Social Contract Theories

Compare and contrast the ‘social contract theories’ of Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls. Which theory is more persuasive? Be sure to explain what Rawls means by ‘the original position,’ and the ‘veil of ignorance,’ and why those concepts do not figure in Hobbes’ theory. Social Contract Theory holds that the only consideration that makes actions right is that action is in accordance with an agreement made by the rational people for governing their society. In this paper, I will only focus on Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls’ social contract theories of morality by analyzing the similarity and difference of them.

Also I’ll explain why I believe John Rawls’s theory is more persuasive. Thomas Hobbes thought that people have rights to self-preservation; they also have rights to defend themselves against the threat of losing what they desired in order to survive, which is a general rule, called the “Law of Nature”. In the state of nature, people act guided by their self-interests, and want to attain their rational desires. Therefore, each individual is at risk of losing what he or she has if it is also desired by another.

According to Hobbes, in this natural condition, three major reasons could be the causes of fighting between individuals: competition, diffidence and glory (141). Therefore, the “state of nature” would be like the state of war where people are against each other, and life would be “short, nasty and brutish”. To escape from the state of nature requires a social contract to govern relations between individuals, as well as an all-powerful state to enforce the rules. The “original position” developed by John Rawls corresponds to Hobbes’ the state of nature theory.

A fair original position requires people to choose principles from behind the “veil of ignorance”. Rawls claims, in the original condition, “no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles. ” (148) Knowing the facts, such as good-looking, intelligence, education, and social class would bias the decision about the basic structure of society.

People who are well-educated, intelligent and in the high social class usually enjoy the priority of choosing principles, which is unfair to the rest of people in the society. Behind the veil of ignorance, regardless of these facts, all biases are gone, and everyone becomes to the essential core person. He also believes the agreement in the original position should be made by a person selected at random. Rawls’s theory states justice as fairness. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society.

Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice: firstly, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with as similar scheme of liberties for others”. Secondly, “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (149). The second condition on economic inequality is the principle of “fair equality of opportunity.

” I think the fair equality of opportunity does not mean everyone has the same amount of wealth or same income, but that in a free society everyone has the equal chance to get the wealth, which requires the existence of equal starting social conditions for all. The theories of Hobbes and Rawls seem dissimilar. Hobbes thinks social contract is not a deontological theory, whereas Rawls thinks it is a deontological theory. Hobbes theory is egoistic, and defines a person’s happiness with the satisfaction of that person’s desires.

It agrees with virtue ethics that individual good is before the right; the right is analyzed according to what rules promote each person’s good. By contrast, for Rawls, the right is prior to the good; what makes actions right is partly independent form individual good. Rawls only concerned a sub-domain of ethics—the portion dealing with justice. In addition, Hobbes and Rawls understand the authority of morality differently. Hobbes thinks morality has authority because it is in our narrow self-interest to be moral. However, Rawls thinks just laws have authority because they express our desire to treat other people fair.

Even though Hobbes’s theory and Rawls differs in many aspects, they do share some similarities. Firstly, both of Hobbes and Rawls considered under what circumstances the government should to be made. Hobbes viewed in the state of nature, government is needed for making rules in order to get away from anarchy. For Rawls, his answer is the “original position”. Secondly, both of them appeal to thought hypothetical social contracts. The “state of nature” is a hypothesis, and the “veil of ignorance” is purely an imaginary veil required by the idea of the original position.

Thirdly, they both provided political theories of justice. There are several reasons why I think Rawls’s theory is more persuasive. First and for most, I disagree with Hobbes’s premise that everyone in nature is self-interest and evil. I believe people at birth, are naturally good; their natures are similar, but their habits make them different. (Three Character Classic, a traditional Chinese text, an embodiment of Confucianism used for teaching young children. ) The reason for making people’s habits different is their living surroundings and environment. Young children are pure but they are vulnerable to learn bad habits.

According to Three Character Classic, the only way to deal with it is teaching; otherwise, their nature will deteriorate. In fact, it is hardly to deny young children are much kinder than adults. In reality, it is not lacking of people who are selfishless and always consider others. I insist that kindness and compassion are the keys to maintaining the society, which cannot be replaced by politics and rules. Second, Taylor Hartline argues what distinguishes philosophical arguments of social and political theory is that human nature must be appealed to in order to justify our institutions.

Rawls’ assumption that people want fairness is just from the perspective of human nature. Rawls argues only in the original position behind the veil of ignorance, which he feels is most fair, can the system of justice accomplish. Without any bias, it is possible to make fair distribution of primary good, such as wealth and income. Last but not least, in Hobbes’s social contract theory, it is a covenant rather than contract, which means the leader has constitutional power. The only promise that the leader made to its citizens is to keep his role of the leader.

As long as he does not give up this role, he is not regarded as breaking the agreement. However all the other individual has to unexceptionally obey the agreement they signed with their country; otherwise, people will be regarded as unjust and amoral. This is absolutely unfair to the citizens. Under Hobbes’ premise that people pursue only what they perceive to be in their own individually considered best interests, it is very likely that leader makes unfair rules that solely benefit himself or people close to him. In this case, social contract is meaningless, because individuals in the society cannot find happiness, which is bad for human nature, and it is impossible to create a justice institution.

Then what could be the reason for that the theory of “original position” and “veil of ignorance” are not included in Hobbes’s theory. Hobbes was not interested in fairness. He believed people need a motivation for obeying the social contract. The motivation is that the obedience is the only means to survival when people’s self-interests are threatened. If all the inequalities are removed, there will be no injustice, so that nothing can guarantee the maintenance of that contract. In a nutshell, I personally prefer Rawls’ social contract theory, in which fairness is qualified and equality is satisfied, then that is the best way to accomplish happiness.

References: John Rawls (1971), A Theory of Justice Exploring Ethics, Oxford University Press Thomas Hobbes (1651), Leviathan, Exploring Ethics, Oxford University Press Three Character Classic Available at: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Three_Character_Classic T Hartline Rawls’s A Theory of Justice: Addressing the Criticisms of Okin and Pateman Available at: http://www. cupr. org/VI3/Hartline-VI3. pdf.