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Philosophical Dilemmas - Pathways to Philosophy "The Social Contract" In the history of political philosophy,

May 26, 2020




  • A Reader in

    Philosophical Dilemmas

    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

    whole society.

    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