Contractarian Liberal Ethics and the Theory of Rational Choice

Dissertation, Emory University (1990)
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Abstract

One of the most conspicuous recent phenomena in the domain of moral and political philosophy has been the revival of social contract theory. From John Rawls to David Gauthier, contractarians have attempted to construct their methodological foundations on the theory of rational choice. The inspiration for the theory of rational choice has been the neo-classical conception of rational economic man. This theory seems to provide contractarian ethics with a concrete model for reducing the principles of social choice for justice to the principles of rational individual choice. ;This study identifies the four methodological foundations of contractarian ethics . These foundations are the justification for contractarian consensus, non-altruistic clear choice motivation, the possibility of contractarian consensus in the circumstances of pluralism or relativism of individual autonomous values, and a neutral Archimedean criterion for assessing the justness of a society. ;However, this study shows that the theory is no guarantee of the validity of these four foundations in view of four corresponding predicaments. The predicaments are the dilemma of moral irrelevancy or circularity held between rationality and morality, indeterminacy between various rational choice models, incompetent assessment of the contents of individual values as well as insufficient political sensibility of prevalent conflicts of individual values, and non-neutrality resulting from the futility or the flight from liberal historical cultures. ;In effect, contractarian ethics is exactly contractarian liberal ethics. Overall the present impasse of contractarian liberal ethics is derived from the methodological aspect of rational foundationalism and from the substantial aspect of individual liberalism. This study also reveals that the four predicaments have a deeper root in Western modernity itself. However, various historical and contemporary alternatives to contractarian liberal ethics appear to have no capacity to overcome the deeply rooted predicaments. If this is the case, as an important agenda for the future of the moral and political philosophy, the question "After Contractarian Liberal Ethics: End or Transformation?" must be taken seriously.

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