Monday, April 10, 2006


On a newbie asked what Contractarianism was, so I gave my answer. It gets a bit complicated, when I mention distributing freedom. This is basically about how we are free to perform an action if that action is not rendered impossible, so another another person makes my action impossible if his action and mine are incompossible (they can't both be possible at the same time). This is because all actions are events and so involve specific usage of given spacio-temporal locations, and so an action's being possible means that one possesses the relevant spacio-temporal locations, either actually or subjuntively. So if somebody else's actions make mine impossible, she, and not I, am in possession of a sufficient quantity of the relevant spacio-temporal locations.

Given this, coupled with the fact that resources are scarce, that spacio-temporal locations are finite, etc. etc., we get the fact that liberty cannot be increased or decreased on net, just dispersed or contracted. We cannot either praise a gain in liberty per se, or complain about a loss of it. For instance, freeing the slaves doesn't mean that there is more liberty in the world, since it necessarily implies that if the slaves are free to do now what they once were before, others, specifically former slave owners, are now unfree to do various things.

So, if we cannot complain about alterations in liberty, what can we complain about? Well, take the slave example: What we either complain about or praise is whether the freedoms that the slaves gain are freedoms to which they are entitled. Likewise with the freedoms lost by the slave owner. In this sense, we start talking about distributing freedom, or freedoms, and saying "this freedom is for you, this for him, this for her," basically establishing what freedoms people have. And in so doing, we create rights: Rights are distributions of freedom. So, this explains why I started talking about distributing freedom, and it relates to Hobbesian contractarianism specifically, because that is almost the very language he uses. His social contract is about giving up certain freedoms in exchange for others; it is an account of how freedom ought to be distributed, and the reasons why. So, here is my explaination of contractarianism:

Contractarianism is basically the view that moral principles are prescriptive, and so have to be rules for all of us to follow rather than ones that are simply for me, and also that the correct principles are those that would, hypothetically, be agreed to by rational people.

Modern forms basically have two forms, Kantian and Hobbesian. In the Kantian form, contractarianism enters as a formulation of Kants universalisability thesis. Kant's general formulation of the categorical imperative (a categorical imperative is a rule to be followed for no more reason than that it is the rule) is "Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." But the specific formulation of this that he produced, which Kantian contractarians have picked up on, is "So act as if you were by your maxim in every case a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends." The "ends" part comes from another formulation wherein people ought to be treated not simply as means but also as ends. The idea of a hypothetical" community of people treated as ends, sharing in "legislation" (producing the moral code) gives us the contractarian basis.

The most famous Kantian contractarian was John Rawls.

The other form of contractarianism is called "Hobbesian." It regards the Kantian method as flawed since it incorporates moral intutitions that aren't themselves justified by the contractarian method (such as Rawl's "Justice as fairness" impartiality rule" Rawls basically announced later, that what he was doing was writing a code of justice that would persuade those who already agreed with it, and he had rigged his "hypothetical contract" scenario to get the answers he wants.)

The Hobbesian position starts from Hobbes basic assumption of moral sceptisism: There are no objective moral values, any more than there are objective tastes. In fact, that is all the word "Good" means - that you have a taste for whatever it is you are saying is good. Everybody has different opinions about what is good and bad and right and wrong. In fact, if you notice most arguments about moral issues, they basically proceed like this: "You can't believe X, because X is a form of Y, or implies Y, and you oppose Y." In short, they appeal to some sort of intution, which is useful if that intution is held, but if it is rejected the argument fails.

So, everybody has their own view of what is right and wrong, and it is very hard to prove to those that disagree with yours why yours is the best and theirs isn't. But, contractarians say, that doesn't mean we should give up.

Hobbes and his followers say, "well, imagine what a terrible place it would be if everybody went around doing exactly what they wanted, or exactly what they felt was right by their morality. In such a world, nobody would have any rights to anything, with the implication that if you are strong enough, you can have anything, provided you can keep it. So everybody would have a right to anything, including things other people had expended effort producing or finding, or that they were using... in fact, everybody would have a right to everybody else - they could do what they wanted with anything they wanted, including each other, provided they were strong enough. In such a world, nobody would bother to produce anything, since it would be pointless to expend much effort only to have it stolen, or pointless to to produce if you can simply steal; nobody would be secure in their possessions, or in their person, or in the knowledge that various actions they value would be open to them." In short, Hobbes said, is would be a state of war of each against each, and life would be "nasty, brutal and short."

The solution to a state of war, then, as Hobbes said, carrying the analogy across, are articles of peace, and these, contractarians claim, provide the moral code. And first off, we have to know that if there is to be peace, then the artciles must provide two things: They must be better than the state of war; and they must be mutually beneficial.

So what are the articles of peace? Hobbes produced a list, but said that they were derivable from two basic ones, which he called the first and second laws of nature.

The first proceeds from the fact that in the state of war, one of the disadvantages was that everyone had a right (power) to use force, for anything they wanted. Hobbes said that the first articles of peace, then, should be that "every man, ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of war." Basically put, in the state of nature, everybody can use force to get what they want. And the only alternative to everybody giving up this right (power), is either nobody, or just some people giving it up. If nobody gave it up, the state of war would continue. But why would I give up my right (power) to use force against you, unless I knew you could not use force against me? I wouldn't. It is not in my interest to accept such an agreement. Therefore, we should all give up our right to use force against each other to get what we want, but instead try to deal with each other peacefully. The exception, however, is that we can deal forcibly with those that deal forcibly with us - we can defend ourselves. Were this not the case then the situation would be like, either the one under which only some people give up their ability to use force against each other, or it would be as though the person who used force was breaking the agreement and so returning to the state of nature anyway.

The second principle has to do with the fact that anybody can do anything they want with anything they want, at any time they want. Because of this, my freedom to do X at time t is tremendously insecure, because you (or someone else) may be doing Y at time t with the same, or sufficeintly many of the same spatio-temporal locations of my action X, thus rendering me unfree to do X at time t.

What is wanted, then, in order for me to be free to act in varius ways, is you (and others) to give up your freedom to act in various ways that would render my acting impossible. But you would not agree to give up such freedoms unless I reciprocally gave up some so that you were free to do the things you found valuable. Hence, Hobbes second law, distributing freedom: "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shal think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself." In other words, equal freedom.

It is also important to note that on this conception of freedom, one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss. Remember that my being free to do X at time t required that you were not free to do any act with the same spatio-temporal locations, since were you able to do so, my act would be rendered impossible, and so I would not be free to do it. Given this fact, there can be no net increases in freedom, though there can be alterations in its concentration. because of this, then, it is not meaningful to criticise lossess of gains of freedom per se. After all, a gain of freedom to do various things for the slave means a loss for the slave owner. Instead, it is only meaningful to ask whether the loss or gain in freedom was of a proportion to which one was entitled (entitlement set, first, by the second article of peace in the social contract above).

Hence we talk about distributions of freedom. And when we do so, we talk about rights. So Hobbes' second law tells us what the distribution of initial rights ought to be. However, we can also note that an objection to this contract will be that not everybody will want to give up certain freedoms, especially if they are freedoms to carry out acts they think are of great moral importance. How might the contractarian answer this?

Well, one way would be to say, "but if you don't give some up to me, why would I give up some to you?" In other words, in order to secure peace, you just have to give some up, or I will never agree to peace with you.

Another answer, though, is to say, "fine, lets us trade our freedoms. Let it be that I own my freedom to do various acts, and so I will give up my freedom to do that act (that is, which is the same thing, I will waive my duty against you that you do not act in a way that prevents me performing that act), but you have to compensate me if I do.

According to a Coasian analysis, whatever the initial distribution of freedoms in this case, a trade will be mutually advantageous so long as transaction costs are low enough.

All this very roughly accords with libertarian principles, especially wherein all rights are property rights, which may be why leading modern Hobbesian contractarian scholars, like David Gauthier and Jan Narveson, have been either libertarian or sympathetic to it. The difference between them and Hobbes is not in the formulation of moral principles, but in how morality, or justice is to be maintained. Gauthier is roughly liberal, advocating deomcratic constitutional government. Narveson is an anarchist. Hobbes was for an absolute state.


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