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Morals by Agreement

David Gauthier

Published in print May 1987 | ISBN: 9780198249924
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191597497 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/0198249926.001.0001
Morals by Agreement

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This book defends the traditional conception of morality as a rational, impartial constraint on the pursuit of individual interest or benefit. The principal obstacle faced by this conception is that the received account of rationality in economics and the social sciences identifies it with the maximization of individual interest (or more technically, utility); how then can a constraint on the pursuit of interest be rational? The key to meeting this obstacle is found in the recognition that in many situations, if each person seeks directly to maximize her utility, the outcome is sub‐optimal—i.e. at least one alternative would benefit everyone. This suggests that we think of morality in a contractarian way, i.e. as the object of a universal rational bargain in which all agree to constrain their pursuit of interest by acting on a principle that would yield optimality, i.e. an outcome such that no alternative would benefit everyone.

Such a principle is developed on the basis of the idea that rational persons seek to minimize their bargaining concessions, and establish its moral status by showing that it is an impartial constraint on everyone's behaviour. There are however two problems: (1) why would rational persons honour their agreement to act on this principle, if they could do better to violate it? and (2) what would rational persons accept as an initial position, from which they would bargain? To answer the first question, it is shown that, under plausible conditions, persons may expect to benefit from a disposition (constrained maximization) to act with others on a rationally agreed principle, rather than from a disposition (straightforward maximization) to maximize directly their individual utility. To answer the second, it is shown that the basis from which agreement proceeds must rationally be constrained by what is called the (Lockean) proviso, which prohibits bettering one's situation through interaction that worsens the situation of another. We sketch brief applications of our account of morality to questions about taxation, appropriation, relations between societies, and relations among generations. Finally, we seek to distinguish the view of human beings and fulfilment underlying our theory from the caricature of ‘economic man’, developing a conception of the liberal individual.

Keywords: bargain; bargaining; constraint; contractarian; ethics; impartiality; justice; liberal individual; maximization; minimax relative concession; morality; optimality; proviso; rationality; utility

Book.  384 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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Table of Contents

Overview of a Theory in Morals by Agreement

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Choice: Reason and Value in Morals by Agreement

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The Archimedean Point in Morals by Agreement

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Persons, Peoples, Generations in Morals by Agreement

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The Ring of Gyges in Morals by Agreement

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