More than Consent: Kant on the Function of the Social Contract


What is the point of appealing to a social contract? An intuitively plausible answer is that the metaphor functions as a justification for the obligation to obey the law. If I have made a contract to establish a political authority, then I am bound to obey the commands of that authority. In a contract, my agreement creates an obligation to perform. Then only remaining question is what reasons I have to make the agreement in the first place. It would then seem that classical social contract theory is divided between those who understand our reasons to agree as prudential and those who take our reasons to be moral. But this kind of interpretation fails to make sense of Kant’s political theory, which understands our obligation to enter into a civil condition as prior to the appeal to the social contract. The original contract enters into Kant’s theory at a crucially later point, after the creation of specific political institutions. It functions as a way of reconciling these institutions with the idea of rightful coercion, by imposing normative requirements on the political reasoning of legislators and citizens. For Kant, the distinctive feature of normative political reasoning is the notion of a unified will, an idea that was already present at the start of social contract theory in Hobbes, but had yet to be properly clarified. Kant appeals to the original contract not to ground our political obligations, but to explain both the coherence and the necessity of the idea of a common will for political argument.

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Larry Krasnoff
College of Charleston

References found in this work

Leviathan.Thomas Hobbes - 1651 - Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Leviathan.Thomas Hobbes - 2006 - In Aloysius Martinich, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya (eds.), Early Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Blackwell.
Second Treatise on Government.John Locke - 1690/1980 - In Elizabeth Schmidt Radcliffe, Richard McCarty, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya (eds.), Late Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Blackwell.
Of the Original Contract".David Hume - 2007 - In Elizabeth Schmidt Radcliffe, Richard McCarty, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya (eds.), Late Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Blackwell.

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