May 26, 2020
A Reader in
by Phil Washburn
edited by Matthew Del Nevo
for Pathways Schools (Australia)
a project of the International Society for Philosophers
Copyright © 1997, 2001 by Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Ch.2. Philosophical Dilemmas: A Pro and Con Introduction to the Major Questions. Second Edition. Oxford
University Press, Oxford, New York, 2001.
Adapted for Australian Schools by Matthew Del Nevo with permission
Social Philosophy: Liberty, Equality, Justice
1. Contract 3
2. Liberty 17
3. Equality 30
4. Justice 41
5. World 54
6. Ethnicity 67
7. Connections 82
1 Is society based on a contract? Contractor or Organicist?
Society is a fascinating thing. Like everyone else, philosophers think about society and
try to understand it. They try to look at it as a whole. But what kind of thing is a society? A
society is a kind of abstraction. You cannot see it or touch it. It is made up of many individuals,
who are not abstractions. Should we think of a society as simply a large number of individuals?
Or is it something more?
Sociologists who study society never observe anything but particular individuals. Based
on their surveys, they make generalizations about society. For example, some sociologists may
say that Australia is becoming a more religious society. But what they actually observe is
individuals going to church, or people saying that they are religious. They cannot observe a
On the other hand, societies seem to be more than just collections of individuals. We say
that Australian society is a democracy, it is divided into economic classes, it is growing, it is
finding its role in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. But an individual is not a democracy, he
or she is not divided into classes, and may not be violent. It seems that a society as a whole can
have characteristics that individuals do not.
Furthermore, many people believe that society influences the individuals in it. The form
of government, the educational institutions, the predominant religion, the economic activity and
opportunities, the traditions, and many other aspects of society shape and mould the individuals
who grow up and live in that society. If society can cause changes in individuals, it must exist
and be a real thing. How can an abstraction exist and cause changes in people?
Philosophers have tried to understand society as a whole, and have divided into two main
camps. Some believe that society is a real entity, existing in its own right. Societies have
properties of their own, just as an animal has properties different from the properties of the
individual cells in its body. Others claim that the basic reality is individuals, and the word
"society" simply describes groups of individuals who live and work together. If we want to
understand a society, they say, we must look at some particular individuals and their behaviours,
thoughts, and feelings. Words like "class," "social role," and "collective consciousness" attempt
to give reality to mental constructs that do not objectively exist.
The first essay represents the second view. It claims that society is based on a social
contract, and it explains that idea. Since it emphasizes the social contract, we can call any one
with this point of view a contractor. The second essay argues that society has real properties,
different from the properties of the individuals who compose it. It suggests that society is like an
organism and individuals are like the cells in it. A person with this point of view is an organicist.
"The Social Contract"
In the history of political philosophy, the social contract tradition holds a prominent
place. The great founders of the modern outlook, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, were all
contract theorists. Today the most widely discussed work in political philosophy, John Rawls' A
Theory of Justice, employs the idea of a social contract. The theory of the social contract
maintains that individuals create society when they agree among themselves to give up certain
rights in return for security. The idea of a contract explains how society originated (we all agreed
to form one), and why we ought to obey the laws (we all promised).
But a long tradition does not prove that a theory is true. Is this another emperor with no
clothes? Another big abstraction that philosophers quarrel over, but that has no relevance to the
real world? It is naive to think that primitive societies suddenly sprang up when some
Neanderthals met together in a clearing and agreed to live together. Historically the contract very
probably never happened. At the present time the theory may seem to be no more applicable. An
Australian citizen does not enter into a contract with all the other citizens or with the
government. I am a citizen, but I never signed a contract. How could I make an agreement with
all the millions of other citizens?
All of these points, about the past and the present, are well taken. But the theory of a
social contract is still useful and valid. The key is to see that it is not a description of actual
events at all, past or present, but is a model of society. What is a model? A model is a simplified
structure, with just a few parts, that is like some other thing, complex and baffling, that we are
trying to understand. For example, Neils Bohr said that the solar system could serve as a model
of an atom. That is, we can understand an atom if we think of it as a sort of tiny solar system.
The nucleus is like the sun, and the electrons are like the planets whirling around it. Everyone
understood the solar system and how it worked. Bohr proposed that an atom, which people did
not understand, has similar parts, related in similar ways.
The social contract is supposed to be a model of society. Its proponents say we can
understand the essential features of society if we think of it as if people had entered a contract. A
contract is a simplified structure that everyone understands. If Bob and Sue have a contract, then
both agree to do something, and expect to get something in return. Bob agrees to work, and Sue
agrees to pay him. Or if they are getting a divorce, Bob may agree to give up the house but keep
the car, if Sue agrees to give up the car and keep the house.
But how is society like a contract? According to the social contract theorists, the most
fundamental feature of society is compromise. Society is essentially a matter of give and take, an
exchange, or rather many exchanges. Every citizen knows that he must make some sacrifices,
and cannot do whatever he wants. He must respect the people around him. But he also knows
that he benefits from the others. They build, farm, heal, teach, protect, and do all the things he
cannot do for himself. His relationship to them is like a contract, since he gives up something,
and expects to get something in return. That compromise is the foundation of society, although
no one ever actually makes a contract.
The social contract theory tells us what is important about the relations among people in a
society. But it does more. It tells us what is important about those people who are related. It tells
us about human nature. Think about a person who enters a contract. What kind of a person must
he be? Well, first he must be rational, in the sense that he thinks about what is good for himself
in the long term and not just the short term. He can control his impulses, and therefore
make sacrifices now for future gains. And he can think abstractly about benefits that are
intangible and won't occur until later, like security and help in a crisis.
The second trait he must have is sociability. He must be cooperative, in the sense that he
wants to get along with others. He feels that his life is better with other people than without. He
is willing to trust others, and willing to keep his side of a bargain. A person who enters a contract
must be sociable in this sense.
The social contract theory is surely correct in saying that people have these
attitudes--they are rational, sociable, and willing to compromise. And it is correct in singling out
these attitudes as crucial for understanding the nature of society. It is certainly an improvement
over other models of society. For example, in the Middle Ages apologists for monarchs defended
a "father and children" model. They wanted to emphasize the authority of the king over his
subjects. Later, others offered an "organic" model, according to which society is like a living
organism, and individuals are like the head, hands, eyes, and so on. They