“Without a social contract there would be no morality… ” In this essay I will be debating whether moral motivation is purely existent as a result of a ‘social contract’ through an insight to conflicting philosophers’ hypothesis. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes supported the idea that a social contract is necessary in order for a moral society to be attainable. Hobbes argued that morality would be non-existent within ‘a state of nature’.
This is a society that lives in the absence of a social contract or a superior authority; he then concluded that life of an individual in this society would be “solitary, poor, brutish and short”, inevitably, by having no one to enforce moral behaviour. Hobbes furthered his argument by separating the two ways in which a social contract could come about; this is through either a mutual agreement/desire to co-operate or by force. However, Hobbes predominantly believed that regardless of why someone abides by the contract’s rules, the fundamental motivation is self-interest; this is titled ‘psychological egoism’.
Therefore, as we are all naturally corrupt and fundamentally selfish having a contract put in place tames us as opposed to a rule-free society, which he believed would subsequently, disintegrate into chaos. Furthermore, Hobbes believed that co-operation is the best solution as it maximises the self-interest of both parties and this is supposedly guaranteed due to it being in our long-term self-interest, which means that we will benefit from our actions in the future; this is called contractarianism.
In order to support Hobbes’ view of human nature, we could use the example of ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’ which can be applied to multiple situations of decision making to demonstrate how it is in our best interest to trust and co-operate; Hobbes’ argument suggests how we can guarantee this because we are all egoists. In addition, ‘The ring of Gyges’ is a subsequently necessary example to support the claim that morality is simply pursuing self-interest. In this story, a boy discovers a ring, which possesses the power of invisibility to whoever wears it.
So, Gyges takes advantage of this by fulfilling any desire due to a freedom of any significant reprisal. This shows that given the opportunity one tends to choose the option that has a beneficial outcome for ourselves, regardless of whether it is a moral action or not. Hobbes concluded that the desires of a person are no sin, and neither are the actions that arise from these desires. This meant that Hobbes felt that without a government people would not hesitate to use reason to guide them to the outcome their desires want.
Whether or not that desire is good for society will make little difference regarding the actions that are carried out by a person. Therefore an absolute sovereignty is required to force a person to act In such a way that benefits society as a whole; this avoids living in a state of nature. It could be argued that the story of the ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a metaphor for the savage in all of us; that if rules and authority are taken away anything could happen.
It is true that people take advantage of this to a certain extent; however, self- interest plays a strong part in one’s actions, perhaps subconsciously, in conjunction with the want to be a moral being. A different view point is Aristotle’s virtue theory of Eudaimonia: Aristotle seeks flourishing happiness in life. He believes that this can be achieved for each individual through the embracement of virtues. Aristotle believes that virtues are the mean of two vices, therefore neither a virtue of excess nor deficiency.
The concept of Eudaimonia is about feeling good because you have acted well, but, Aristotle was not a Hedonist as Hedonists ties happiness to pleasure, but Aristotle ties happiness to well acting and subsequent pleasure. This suggests that with a goal of Eudaimonia for an individual, a social contract is more likely to come about due to a genuine desire to be a moralistic being (therefore eliminating the problem of ‘force’ that a social contract may require) and for the happiness that Aristotle believes will follow.
Returning to the initial question, there are several criticisms that can be used against the social contract. For instance, society has never physically signed anything that states that we agree to abide by the contracts rules; therefore we are arguably under no obligation. Secondly, there will always be people who cannot completely follow the rules of the contract for justified reasons; it is clearly unjust to hold them accountable for their behaviour, and it seems necessary for these moral laws to be universal.
However, predominantly, there is the ‘free rider’ problem. This is the belief that if we’re all motivated by self-interest alone, people would be constantly looking for ways to break free of the contract for their own benefit if they believe that there will be no major consequences – these people are the psychological egoists that Hobbes believes threatens a society.
In spite of this, John Rawls believed that a contract made through the ‘original position’ would eliminate the possibility of a ‘free rider’, he argued that free riders are only a problem with contracts that come about through force, and surely if a person is forced into acting morally it is an inauthentic desire and is therefore not true morality – morality should be chosen. The ‘original position’ is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice.
In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of justice. In this way, Rawls believed that a social contract would make morality attainable. Moreover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that a social forms the basis of individual liberty and in a democracy people and rules have the same interests and therefore they work together for their own mutual benefit.
Rousseau argued that primitive people have two basic emotions: self-preservation and repulsion at the suffering of others. It seems apparent that these two features could from a basic for co-operative living, however, he felt that amongst this civilization and the rules that go with it tend to corrupt people. For instance, having introduced the idea of ‘private property’, initial conditions of inequality became more pronounced.
Some have property and others are forced to work for them and subsequently the development of social classes and resentment begins. Obviously this destroys the simplicity and co-operative possibilities of the primitive state. Personally, I believe that the basic desires to stay alive; to stay free of pain and the more complex desire for happiness are part of human nature. It is true that morality can require this at times, however, we give up something’s we want for ourselves for the sake of someone.
But we cannot assume that people are as interested in other people’s wellbeing as they are in their own. I believe it is also true that at times we wish to help each other when it is no cost to ourselves, but if there is no competition between getting what one want and helping others we cannot assume that people will sacrifice their self-interest and be altruistic. Therefore, I do believe that in some respect a social contract is necessary in order for morality to be attainable.