Shae Walsh – 18401652
PHIL10040 – Introduction to Ethics
Part B Essay – Topic 2: The Social Contract
“What are the limitations of the social contract argument?”
Thomas Hobbes created what is presently regarded to be one of the four pillars of moral philosophy, his Social Contract Theory, to explain the origins of morality through a structured and logical approach. However, upon closer analysis, it becomes clear that this theory is inherently flawed and is strictly bound by several limitations that prevent it from reaching its desired goal of an absolute theory of morality. Throughout this essay I shall highlight and discuss what I believe those limitations are through a process of critical analysis. Hobbes’ theory appears to be a rigid and logical method of interpreting where morality stems from, and it in many ways accomplishes this. However, it fails to account for all potential moral scenarios and is fundamentally incomplete. It is vacuous and meaningless towards people who willingly do not agree to the terms of the contract and neglects the needs and rights of animals and people with disabilities. Furthermore, it fails to allow specific people to reap their deserved benefits that result from their cooperation with the contract and enables motivation for people to commit immoral acts. Finally, as a practical, systematic approach it does not accurately reflect the nature of morality and therefore cannot be regarded as an absolute moral theory.
As Hobbes deliberates, the idea of the social contract is to ensure mutual benefit for all parties bound to its rules as a greater alternative to living in the “state of nature” and states that any action executed by an agent bound to the contract that breaks the rules of the contract is deemed immoral. This, for the most part, is the basis for a structured, cooperative and civilized society where people live in harmony for their mutual benefit. Where this theory breaks down, then, is when we consider hypothetically, people who willingly refuse to agree to the contract terms and therefore exist in the state of nature where they act purely out of self-interest and forgo any altruistic behavior. If this person is not bound by the social contract, they are not bound by its moral code and therefore any act they commit out of self-interest is completely justified to them. This concept is harmful as it denies the existence of immorality. When we consider people with disabilities the theory struggles here too. According to the social contract, people with certain disabilities are not fulfilling their end of the bargain and should therefore be “released” and refused the benefits an otherwise able-bodied person would be able to reap. Disability is not immoral and people with disability should not be denied the benefits of living in a cooperative society. The limitations of Hobbes’ social contract theory in this respect contrast sharply with the progressive world view that discrimination is no longer an acceptable social practice.
Another evidently restrictive factor to the theory’s absoluteness is the existence of racial and gender discrimination towards people of colour and women in particular. Everyone should benefit from living in a reciprocal society once they agree to the terms of the social contract. This is clearly far from reality in cases of racial and gender discrimination where women and people of ethnic backgrounds who uphold their end of the bargain are denied the fruits of living in a contractarian society. The fact that discrimination exists sheds light on the holes in contractarianism, holes that the theory fails to fill.
An additional fatal weakness in the contract’s integrity that limits its ability to stand as an absolute theory of morality is the troubling concept of how it enables motivation for prima facie immoral acts such as cheating, robbery and even more heinous, deeply immoral acts like murder. This means that essentially, if you were to commit one of these crimes and did not get caught, you are not violating the terms of the contract because the act that caused a violation cannot be traced back to you, so from the perspective of others bound to the contract, you remain a perfectly moral, law abiding agent who they can still trust to uphold your end of the bargain. This clearly illuminates a significant flaw in the social contract theory as it tells us what we ought and ought not to do in order to be moral but not how to be moral or what it means to be moral. To put it in analogous terms, the social contract is in many ways like being given the blueprints of a house, we can build it following the assigned instructions, but we are oblivious to what materials should be used to ensure it is structurally sound and able to support its own weight. Similarly, the Social Contract Theory determines our rights but does not tell us how to be moral.
How might the likes of Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau respond to my criticisms of contractarianism? It is likely that Hobbes would rebut my claim that contractarianism breaks down when we consider people with disabilities and animals with a counter-claim stemming from Rene Descartes ideology of the time that animals do not have souls as they are not descendants of Adam, therefor they cannot contribute to civilized society and have no place within the contract. This mindset is very old-fashioned and does not provide a strong argument. In today’s society, we do feel morally obliged to help a person with a disability in need or assist an injured animal. We recognize an animal’s ability to feel pain and do not mistreat them because it would bring them a great deal of suffering. We ourselves would not like to be physically hurt so we, acting as moral agents, would not hurt an animal intentionally. Just because a person with a disability is unable to fulfil their side of the bargain does not make us any less morally obliged to them and this highlights the Social Contract Theory’s flaw in regard to this moral issue.
So, while the social contract theory does provide a very structured and logical approach to morality for the most part and works perfectly in cases of civil disobedience, it simply cannot be regarded as an absolute theory of morality due to the presence of several limiting factors discussed above. When combined with the other three prevailing theories of morality, Utilitarianism, Virtue theory and Kantianism, a more vivid picture of morality emerges, however, using the Social Contract Theory in isolation can only get you so far and its flaws do not pass by unnoticed.
Rachels, James, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 141-155. Boston :McGraw-Hill, (2003)
Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, “Social Contract Theory”. Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1679 (1968)
Harrison, Peter, Descartes on Animals, Oxford University Press, The Philosophical Quarterly, (April 1992)
Hursthouse, Rosalind and Pettigrove, Glen, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition)
Atwell, John, Ends and principles in Kant’s moral thought, Springer, (1986)