My own take on all the ethical theories so far…

Up till now, we’ve explored ethical theories that are proposed by moral realists. I am a simple, although eccentric, man; I seek truth with a religious fervor. Hence, my mind is always constantly bombarding the question of “why”, hoping every single time to inquire and get closer to knowing the truth. This has led me to become extremely particular about the underlying assumptions of ethical theories. For theistic theories, I reject. I reject simply because I am agnostic, and I am agnostic simply because the balance of probability based on evidences is stacked against the existence of God(s). I cannot absolutely say for certain that God(s) does not exist because there remains a microscopic chance that he/she/they might, which explains why I am agnostic, not atheistic. However, I must say that among all the moral-realistic ethical theories, the theistic ones are more credible than the secular ones. At the very least, theistic moral realists’ assumption makes better sense in terms of justifying the authenticity of moralities: God created us, thus it is reasonable to assume that he also gave us a rulebook to follow as he created us for some purposes. This gave rise to the sense that morality is real because it is a divine order. For secular moral-absolutists such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, they thought that morality was real through feeble reasons: Kant thought morality was real and should be strictly followed because he reasoned that it was important for everyone to be moral and by the same standard. For Mill, it was either also based on the reasoned importance of morality or just a preference – usually because we are all raised to elevate the importance of morality, and we would usually assume what is important to be real and true. In other words, they don’t have a credible reason to convince us that morality comes from their own source of grounding. Kant uses logic and reason as a form of grounding for his moral absolutism, but what reason do we have to believe that that is the case? Is there an explanation for us to believe so? Similarly for Mill, he thought that our morality comes from our basic instinct to maximize utility, but there is no credible reason for us to believe that that is also the case. Yes the capacity to reason and the basic instinct to maximize utility are universal to humanity, but to reason that the universality of these traits should thus be the reason to believe that morality comes from it is fallacious, because using the same logic I can reason that our lungs are the source of morality.

Evidently, the models of secularity and moral realism are not a preferable mix due to the less credibility of the origin of their moralities. So does secularity and moral anti-realism mix well together instead? These are the features of Contractarianism, proposed by 17th century British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, and it will be the topic of exploration today.

Metaethical SpeciesMoral Subjectivism

Anarchy/Hypothetical Time

Hobbes presented us with the anarchy example to bring contrast, thus emphasize on the credibility of his idea. He also used the example to lead up to his theory. Anarchy, or what Hobbes call a Hypothetical Time, is a place where there are no laws and we are absolutely free to do whatever we want. To those who unconditionally equate freedom to goodness, this seems like a paradise. However, the reality is that it is but a recipe for disaster. Humanity was undoubtedly a part of such a state of nature in the beginning, at least until we began to form tribes. Such a state of nature is a survival-unfriendly environment because we can do anything we want to each other, including murder and rape. The movie, The Purge, demonstrates very clearly how unsafe an anarchy would be like. When humanity gathered in tribes, and eventually forming civilizations; we form contracts to establish laws to make our environments much more conducive to survival. Hence, the law that prohibits murder was born. However, we didn’t just stop at survival. Once survival was settled, we eventually moved on to our next concern: procurement of goods. This led us to invent trade between family units to add variety to the goods that we can procure. To do so, integrity must be observed to ensure that parties benefit, thus anti-theft laws came into effect. Hobbes believed that that is how moralities are formed, hence the theory of Contractarianism was proposed.

Moral Subjectivism 

Contractarianism features moral subjectivism, a form of moral anti-realistic metaethical view. The reason that it features moral anti-realism is that morality is man-made: We made laws to fit our purposes, to meet our needs and wants. This is a rational choice of action that created what is considered moral or not in different establishments, hence it is more specifically considered moral subjectivism. This is done so through what Hobbes called social contracts.

Social Contracts

As long as you are not stateless, you are bound by at least one social contract. If you are a citizen of a country that you are born in, you probably have not seen the physical form of a social contract since you are bounded by the contract by default. For immigrants seeking to apply citizenship in particular countries, they are required to physically sign the social contract, agreeing to abide by the laws and take up citizenship duties in exchange for the rights of citizenship in that particular country.

Benefits of Social Contract

Have you ever wondered why we have this arbitrary thing called countries? The reason for such establishments is that our ancestors wanted security. As I’ve mentioned, our ancestors formed tribes and later civilizations – which is another term for countries. These establishments are formed on the basis of social contracts. The answer to the why question can therefore help us understand the benefit of social contracts. So let’s look back at the example of hypothetical time/anarchy, we wanted security. Thus, we banded together to protect ourselves from outsiders (unity is strength). However, we also need security from each other, hence we establish a social contract- a form of agreement – to outlaw murder. In today’s terms in the contract, it is the exchange of freedom for security. Freedom as in both the freedom to kill and the freedom from punishments. Security as in you can worry less about arbitrary murder of you and your family since there are policing and lawful consequences to deter such actions. We also have different other needs fulfilled under a social contract such as mailing, public transportation, policing, fire-fighting and military defense services which in exchange, we must pay taxes. So what is the benefit of Contractarianism? You get these citizenship rights, and you don’t have to suffer the state of anarchy/hypothetical time that Hobbes presented.

Feeble Criticism of Contractarianism

So if you are a citizen of the country that you are born in, you are bounded by the social contract by default right? Well you didn’t formally agree to it, so isn’t it unfair? Contractarians would argue that you are wrong. This is because whether or not you agreed to it, you are granted the citizenship rights, thus you are obliged to play your part in the contract. What remains irrefutably true is that no rational beings want to be stateless. If you think that being stateless is cool with you, think again. Firstly, you are not guranteed basic human rights because no governments will fight to protect those rights for you- you are not their citizen. This means that any unlawful advances towards you will not be considered unlawful at all. Justice will not be served on your behalf. Secondly, you will not be granted any rights to housing, leaving you homeless. Heck, you will have no place to even exist except for places like secluded mountains and forests that are outside the reach of these sovereign countries. The list goes on but these 2 deprivations of citizenship rights should suffice to drive anyone to the brink of suicide. My point is, such criticism is feeble because it is a stubborn refusal to pay for what you gain. It also offers no real and desirable alternatives.

Moral Principles of Contractarianism

This might already seemed obvious to you, but the moral principles of Contractarianism simply comes from the terms of the social contract. Hence, the violations of laws in countries that you are a citizen of are considered moral transgressions.

The minor problem of Contractarianism

The problem, then, is that the standards of morality can seem too low. I mean, if we just need to be law-abiding citizens to be considered moral, there is really not much meaning to it. Many of us strive for higher standards of morality such as compassion and altruism. Social contracts usually do not demand such standards, for now. But nevertheless, it remains a small issue because our laws, assuming the presence of democratically-sound law systems, are amended over time according to social mores. Having the sustained desire to be more noble is good enough to bring about changes in laws gradually. For instance, during the early days of American independence, slavery was lawfully endorsed in the country. However, the desire to emancipate the slaves were strong in the northern states. This brought about the American Civil War which eventually led to the victory of the north, leading to the outlaw of slavery. This is an example of changing social mores that led to changes in moral principles, showing us that patience and the desire for higher forms of moral standards (which is evidently present in those who criticize this theory for being too low in moral standards) makes this a small issue. However, it still is an issue because not everyone have the desire to strive for moral progress. There are those who are morally apathetic.

The credibility of Contractarianism

There’s 2 things that makes Contractarianism very credible, and thus appealing to me: 

  1. Flexibility and therefore,
  2. historical accuracy compared to other theories

Flexibility of Contractarianism 

Contractarianism is fundamentally fluid. Its fluidity comes from the fact that the contracts can be amended, should there be proper and democratically-sound systems to facilitate the process of amendments to laws. This flexibility is also consistent with historical records.

Better historical accuracy 

Besides the example of slavery in America, there are many other historical instances that reflected the fluidity of morality. Patriarchalism was a social norm only until the mid 20th century when feminism movements began to gain traction; religious inquisition and holy wars used to be a norm up till the end of the Middle Ages but today such acts by organizations like ISIS are condemned as terrorism. This shows that our moral values was historically never rigid. The moral absolutism of the Divine Command Theory, Natural Law Theory, Kantianism and Utilitarianism therefore only serves to contradict the moral history that humanity has.

Conditions for Contractarianism to work

  1. Agents must be free
  2. Agents must trust each other

Firstly, the agents must be free because Contractarianism is beneficial on the very strong basis that it overall improves the lives of the agents. Any form of contract that restrains the agents’ freedom completely- such as slavery- is not a functioning social contract.

Secondly, the agents must have mutual trust. This is similar to the logic of the contract that businessmen make. There must be mutual trust for the contract to work, or there will be defection; or disobeying of the terms of contract. This is why the consequences of breaking of laws exist: to deter defections.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, Contractarianism, a moral anti-realistic moral theory, is superior to all other moral theories that we’ve discussed so far in my opinion. The reason is mainly because I am a faithless man that hungers for truth the same way the devouts hunger for faith. However, sticking purely to facts, Contractarianism is the most credible and fitting moral theory that explains the moral workings of our world with minimal fault, thanks to its fluidity of morality due to it subscribing to moral subjectivist metaethical viewpoint. The feeble criticism of social contracts being bounded to individuals without formal consent ought to be slammed and dismissed, because it demonstrates selfishness and insensibility. Contractarianism, in essence, simply demands its practitioner to be law-abiding citizens. That, of course, comes with the problem of low moral standards which may lead to moral stagnation. However, we have seen moral progress throughout history nonetheless due to shifting social mores. Besides those who already have high standards for morality driving the shift in social mores, we need another suitable ethical theory to guide those who are morally apathetic so as to complete Contractarianism. The theory called Virtue Theory is, in my humble opinion, the most suitable fit to do the job. Hence, the Virtue Theory is what I will cover in the next post.

Signing off,

Jackson

Reference and cover photo:

Crashcourse (YouTube)

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