Crossing the ‘T’s and and dotting the ‘i’s: a contract of morality?

I have been compelled recently to thoroughly consider another moral explanation, aside from ‘The Moral Landscape’. It is called Contractarianism. And it resonates strongly with something I have recently been arguing and investigating: that an open rational discussion is a method of understanding morality. This relates to ‘The Moral Landscape’, and I suspect that is an artefact of more than just coincidence. The basic premise is this: given a veil of ignorance and perfect rationality, there are a set of rules and penalties (a contract) society would compose for itself. The veil of ignorance is an important step to this: it is the condition that the rational minds discussing and composing the contract have no idea what role in the society they will play once the contract is composed. It, therefore, benefits no one to write in rules that favour a particular group and no one can exploit an existing privilege.

Despite this language of ‘a contract’, it certainly worth noting that this does not make morality an opt-in situation where people can refuse to sign the contract and suddenly have no moral responsibility and are immune from punishment. The contract is the product of a thought experiment; a hypothetical document on which morality would be described. Everyone’s behaviour could then be said to comport to a greater or lesser extent to the description is this hypothetical document.

Being compelled to consider new moral explanations is a rather rare phenomenon for me. Often moral arguments have a certain glaring hole in them, particularly theistic ones that act on authority without a clear explanation as to why any one should value the authority of a God (other than threats). Vicarious redemption acts as a loophole to any normal moral concerns, undermining the Christian moral explanation rather rapidly. The Christian moral explanation that was offered to me by Oldschoolcontemporary (OSC), although immensely interesting, also failed to compel me to its protracted considerations: the idea that developing a certain relationship with God is what Christianity really is, and that it will lead to certain moral epiphanies. But this doesn’t tell you whether God has saved certain relationships for certain people that have since done things we consider psychotic, or whether God is even necessary for the epiphanies OSC alluded to: meditation and LSD consistently give the same epiphanies. However, this hypothetical contract from perfectly rational and interested beings is curious.

Given that perfect rationality among a group is something humanity hasn’t had, the content of such a document is not yet fully knowable. Certainly, rational and empirical arguments can be made to allude to what the contract would say. The rational argument could look at what rights one would want to afford themselves and, due to the veil of ignorance, would have to afford all groups, with pragmatic limits and thus trade-offs. The empirical argument could look at the moral progress and direction of societies that have embraced the values of the Enlightenment and extrapolate those directions. We could even look at the concepts of fairness and protective nature (even interspecies) among intelligent life. It will heavily reflect the Ancient Greek idea of ‘Natural Law’. But any level of certainty is not yet available to us.

In both cases, I think general rules and values can be gleaned: liberty, not causing harm, helping the needy etc. In fact, the theme of ‘The Moral Landscape’, that of safeguarding the highest possible wellbeing, I suspect, can be derived from imagining what those perfect rational beings with a stake in the society would compose.

This does give me reason for a certain level of optimism, as I recently wrote an article pondering what codes of conduct AI would write for itself. AI doesn’t perfectly fit the criteria for Contractarianism, as even if they were perfectly moral, AI would understand its function in a society: such a situation could still lead to tyrannical rules. However, each individual AI program would not know its place in the community of AI, with new AIs always possibly being right around the corner.

Contractarianism does fail the normal tests composed on it by theistic moral explanations, particularly that of ‘what does it matter to the universe?’ I think this is a biased challenge that doesn’t relate to any understandable definition of morality. I cannot see why cosmic significance, the idea that moral decisions make a difference in 40 billion years, is a necessary hurdle for moral explanations to jump. But the other regular moral challenges levelled at moral explanations are whether they include criteria for accountability. Again, I think this is a mistaken criteria: if one asks whether moral decisions could be said to be better or worse than each other, I cannot see why accountability is a factor. People who believe the Earth is flat are objectively wrong, even no one ever holds them to account for their view. It may be of pragmatic concern, but it is of no philosophical concern. Besides, pragmatic concerns of the accountability held in certain moral explanations also need to be fired inwardly on most theistic morality. Moreover, however, it is a contract that will have among its content the penalty for transgressions. Other contractors are then empowered by the contract to hold transgressors to account. It might not be a necessary hurdle to jump, but contractarianism still does.

(Although this is something I like doing — explaining why I don’t have to answer a certain question because it doesn’t affect the credibility of the idea I’m discussing, and then answering the question anyway — I really should stop. There are a few commenters who are more interested in cheap debating tactics than open discussion, and this leaves me vulnerable to their silly little quips.)

Contractarianism: the view that a perfectly rational group with an interest in a society it shall return to, with no awareness of where in that society they shall return will write up a contract for that society that governs behaviour for the better ― and that such a document records moral values. It may run parallel to or lie causal to or completely replace my former moral explanations: the moral landscape. It is another, reasonable seeming, secular explanation of objective morality.

2 thoughts on “Crossing the ‘T’s and and dotting the ‘i’s: a contract of morality?”

  1. One of the fairly effective parts of a moral code are vagueness and ambiguity, especially regarding penalties. When you have an extensive code, like the 600+ commandments that Orthodox Jews are supposed to live by, one ends up with a legalistic system in which people argue incessantly over fine points.

    With a simpler, broader system and occasional outing involving pitchforks and torches creates a system in which people steer well clear of any possible infractions of the moral code because they do not want a ton of bricks to fall on them. So, youthful indoctrination into the code with relatively minor punishments and the occasional whoopdedoo with adults should supply the teeth behind the code to ensure reasonable compliance.

    1. True: you wouldn’t want to get to legalistic about it. Although one would assume having perfectly rational authors wouldn’t lead to reasonable ambiguity.
      More interestingly, it might include a certain level of cultural relativism, making the punishments in someway culturally significant or appropriate. But, I’d imagine transgressions are likely to be met by rehabilitation attempts, not punitive action.

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