UPDATE: Gauthier has responded to the second round of questions. Thanks, everyone, for a great discussion!
We are pleased to present our Ethics discussion of David Gauthier's "Twenty-Five On."
Gauthier's article has been made open access here. Susan Dimock, professor of philosophy at York University, kicks off the discussion with a critical précis of Gauthier's article below the fold. You might also want to check out Christopher Morris's helpful Introduction to the symposium that Gauthier's article is part of, here. Here now is Dimock:
In “Twenty-Five On,” David Gauthier reflects on the contractarian project he first articulated in Morals by Agreement, 25 years after its publication. In this short précis, I reflect on some of the strengths of Gauthier’s project. I’m not sure my remarks will qualify as a critical précis, however, since I find myself in agreement with Gauthier more often than not.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of Gauthier’s rational choice contractarianism is revealed in this simple thought: if everyone acted morally (consistently with the demands of social morality and justice), everyone would be better off. If morality really is authoritative, if morality really does provide persons with reasons (justificatory as well as explanatory) to act in conformity with its injunctions, then it must be because everyone would be better off following them. A world of perfect moral compliance should be a world worth aspiring to. Though even in a world of moral saints there would still be natural disasters, disease and death, such a world would lack the most common causes of misery that afflict our world. This thought shows the superiority of contractarianism over its rivals, especially utilitarianism and Kantianism. A world of perfect utilitarians or Kantians might require some to suffer great deprivations, so long as those losses were necessary for the achievement of maximal social utility or the fulfillment of agent-neutral duties. Justifying the authority of morality to the losers seems hopeless. What makes contractarianism so appealing, by contrast, is its insistence on mutual benefit. Everyone must be made better off by morality if its injunctions are to be recommended to rational agents. And not only must everyone benefit, but everyone must benefit to the maximal extent possible, under terms of cooperation that are reasonably efficient and fair.
In order to show that morality is authoritative, Gauthier takes as his task demonstrating that moral choice is a species of rational choice. He follows an illustrious line of philosophers seeking to reconcile the demands of morality with those of practical rationality. His innovation, however, is to apply principles of rational choice to strategies of choice themselves, and to recommend Pareto-optimization in place of utility maximization as the strategy of choice for social cooperation. The rationale for making this substitution is itself utility maximization, because under conditions of social cooperation every individual does better by reasoning as a cooperator seeking optimality than s/he would by seeking utility maximization directly.
But if acting morally really is good for everyone, and better than acting in utility maximizing ways, then contractarians confront the challenge of explaining why so many people act immorally, and why we need to invest so many resources to ensure levels of moral compliance that make the assumptions of mutual rationality and willingness to comply with cooperative arrangements rational. We don’t typically have to invest in significant education programs, let alone a wide range of enforcement mechanism, to make people behave rationally. Granted, once we allow counter-preferential choice by rejecting revealed preference theory, we recognize that persons may choose irrationally; persons may choose in ways that fail to maximize (or satisfice) their utility, or in ways that fail to secure their greatest expected utility, in parametric (one-person) choice situations. But explaining such failures requires some fancy footwork, by appealing either to mistaken beliefs or, even more controversially, to something like weakness of will. What are we to say about failures to comply with rational morality? Gauthier’s new account provides the tools for a good answer to this question. Utility maximization is always among the rational agent’s set of choice strategies, since it is the rational strategy to choose in a number of situations: parametric situations of individual choice among outcomes or actions indexed to probabilistically weighted outcomes; situations of social interaction wherein the conditions of assumed mutual rationality and knowledge fail to obtain, or wherein one has good reason to doubt that one’s interlocutors will reason as cooperators; as well as non-cooperative zero-sum games; etc. Thus rational individuals always have utility-maximization among their options for choice strategies, and it is sometimes rational to use it. An error theory for immoral conduct in situations where mutually beneficial cooperation is to be had naturally suggests itself, then: people either misidentify the kind of situation they are in or, more fundamentally, fail to be strategic in their choice of rational strategy, thereby employing a utility maximizing strategy even when mutually beneficial cooperation can be had. A mix of social responses, from moral education to coercive criminal law, might be necessary to correct these mistakes, or establish the conditions under which individuals have sufficient trust in one another to make the belief in the idealizing assumptions of the theory reasonable on the ground. (Of course, rational agents would always prefer the least costly such measures, which is in part why use of the very costly criminal law should generally be a last resort.) Gauthier’s theory provides the error theory we need if we are to maintain both that acting morally is rational and that people often fail to act morally, and indeed some seem to reject the authority of morality altogether.
Gauthier has also provided a rough-and-ready real world test for applying what is an ideal theory, one that takes seriously the fact that we are socially embedded and cannot choose the conditions of our social interactions from a pre-social position of choice. His weak contractarian test for actual social arrangements, including social expectations, conventions, rights, rules, and norms, which purport to provide individuals with reasons for action and which are often used as standards of propriety in action by members of society, allows us to evaluate their normative credentials. A great many will be found wanting according to the contractarian test. Norms purporting to impose upon individuals duties of sacrifice, for example, as conventional morality has done to women under patriarchy, will be shown to fail the test and so fail to secure rational authority.1 And the strong contractarian test provides an intuitively plausible way of explaining why criminal codes in very many otherwise different societies prohibit the same core offences: certain kinds of conduct must be prohibited because no society that formed itself for mutual fulfillment could tolerate them while maintaining a commitment to Pareto-optimality.2 These are significant advantages of Gauthier’s approach.
Finally, let me draw attention to the expanded role Gauthier now gives to the generalized Lockean proviso, which governs non-cooperative choice. If cooperation is not to be had, the rationale for adopting Pareto-optimization fails. Even if we accept that “cooperators … seek to bring about a Pareto-optimal result whose payoffs are acceptable to all” and that cooperators “view cooperation as directly rational, and go on to establish the rational mode of cooperation”, the view says nothing about what agents should do or how they should deliberate in situations that preclude the possibility of cooperation and mutual flourishing.
The Lockean proviso prohibits one person from benefitting herself by worsening the condition of someone else. In Morals by Agreement, the proviso was defended on the grounds that it was necessary to ensure the stability of future cooperation between the parties. If individuals were permitted to benefit themselves by worsening the situation of others, and to keep the fruits of such predation, any future agreement to cooperate between the parties would incorporate that prior predation (since the person who benefitted would be able to claim those gains as part of her individual factor endowments, and the person whose conditions had been worsened would have her bargaining position similarly weakened by the prior transaction). This would make any resulting agreement between the parties unstable, he thought, and would invite predation as a precursor to cooperation. (This was the lesson of the masters and slaves when contemplating ending their system of coerced service and adopting voluntary servitude instead.) Now, instead, Gauthier defends the proviso as “a rational and moral constraint on the justifiability of all interaction,” at least provided that agents see themselves as “would-be cooperators”. Such a position has immense intuitive appeal; the vast majority of serious moral wrongs can be understood as the actions of “anti-cooperators,” who seek benefit for themselves at the expense of another/others. This captures, for example, what is wrong with the exploitation of third world populations by those in the developed or developing world. One possible positive outcome of globalization might be that it is increasingly rational to see all persons as potential cooperative partners, in which case the Lockean proviso requires that we not benefit ourselves at the expense of those whose active cooperation we don’t currently need to achieve our objectives, so long as we stand as “would-be cooperators” with respect to them.
1 I have argued that the kind of contractarian theory developed by Gauthier is useful for feminist philosophers in Why All Feminists Should Be Contractarians, Dialogue XLVII (December 2008): 273-90.
2 I defend this view in Contractarian Criminal Law Theory and Mala Prohibita Offenses, forthcoming in R.A. Duff, Lindsay Farmer, S.E. Marshall, M. Renzo and V. Tadros, eds., Vol. 4 of the Criminalization Project (Oxford University Press).