Thursday, 24 May 2012

Against Social Contract Ethics

I endlessly come across people citing the social contract as a basis for ethics. "It's just self-interest," they say. "I avoid harming others because I don't want to set myself outside of the contract and be harmed by others." This has come up most recently on Pharyngula, where PZ Myers says this: "Where does this value [respecting consent] come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well." Now, this isn't the only basis PZ gives, but I'd like to use it to present a 'gotcha' question to people who make this arugment:

If you were in a situation where you could break the social contract to gain advantage and nobody would know, would you? Why not?


  1. Would I break the social contract to gain advantage and nobody would know? Fuck yes!

    However, there's at least one proviso: if nobody knows, then it wouldn't be breaking the social contract, would it? The notion of a social contract is predicated upon the notion of truth being empirically-based. Thus if there's no evidence of having broken the social contract (i.e., nobody knew about it) then the contract wouldn't have been broken.

    So, because nobody will know I'm going to take every last bit of the pie that my greedy paws can gather; meanwhile, while people are watching I'll help a couple of old ladies across the street so I can be nominated Citizen of the Year.

  2. Remember the old story of the communal wine pot? There's a big tribal gathering, and each tribe has to bring along a jar of wine to dump into the gigantic shared pot. However, each tribe thinks "why should I spare a jar of wine? one jar of water in a pot that big won't be noticed." So they bring water instead, to a man, and there's no wine for anybody.

    If everyone had brought wine but one person, that one person would be the winner - but he would clearly have broken the social contract in secret. (You could test the wine for percentage of water and find out!)