Why Should I Be Moral?: Social Contract Theory

Social Contract Theory


The Prisoners Dilema

Altruism is in our genes

Do we articulate self-interest independantly of morality?

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  • Created by: Molly
  • Created on: 09-05-12 11:26

Morality as a social contract: Description

  • It is an enlightened Egoist position developed by Thomas Hobbes
  • As an Egoist theory it states you should always act to promote personal good, claiming that humans are naturally self-interested. That we only act conventionally moal to avoid censure and bring about the greatest personal benefit.
  • Hobbes says to imagine us in a state of nature, we would be at constant risk for each other, so without civil society and its moral rules life would be 'solitary, poor, nastybrutish and short'.
  • Its rational for everyone to want to escape this state, so we agree on a conventional set of rules. Morality!
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Morality as a social contract: Criticisms 1

  • No historical evidence for any group of people living in such as 'state of nature', we are innately social and without cooperation wouldnt of survived. Having never lived without society we could never have been contracted into one. Furthermore we wouldnt understand the concept of a contract, you need to be socialised. And if i never agreed to a contract, surely I'm not bound by its laws.
  • Hobbes said he was only asking us to imagine a state of nature as the alternative. The agreement is tacet, if you live in society and reap its benefits then you agree to the contract.
  • However it doesnt seem that i can leave, even if i left this society and this social contract, i would have to enter another, so i am just abandoning one set of rules for another. If you cannot leave the contratc, it is effectively forced upon you.
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Morality as a social contract: Citicisms 2

  • Surely given an opportunity to benefit immorally we would break our agreement, we are all bound to resort to self-interest leading the system to quickly descend to anarchy. Hobbes says this is why we need a strong sovereign (the state) to impose the law, so the greater benefit remains by following the rules.
  • This doesnt seem adequate, if we were truely self-interested we should have no problem mugging each other unless we live in the strictest of totalitarian states. Hobbes seems wrong in stating that we only act selfishly, we like to believe we can act altruistically, as we believe parents act for their children or charity workers. To deny this motice seems counter-intuitive. David Hume claimed that our sympathetic concern for one another was as strong a feeling as self-intersted.
  • It places you under the tyranny of the majority, a strong individual may not find it to be the most advantageous position.
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Morality as a social contract: Criticisms 3

  • Other philosophers have argued that morality is a means of control benefitting the minority rather than society as a whole, for example Karl Marx suggested that morality is an expression of the ideology of the ruling class, therefore moral principles serve their class interest. These views present morality as a way to resist social change and revolotion.
  • Some question whether Hobbes account is really moral though, as a deontologist would argue that moral actions must be motivated by a desire to do good. It seems to present people not as moral, but as constrained, but this is surely not what we understand by morality.
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Morality as a social contract: The Prisoners Dilem

The prisoners dilema presents a scenario where two friends and  prisoners are independantly asked to give evidence about the other, they are given the option of freedom if they give evidence and further emprisonment if their friend betrays them, or if they both confess they will both remain imprisoned. So each person has the opportunity to either stay quiet and trust their friend to do so too, or betray their friend for personal gain.

This is used to illustrate our innate self-interest may lead in the long term to altuism, as they realise that by both acting selflessly they have the greatest chance of survival.

This is used to describe the position of an Enlightened Egoist, who still acts for their self-interest but who has learned that in the long term acting selflessly, altruistically, brings the best results in social groups.

There are cases where you may believe that you are acting purely altruistically, but they can be explained in terms of collective interest.

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Morality as a social contract: Altruism is in our

  • This is the believe that altruistic behaviour can be explained because it leads to the greater evolutionary success. Richard Dawkins supports this idea.
  • The fact that it is mutually advantageous to behave morally means that the genes which tend to produce such behaviour survive.
  • So humans may well have generally altruistic motives which are part of them precisely because this is an effective survival strategy.


  • Surely moral behaviour should be good in itself, it turning out to benefit me and others isnt what makes it moral. Kantian deontology claims we can discover our moral duties through reason, and they exist universally irrespective of advantage.
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Morality as a social contract: Altruism is in our

Further Criticisms

  • Christian deontology also claims that morality has nothing to do with social agreements. Moral duties are given to us by God, and so independant of social conventrions.
  • Utilitarians argue that the morally correct action is whatever promotes the reatest good for the greatest many. So a social agreement cannot constitute what is moral, but at best reflect it.
  • Certain things are wrong regardless of convention, surely moral approval or objection runs, whether or not certain things are morally right is independant of what those around you believe. E.g. if you lived near a slave plantation, we still wouldnt consider slavery moral just because the use of their labout was the social convention.
  • The social contract approach presupposes moral obligation, how can i be expected to keep the promise to keep the contract. I am morally obliged to do so, but if i have a moral obligation to keep the contract , then it cannot be used to explain the source of moral obligation.
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Morality as a social contract: Do we articulate ou

  • The notion of a contract explains why it is rational for self-interested agents to restrict their fredom.
  • On the face of it, it seems that there are many different examples of genuinely altruistic action, however an egoist response is to explain that there is always an underlying - often unconscious - selfish motive.
  • Often its claimed the personal benefit is the self-satisfaction felt after, but this seems to be confusing the object of the persons desire and the result.
  • If all apparently altruistic acts are just desguised egoistical ones then the egoist position threatens to just degenerate into an empty claim and the theory becomes irrefutable. As without any altruistic acts there is no longer a contrast between altruistic and egotistical behaviour, so the concept of a selfish act looses all meaning. For the very concept of a selfish act to exist there must exist an unselfish one, they cannot exist meaningfully independantly. So any attempt to explain cooperative behaviour solely in terms of self-interested behaviour may be doomed from the start.
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