Economic Rationality and Moral Theory: The Social Contract as a Foundation for Principles of Right

Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1984)

Richard Nunan
College of Charleston
Thomas Hobbes' method of deriving some moral principles from a social contract has inspired some contemporary moral philosophers to combine the contractarian approach with the model of rational behavior familiar to economists, in order to derive substantive principles of right from essentially formal constraints on the choice of principles. They argue that the device of a hypothetical social contract could serve to generate intuitively plausible moral principles even when the contractors are assumed to be self-interested maximizers of expected utility . Since economic rationality, as defined here, is a relatively pliable model of rational deliberation, the hope is that this approach will provide a systematic tool for the derivation and justification of moral principles. ;Given this conception of rationality, a hypothetical social contract may be interpreted as any of several formal models of rational choice, each of which I examine, as exhibited in the work of some contemporary contract theorists: John Rawls' early work represents the view that choosing the social contract involves an individual decision under certainty; in his later work , Rawls presents the social contract as an individual decision made under ignorance; John Harsanyi defends the case for an individual decision under risk; and David Gauthier's recent work treats the social contract as the product of a rational collective bargain. ;I argue that, if the model of economic rationality is taken seriously, none of these conceptions of the social contract produce principles which conform to our considered moral judgments, and most of them will fail to produce a contractual agreement of any sort. Consequently, I conclude that the combination of economic rationality and procedural constraints on the deliberations of such contractors is an inadequate substitute for other-regarding sentiments usually considered necessary for the justification of moral principles
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