended by Kant ([1785] 1998), Rawls (1971), Scanlon (1998), Darwall (2006), and Southwood (2010).

2 Orthodox rational choice theory stands in contrast to evolutionary rational choice theory. For discussion of the differences between orthodox and evolutionary rational choice (game) theory, see Sugden (2001). For nonorthodox interpretations of Hobbes’s moral theory, see Lloyd (1992; 2009). For discussion of the differences between orthodox and nonorthodox interpretations of Hobbes’s moral theory, see Gaus (2013).

3 In this sense, orthodox rational choice contractarianism represents a ‘functionalist’ approach to morality. For discussion of the notion of functionalism in moral and political theory, see Van Schoelandt (2020).

4 The late Gauthier (2013) changed his view. For the most recent, albeit brief, statement of his revised position, see Gauthier (2022a, xiii-xvii).

5 Independent of historical accuracy, the contemporary significance of historical texts and theories must not be overlooked. For an excellent discussion of this point and, more generally, the use of the history of political theory for contemporary purposes, see Blau (2021).

6 For discussion of the determinants of agents’ minimum standards of living, see Moehler (2018a, 115-118).

7 See Kavka (1984; 1986, 224-236) and Hampton (1986, 208-266), who argues that such ‘alienation contracts’ generally fail.

8 For further discussion of Hobbes’s ninth law of nature, see Gauthier (2022b, 146-147). As Gauthier puts it (ibid.), “[r]ecognition of equality is necessary if the laws of nature are to be accepted by all. Without acceptance they would not serve to free humans from the natural condition of universal war.”

9 See Fried (2003) for discussion of the plausibility of exit options in the context of the social contract. See also Juarez-Garcia and Schaefer (2022).

10 See Gaus (2016, xv-xviii) for a thoughtful discussion of the use of (formal) models in moral and political philosophy.

11 For further discussion of this point, see Moehler (2020b, 94-95; 2021, 8325-8329).

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Michael Moehler, « Contractarianism: Morality, Rationality, and the Context of Choice »Œconomia, 13-1 | 2023, 1-22.

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Michael Moehler, « Contractarianism: Morality, Rationality, and the Context of Choice »Œconomia [En ligne], 13-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/oeconomia/13914 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/oeconomia.13914

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Michael Moehler

Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, Virginia Tech, 820 University City Blvd (0348), Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA, moehler@vt.edu

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