Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 5 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarianism and the
Philosophers Lecture 5
Contractarian Approaches: David
Gauthier and T.M. Scanlon
●One of the most important features of
Rawls’ theory is that the principles of
justice are the ones that would be
chosen in the original position by self-
interested choosers behind the veil of
●Rawls doesn’t suggest that agreement
underlies morality, although he doesn’t
●I’m going to discuss two philosophers
who do make contract integral to
morality: David Gauthier and T.M.
●Gauthier asks, why is it rational to be
moral? Morality imposes restrictions on
us. Why should we accept these
Gauthier on Rationality
●Gauthier’s view of rationality is like that
●Each person has subjective
preferences. An action or policy is
rational if it will get us what we want.
Gauthier rejects conceptions of
rationality that are more demanding, e.
g., that you are rational only if you
A Problem for Gauthier
●We are all better off in a society where
people generally observe moral rules.
We wouldn’t want to live in a society
where people live in fear of physical
attack or being robbed.
●We are also better off when a free
market economy exists. Again,
Gauthier’s position is like that of Mises.
The Problem Continued
●Sometimes, we might benefit ourselves by
violating moral rules. E.g., suppose I could
steal something with no chance of detection.
Why would it be irrational of me to take it?
Suppose you say that if people stole when they
thought they could get away with it, this would
destroy, or at least weaken, property rights and
the market. We would then all be worse off.
What’s Wrong with This
●Even if we would all be worse off, that
doesn’t give me a reason not to steal
now. I can’t affect what other people do.
●We have a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If
everyone acts on what is individually
rational for him to do, the result is that
everyone will be worse off than if he
refrained from this action.
What’s Wrong Continued
●There is a dissident view on Prisoner’s
Dilemma problems. This says that if you
know the other people are rational, you
know that they will choose the same
way you will. Therefore you should
choose the outcome that would be best
for all. This is a minority view and
Gauthier doesn’t accept it.
Wrong Still Continued
●Suppose that people just agreed to
follow moral rules and not to violate
them when this was to their advantage.
Why would people keep such an
agreement? This would just generate a
new Prisoner’s Dilemma.
●Suppose people had a disposition to
cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemmas. Then, the
problem would be solved. When faced with a
PD, they wouldn’t ask themselves, should I
●Would it be rational for people to acquire such
a disposition? Gauthier says it would be,
because this would make us better off overall.
Does Gauthier Solve His
●To reiterate Gauthier’s solution, people
don’t adopt a “what’s in it for me?”
attitude when faced with moral issues.
This is not irrational for them, even on
Gauthier’s view of rationality. Why?
Because it is rational for people to
acquire this disposition.
Objections To Gauthier
●Gauthier’s solution has the consequence that
it would be rational to act in ways that would
be radically against your self-interest.
●Suppose that the US and Russia threaten
each other with nuclear annihilation, in case
of attack. To make the threat more
convincing, they acquire the disposition to
launch a retaliatory nuclear nuclear attack .
This would be equivalent to a doomsday
●Gauthier would have to say that it is rational
to acquire this disposition. Doing so makes it
extremely unlikely the other side would
launch a nuclear attack.
●Gauthier in fact does say this.
●But suppose that one side, against
expectations, did attack. Then Gauthier would
have to say it would be rational to continue a
nuclear war to no purpose.
●Gauthier thinks he has shown it is rational to
be moral. It would be rational for people to
agree on certain moral rules, in order to avoid
PDs. But which rules?
●He thinks that rules are those that people
would agree on, in a situation where no one
uses force or worsens anyone else’s initial
position. This is Gauthier’s Lockean Proviso.
Unlike Rawls’ original position, Gauthier’s
contractors have full information about
Why the Market Isn’t Enough
●Under this Lockean Proviso, why not say that
people would choose the free market?
●Gauthier does accept private property
acquisition, so long as this doesn’t violate the
●Also, Gauthier accepts that the market
permits voluntary transactions between
people. But he thinks that the market requires
Problems of the Free Market
●Gauthier thinks that a genuine free
market has to be perfectly competitive.
This requires a large number of buyers
and sellers, so no one can influence
●Also, there are positive and negative
externalities. There are public goods,
such as defense, that the market can’t
●How would people pay for these activities, i.
e., correction of externalities and provision of
●Each person would want to pay as little as
possible, provided he could secure an
agreement with others. This is the minimax
●It leads to an equal division of the cooperative
surplus. This in practice means proportional
Scanlon and Contractualism
●Scanlon’s approach is entirely different from
Gauthier’s. Gauthier is a reductionist. He
says, why should we be moral? This is to be
answered by showing that dispositions to
obey moral rules would be chosen rationally.
●Scanlon rejects this. He thinks that this
doesn’t take the force of morality seriously.
On Gauthier’s theory, actions aren’t really
right or wrong. It’s just to our advantage to act
as if they were.
●If something is morally wrong, then its being
wrong gives us a reason not to do it that isn’t
reducible to anything else.
●This point was made in a famous article by H.
A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on
a Mistake?” (Mind, 1912)
●But if you say that, moral demands appear
arbitrary: Do this, because you must. The
dilemma is that you must either reduce
morality to something else or take it to make
Scanlon’s Solution to the
●Scanlon thinks that he can escape the
dilemma by coming up with a general
characterization of wrongness. This
applies to the part of morality that
concerns our relations with other
●He can thus escape Prichard’s Dilemma
by showing that moral demands aren’t
Scanlon’s Solution Continued
●His general principle is that moral rules are
those that no one could reasonably reject,
given the wish to come to agreement with
other people who want to agree on this basis.
●If you act in a way counter to the rules people
couldn’t reasonably reject, you are showing
lack of respect for people. Scanlon’s
contractualism is very different from Gauthier’
The Circularity Objection
●The main objection to Scanlon’s
solution is that it is circular. We wouldn’t
know what rules it wouldn’t be
reasonable to reject unless we already
knew which acts were wrong.
●Scanlon’s answer is that he isn’t trying to
determine what is wrong, without reference to
our moral intuitions. Rather, he is trying to
answer, what is the nature of wrongness? Not
what makes something wrong, but what is it
to be wrong?
●Also, thinking about what would be
reasonable to reject can sometimes guide us
to substantive conclusions.
Scanlon and Libertarianism
●One example of such a substantive
conclusion involves libertarianism.
●He says that inequalities require
justification. Why wouldn’t people who
end up with unequal shares of income
or wealth have grounds to reject rules
that allowed this?
Scanlon’s Response to Hayek
●An answer to Scanlon’s claim, given by
Hayek and Nozick, is that inequalities simply
result from the free actions of people. They
aren’t the result of a central distribution.
●Scanlon’s answers that this just pushes back
the problem. What is the justification for the
●He also rejects natural rights to property. In a
state of nature, we would have the right not to
be interfered with, but Scanlon doesn’t think
this would support long lasting claims to