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Contractarianism’s dilemma: on the normativity of contemporary contractarian theories

Wong, Baldwin (2011) Contractarianism’s dilemma: on the normativity of contemporary contractarian theories. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Abstract

Contractarianism has a distinguished history and is one of the most influential schools of thought nowadays, yet there are only few general discussions about this school. The research question which intrigues me is whether contemporary contractarianism can provide a satisfactory normative justification for political principles. I argue that contractarianism, as a methodology, consists of three elements: a conception of practical reason, hypothetical contractors, and a hypothetical contract. Based on various conceptions of practical reason, different contractarian models can be developed. In this thesis, I examine three possible contractarian models: Hobbesian contractarianism (represented by David Gauthier), Kantian contractarianism (represented by T. M. Scanlon) and hybrid contractarianism (represented by John Rawls). I diagnose the shortcomings of these three existing models respectively. Hobbesian contractarianism assumes a conception of rationality, hence it conceives hypothetical contractors as individual utilitymaximizers, and the hypothetical contract as a mutually advantageous agreement. Kantian contractarianism assumes a conception of reasonableness, hence it conceives hypothetical contractors as moral persons who would behave in a way which could be justifiable to one another, and the hypothetical contract as an agreement that no one could reasonably reject. These two models fail since their conceptions of practical reason are too one-sided: the former overlooks reasonableness, whereas the latter overlooks rationality. Due to their one-sideness, these models can at best justify political principles that are general but not overriding. Hybrid contractarianism avoids this problem by assuming that hypothetical contractors were both rational and reasonable and proving that rationality and reasonableness would justify the same hypothetical contract. However, in order to show the congruence between rationality and reasonableness, this model inevitably assume substantial, controversial conceptions of practical reason. Hence, hybrid contractarianism can at best justify political principles that are overriding but not general. The failures of these three models show the limit of this methodology. No matter how contractarians construct their models, their models are subject to the fatal dilemma of choosing between generality and priority. While these two properties are necessary for political principles, this implies that contractarianism does not have the resources to offer a satisfactory normative justification for political principles.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2012 Baldwin Bon-Wah Wong
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Sets: Departments > Government
Supervisor: Kukathas, Chandran
URI: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/402

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