Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Degrees of Contractual Morality | November 23, 2008

According to Hobbes, morality comes from breaking one’s social covenant; specifically, he has the idea of the covenant of citizens in mind. This introduces the problem, though, that almost every person on earth in reality lives under a government and society that they did not choose. It is the inevitable nature of things, unless you stopped children from being born. This introduces the problem that societies are made up of people that are not under any moral obligation, since most countries were founded generations ago. This seems counter intuitive.

The other option is that everyone is born into their respective contracts, but this seems unjust: can someone be held under a contract signed for them, before they were even born? Still, we could assume this to be true if we adopted the principle: you can leave whenever you want, so your remaining is tacit concent. This introduces the problem that for most people (those who are not rich) it is hard to leave their country. Certainly a millionair or a billionair could leave their country and move whenever they wanted. But how consentual is a poor person, who would possibly have to hitch-hike or even walk to get our of their country? And some countries are larger than others, and take longer to leave. Does this mean that there are degrees of concent? That seems wrong also. And then there is the problem that ultimately, how much free choice can you have, when you are limited to only those countries that exist on earth? This seems like a situation of coercion; it is possible that the country you live in is terrible, but if every other country is terrible too, does your remaining mean you like your country?

Any way one looks at it, it seems wrong. If you tried hard enough, you could bite the bullet on certain things, but really it just falls appart in practical application. One has to admit that, at least in this regard, Hobbes is wrong.


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  1. You see Hobbes as wrong in the ethical principle behind applying the social contract to poor people or people not born yet, which makes perfect sense. However you are off when you misjudge Hobbes by not focusing on the need of laws in society in which the soverign are affected by the social contract as well. To suggest that being born into a social contract is coercion is pointless based on the fact that no one can control where he or she is born or where. If a person is born on a desert island to a set of parents with no laws, are they subject to a social contract even if the parents grew up in the civilized world?

    Comment by creyn6131982 — November 26, 2008 @ 12:18 am

  2. hey this isnt exactly a comment but i had something i want you to read and see what you thought:
    From here it only seems natural that any law that is unjust and comes into common practice, inhibiting the underlying reasons for the contract, to benefit those party to it, does not necessitate the compliance of those not benefitting from its institution. Thus civil disobedience is warranted.

    Comment by jeffersson — December 6, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  3. Actually Jeff, that’s a pretty good point, but the problem still exists that if no one is really obligated by the last generation’s social contract, what right do we have as a nation to punish anyone for breaking any crime?

    Comment by ericmassengill — December 7, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.







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