Moral Contract

Related to utilitarianism (greatest good for greatest number) and consequentialism (choose the best consequence) is the notion of moral contractarianism.  You have most likely heard it referred to as “social contract.”  The notion is simple enough; moral norms and constraints on conduct ought to be freely acceptable to people and designed for their mutual benefit.  It is an agreed upon system where each one scratches the other’s back and live happily ever after.


There are various types of moral contract systems.  One such type that has been around since ethics has been studied is the self-interest contracts—moral systems which recognize that people tend to act in their self interest, whether in the interest of their own pleasure, power, reputation.  The need for the contract, according to this view, arises out of the expectation that individual self-interests will often conflict with one another, thus creating a normalizing mechanism to conduct the mediation and sustain the normalized morality.


A second type of contract system is the “Right-based” contract system.  This type is familiar to Americans, as it represents from Locke and others the equality of the parties involved.  This contract system assumes that all are equal and, in some sense, equally reasonable so that one can appeal to all for acceptable moral norms on the basis of what any free-willed agent would agree is a “reasonable” expectation.  As Samuel Freeman describes it, “If it can be shown that core moral judgments reasonable people take as especially important can be justified by principles that are agreeable to free agents equally positioned, and that these principles themselves stand up to our critical reflection when compared with other principles, then we have an adequate foundation for morality.”


Samuel Freeman argues for a moral contract system of ethics which combines these two elements with a third, namely, philosophical contractualism, which, basically, asserts that the issues of knowledge, truth, and objectivity are summed up in philosophical terms as “the principles that could be justified and agreed to among reasonable persons as a basis for uncoerced, general agreement.”


Freeman is especially concerned to adopt a combination of types two and three to formulate his ethical system of contractarianism.  Ultimate truth is a “phenomenological” matter, which is to say, that it relies upon the perspective of the moral subjects involved; it has to do with interpersonal perspective.  The point of interpersonal perspective, in fact, is what Freeman views as significant for setting moral contract views apart from consequentialist views.  One can hear this distancing when Freeman says, “One peculiarity of a consequentialist conception is that it conceives of morality impersonally rather than interpersonally.  To say morality is interpersonal means that it is fundamentally concerned with the norms that regulate individual agents; interpersonal relations, which norms agents themselves appeal to in order to guide their actions, justify their conduct to each other, and make possible cooperation and social life generally.”


Morality, then, is “concerned with discovering rules everyone can voluntarily accept and observe which enable them to accomplish their purposes and commitments.  This is one regard in which moral contractarianism exhibits respect for persons as such, as opposed to impersonal states of affairs” Freeman asserts. 


There are questions to ask of such a system of ethics.  For one, we might ask how in the world one gets voluntary acceptance from a group of people.  Try getting your like-minded Sunday School group to agree on a “morality” of something as simple and straightforward as how many hymns and how many praise choruses ought to be sung on a given Sunday, and you will get a taste for how difficult this voluntary acceptance can be with a disparate group of believers, non-believers, pacifists and activists.  What exactly is the group anyway?  All Americans?  How does one get all Americans to agree on anything, much less their entire conduct of morality?


More importantly, moral contractarianism is built on a system of “reasonable” acceptance.  Who gets to decide what is reasonable?  Freeman says, “Mere conventional acceptance of some principle by a group of misguided, egotistical, or evil persons is not justification.  Moral contractarians say that what makes for justification in ethics is not simply acceptance by people, but reasonable acceptance by people described in a certain way.”  One wonders whether evangelical Christians, bible-believers, and non-evolutionists could ever attain to such a high status among the status quo of American culture.


Finally, we might agree with something Freeman himself admits, though not exactly in the manner he intends it, that, “If there is only one ultimate good that is rational for all persons to pursue, and it is univocal (the Vision of God…), then it is much more difficult to see why there should be a need (or place) for a contractarian justification for morality.”

4 thoughts on “Moral Contract

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  1. The dichotomy of impersonal v. interpersonal ethics seems to present the basic problem that underlies both the contractarian and consequentialist schemes – it denies (or assumes the irrelevance of) the personhood of God. If ethics is impersonal in the consequentialist scheme (although I think the consequentialist may deny it – they would have to assume certain rights of personhood to define what is good and best) then the problem is in rejecting biblical anthropology and divorcing ethics from persons. Contractarianism seems to solve this problem by making ethics interpersonal, which is certainly more intuitive, but, in addition to the logical problems you note in your article, even more seriously is its treatment of ethics as merely involving the relations of equal persons (all of whom are human beings). In reality, the center of ethics is our duty in relationship to God, whose primary demands are relational in nature – to love Him (the greatest command) and to worship Him (prohibitions against idolatry, commands to worship, etc.). A contractarian system cannot be extended to this aspect of ethics because we are not equal with God. This is all in seed form in my mind as you’ve gotten me thinking, but I would be interested to see you flesh out the implications of this more fully at some point – the impact on ethical perspectives of viewing God merely as a divine law-giver (who either grants divine justification to our ethics or doesn’t) rather than a divine person whose very existence/attributes make “interpersonal” ethical demands on His creation.


  2. It would take a whole lot more time than I can give (not to mention knowledge that I don’t have) to flesh out the implications of Infinite-Personal truth. Jesus’ comments certainly demand it: “I am the truth… the way…” I think you and I would agree on a point these secular ethicists cannot see, namely, that contractarianism, though it is very much concerned with interpersonal ethics, is itself in plain rebellion to both creation and human nature. Both creation and human nature is already interpreted to us through the divine word (divine logos) who is upholding all things. The rocks cry out. The conscience bears witness. The heavens declare. Contractarians and consequentialists attempt to establish an anthropological–specifically non-theological–scheme, as though none of these elements of creation is being heard. As we move through more of these secular attempts, we shall see how the difficulty of maintaining a coherent ethical scheme without relationship to God will become only more apparent. I would note that the one thing these secular schemes have in common is a rejection of “Divine Command” ethics. Divine Command ethics, of course, has some difficulties to overcome also (as in the Islam problem of arbitrariness), but it certainly puts all men on equal footing, subordinated to a moral judge.


  3. So is it safe to say there are at least three levels of “divine involvement” in ethics – biblical/Trinitarian ethics which is distinctly Christian; generic theistic ethics which grant the premise of divine commands as justification for ethics but makes no reference to a personal God as the basis for ethics; and secular ethics which denies any existence or relevance of deity? If so, what would you say is the fundamental distinction (or what are the most important distinctions)between the first two categories? Maybe that is too far of a rabbit trail since you’re dealing primarily with understanding the third category right now, but I thought I would throw that out there for you to address when you have the chance. In terms of talking about ethics within the church (among those who would agree that secular approaches are untenable) that is where I personally need to be able to more clearly understand and help others think about ethics in relation to the gospel. But I’m enjoying your survey, don’t get sidetracked on my account.


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