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Morality and the Limit of Social Contracts

June 11, 2010

My co-blogger Morning’s Minion rightly criticizes the reduction of human relations to social contracts. This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights. The reduction of moral obligation to the limits of the social contract chokes morality and kills the moral life. It severs me from my obligations to others. It makes morality relative to those who are the same as me: anything goes when I encounter the other. The river has no contractual relationship with me, so I may engineer it and pollute it as I deem necessary for my designs. The cow never signed a contract with me, so I may treat it with cruelty as I prepare it for my feasting. Those people living on land I claim as my own make no legal claim upon the land themselves, so I may remove them as I see fit. Clearly this contractual morality sins against those others with whom I have no contract, but it also inclines me toward viciousness. I cannot grow in virtue and turn my soul to the good when I consider myself obligated only to some and never to others. Even if I strive always to respond morally to my contractual obligations, I develop villainous habits when I divorce myself from my obligations to everyone and everything else.

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  1. Jeff permalink
    June 11, 2010 8:15 am

    Very well said.

  2. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    June 11, 2010 8:26 am

    Thank you, Jeff.

  3. Colin Gormley permalink
    June 11, 2010 8:57 am

    True, but I think it is a straw man argument. The social contract thinking is primarily a contract between a people and the government. The Founding Fathers, such as John Adams, pointed out that the government they set up relied on other social institutions, such as churches, to define and guide a people in other areas of society.

  4. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    June 11, 2010 12:34 pm


    I’m not referring so much to actual social contracts historically made between peoples, but rather to the social contract as a metaphorical framework for moral thought and action.

  5. June 11, 2010 1:44 pm

    Agreed. Good thing this doesn’t really happen! I’ve never heard of a person who has any such understanding (theoretical or practical) of social contracts.

  6. June 11, 2010 2:12 pm

    This is spot on.

  7. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    June 11, 2010 5:20 pm

    Thank you, Eric.

    Zach – I find that some people implicitly view morality this way. They may not call it a contractual morality, but it’s there, in the examples I gave, for instance.

  8. June 11, 2010 6:30 pm

    I guess I don’t think your examples concern the social contract per se.

  9. June 12, 2010 6:42 am

    The social contract makes one answerable to the collective. Morality makes the one answerable to the individual–to one’s neighbor. Morality demands that one act towards the other as a brother; not that one act toward the other as a Samaritan or as a Levite.

  10. Kyle R. Cupp permalink
    June 12, 2010 9:25 am

    They don’t, Zach. They concern the treatment of moral obligations as if they were mere obligations under a social contract.

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