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Social Contract Theory: Analysis of John Rawls and Thomas Hobbes

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Social contract theory allows people to cohabitate in society, on the bases of a mutual agreement that limits rational persons to moral and political standards. Some philosophers, like Hobbs, and Rawls’ believe that we live morally according to these social contracts chosen by society, rather than a contract chosen by a divine being. According to the theory, without said contracts, society would be in a state of nature, or “prima materia”, a prime chaotic nature where no moral rules exist. In the Elements of Moral Philosophy, Rachels states that morality is a set of principles that influence behavior, which would be seen as acceptable by rational persons. On the basis of a requirement for mutual agreement. Social contracts provide a valuable infrastructure for symbiotic co-existence and balance in society, regardless of implicit or explicit categorizations. Such contracts differ, in the method of validation. An example of an implicit social contract is that one will not act violently, and give proper respect towards elders. While another is explicitly stated, such as laws for speed limits, which is addressed to the rational licensed driver who agrees to be governed by; the moral, and social limits and restrictions that are outlined in the DMV’s guidelines, as well as implied as part of the social contract.

In his A Theory of Justice, John Rawls claims his social contract theory can be considered part of the social contract tradition, which includes Hobbs, Mill, and Kant. This happens to be one of the oldest philosophies. However, social contract theory is actually that of much importance in contemporary, moral and political theory. In particular, many feminists and race-conscious philosophers have argued that social contract is at least an incomplete picture of society’s moral and political lives. One example of a limitation of this outdated philosophy is one that conceals self-defeating contracts, that place bounds on persons based on class.

The purpose of this essay is to determine the moral imperatives that define a tradition such as that of the social contract and to evaluate Hobbes’s, and Rawls’ claims, and as it relates to using limits vs qualifications, as methods of defining categorical imperatives or guidelines for ethics and conduct. At the same time, I will analyze the imperatives given as a natural and reproducible model of the contract to clarify some of the controversial points in Rawls’ and Hobbs’s political theory, and how it relates and differs from Kantian Deontology and utilitarianism.

Thomas Hobbes’ initially published the social contract as a legal theory, written in the Leviathan, as a premise for the moral obligation of political conduct. Similar to Rawls, Hobbes, agrees that before Social Contract, man lived in the State of Nature, unaware of morality. Man’s life in the prime chaotic nature was one of fear and selfishness, that of a post-apocalyptic world. Man lived in a chaotic condition of constant fear. In fear of being killed or losing that which you care for, man was often left to live lives of solidarity, in brutish, short-lived conditions. In contrast without security, one’s self-protection and self-preservation becomes a survival instinct to avoid misery and pain. In order for man to evolve into civil communities, rational persons abdicated all their rights and freedoms to an objective intermediary authority, which governs obedience. As a result of these contracts, the greatest power is the policing of the preservation of lives, and property.

One shortfall of this categorical imperative is that of absolute rulers, where subjects had no rights, and are to obey in all situations, regardless of circumstance. In this particular perspective of monarchist rules, Hobbes’s theory is the said moral obligations, are bound by natural law. Such, that if the institutional government is to abuse their position of power, their rule, will be overthrown. According to Hobbes’s rules, other sanctioned powers, words will be of no strength without swords. He differentiated that civil law is real because it is commanded and enforced by the sovereign rulers, and if it were merely hearsay then it would fail at upholding order. Thus, one of the principle upheld the most by Hobbes is that of “Might is always Right.” Contrary to Hobbes’s position of absolutism, there may be downfalls to unrelenting execution of self-defeating contracts or unfair interests that might otherwise be coated in political affairs.

Similar to Rawls, Hobbes suggests the mechanistic theory of human nature, states that it is necessary to be exclusively self-interested. This is so to say that one will only follow what they perceive to be in their own individual best interest. Altruistically, within the guideline of the social contract, one does not sacrifice the best interest of others as a means in order to reach the ends for their best self-interest. Such a case will lead to a self-defeating moral imperative, on the basis that if one breaks social contract it can start a degradative effect of the loss of confidence in the ability of other rational parties in the agreement, to uphold their contractual duties. Implicit of the above statement, Hobbes claims that rational persons have the capacity to pursue their desires as efficiently and as much as possible, as a premise to fulfilling their contract. This would inevitably lead to being their best selves, which will realize the most potential value for society.

One of Hobbes thought constructs is an argument based on “prima materia”, by imagining society prior to the establishment of said accords, and agreements, where he prescribes subjects to fully surrender to sovereign rule in order, to preserve the peace, life, and prosperity of subjects. It is in this way that Hobbes uses natural law as a means of assigning hierarchy on the basis of mutually assured destruction. This is due to the fact, that a ruler should strive to maintain the peace as well as the welfare and rights of his subjects. Otherwise, the balance of the natural laws that be will take effect, and lead to the demise of perverse rulers, who continue to rule from a subject state of mind rather than being a sovereign assigned moral guide who lives to serve the people. This train of thought is a clear demonstration of Hobbes’s advocation for an established order, and the desire to assist one another or join one another, against a common enemy. In order to mitigate moral imperatives, and allow them the flexibility of universal application, Individualism, materialism, utilitarianism, and absolutions are all aspects of Hobbes’s social contract theory.

Rawls believes his principles of morality, are chosen by free, rational, equal, and self-interested individuals, within a particularized, defined context which he calls the ‘Original Position’. The agreement is a hypothetical construct, of whom a majority of rational individuals prefer as principles of justice or fairness under properly defined circumstances. These circumstances are generally empirical and cultural facts, and relevant to the moral intuition within an awareness of individuality, separate from prestige, or superiority. In other words, the circumstances, that facilitate these contracts, are for the purpose, of survival or mutually assured destruction. The veil of ignorance is the concept, that people will continue to follow their place, ignorant of; their place in society, status or position, fortune, or natural talents such as intelligence or physical strength, when arriving at their conception of what is good.

A categorical imperative that is not stated in Hobbes’s theory, is within the generational constructs of society, Rawls explains, that social contracts will be relative to the generation to which they belong. This part of the theory allows for feasible ways of adapting new laws and removing outdated ones, as well as allowing principles of justice to be chosen without the influence of predisposed prejudice that individual and social circumstances would lead to.

In other words, with each passing year, the morality of the society will vary, based on changes in cultural validation, and acceptance. Furthermore, the information that select principles are shaped by are merely social variations of individual partiality of a microcosm, based on limits and functions set on the current era by the previous. It is important to note that when Rawls refers to justice, more distinctly he is referring to the fairness of outcomes, as a result of a just ruler. In reality, by following a natural model of empirical rule, and allowing subject welfare to be of influence to sovereign ruler’s sanctions given equal consideration, a fair and natural balance will occur, which is what Rawls refers to as justice. Interestingly, while Rawls keenly describes the limits on the knowledge of the given persons, his context for the qualifications for the individuals is rather specific, however slightly misleading. He states their decisions are free when they are not trying to assert authority over one another, while rationality is about effectiveness actions rather than ignorance of the veil. He does not imply the rational person is an egoist, rather they are interested in progressing their needs, or wants in the most effective, with the least cost. This is similar to utilitarianism, because of its quantitative analysis, however, it is under the basis of a central focus in the welfare of totality, rather than an individual.

Duty comes from the Greek word deon, which references the theory of deontology, where Kant states rational persons are morally obligated to be in accord with a certain set of principles, irrelevant to the outcome. This principle is derived from divine command theory. Similarly, in social contract theory, Rawls and Hobbes use natural law as a means of communing people to have a mutual vested liability by using natural law to elect, a unanimous government to uphold and govern the participation of moral obligations. Whereas Kant’s theory is on the premise of divine command, which is limited in today’s applications considering the United States Constitution’s separation of church and state. Contrary to the theory of utility, Kantian deontology upholds the consistency of truths rather than consistency of gratification or happiness. In contrast, the main focus of the point of the social contract theory is by negating mutual liabilities through an agreement of truth, that is upheld by an organization. While Hobbes, argues to the position of natural law contracts the basis of justice, and mutual best interest. Where-as, Rawl’s perspective offers a counterweight of compromise; by stating that as ruler should set contracts based on what is actually best for the people rather than what their best self-interest determines. By further limiting the definition of free will, to mutual contract rather than an individual’s desire for utility, Rawls elaborates a function of stability rather than unsustainable growth. In both cases, regardless of natural law appointment or mutual liabilities, the need for an intermediary ambassador for the people facilitates a necessity for a central governing authority to give equal consideration and hold rational persons responsible on behalf of their social contracts.

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