Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Kevin Vallier has a good post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism on contractualism.  I highly recommend it.  One point I would like to highlight. He does a good job of illustrating what I think most people are confused about in assessing contemporary contractualism: it's not about agreement or consent, but justification.

II. Justification, Not Consent
Most readers will think that contractualism rests on the idea of a contract (true) that in turn depends on a conception of consent (false). The traditional social contract views (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) did rely on consent and agreement. But the contractualist tradition in political theory has evolved away from an ideal of actual agreement and hypothetical agreement. That is, the social contract does not consist in rules we have actually agreed to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out for three hundred years) or rules we would only hypothetically agree to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out can’t really generate obligations). Sam Freeman puts it this way: the “role of unanimous collective agreement” is in showing “what we have reasons to do in our social and political relations.” Agreement itself is not the binding act. Instead, agreement is reason-revealing.

Thus, the core normative idea of social contract theory (contractualism) is not consent or agreement but justification. As Rawls said of his original position, its aim is to settle “the question of justification … by working out a problem of deliberation.” (TJ, 16) Or as Gaus has put it, “Contractualism is … best understood as a method for publicly justifying the public moral code of a society. Seen in this light, the idea of ‘consent’ – or indeed ‘agreement’ – is only heuristic.” (Value and Justification, 328)

The social contract in contemporary political philosophy is the attempt to solve a justificatory problem by converting it into a deliberative problem. Justifying social arrangements requires showing that all citizens have sufficient reason to accept the arrangement.

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