Gauthier, Rawls and the social contract in contemporary political philosophy

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
The general aim of any social contract theory is to generate the terms of an agreement which the parties to the contract will accept and respect. In order to identify what terms are likely to be acceptable, the theorist needs to specify the character of the parties and the conditions in which they are making the agreement. A prior step is also needed. The theorist needs to show that the characteristics and conditions chosen are appropriate to the task of generating an agreement. The theorist must have a defensible methodological framework for his or her project. In this dissertation I examine the different frameworks adopted by two contemporary political philosophers: John Rawls and David Gauthier. I argue that the neo-Hobbesian project undertaken by Gauthier in Morals by Agreement is flawed. His attempt to derive a general moral theory almost exclusively from a relatively uncontroversial conception of instrumental rationality is marred by his commitment to a description of the political subject as a discrete entity having an identity independent of its social relationships. I then argue that John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice and more explicitly in some more recent articles, supplies a more promising framework. He takes the considered judgements of socially situated individuals to be the base from which a theory of justice can be extracted. The connected ideas of "overlapping consensus" and "reflective equilibrium" are central to his project, and allow him to treat social agreements as flexible instruments which can accommodate and even facilitate political change. I defend Rawls against the charge that his theory cannot account for political stability, and also against the communitarian claim that his conception· of justice undermines the crucial role that community membership plays in human life. I conclude by noting that the Rawlsian conception of justice does face certain limitations because it presupposes a particular definition of the political domain. I then consider how Rawls's framework might address this issue, and attempt to sketch a preliminary possibility.
Bibliography: p. 346-349.
Milde, M. (1992). Gauthier, Rawls and the social contract in contemporary political philosophy (Doctoral thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from doi:10.11575/PRISM/11627