The Social Contract Theory is the most convincing account of morality in normative ethics for various reasons discussed in this essay. Morality defines the way we act as individuals and as a society, and it speaks of the behavior in standards of right or wrong (Bentham, 1994). It describes the basis of our behavior and helps guide our conduct in general in specific situations. Mill in his principle of utility says that we should act according to the greatest happiness principle, meaning that we ought to do what brings the highest amount of happiness (Hare, 2014). However, as it looks for the greater satisfaction for the whole population, it can justify the abuse of some individuals or minorities if that brings greater pleasure to the majority.
Moreover, it doesn't recognize how people are naturally inclined to protect their lives and their happiness. The Kantian theory also brings another perspective of morality. He makes it very clear that to be moral and show goodwill is to treat someone as a rational being, to respect them (O'neill, 1993). A different view on morality is the view Thomas Hobbes has on social contract, where people will obey laws for their common advantage, given that other individuals will follow them as well (Pojman, 2007). Therefore, it is logical to assert that the Social Contract Theory gives the most convincing version of morality compared to utilitarianism and Kantian theories.
According to Mill's view on the principle of utility, the end of moral action is the pleasure and the absence of pain. By pleasure, he doesn't mean only what people think of as lower pleasures. He also means those related to the intellect and moral feelings, being these higher pleasures allowed by the human, more elevated faculties, more desirable than lower pleasures, which don't satisfy the human conception of happiness (Midgley, 2009). The method Mill uses to determine which pleasures are more desirable, or valuable, is to appeal to those who have experienced both the higher and the lower and saw if they have a preference. If their decision of value is one as better than the other, that pleasure is superior in quality. Knowing what Mill means by happiness, it is essential to the point that when he says that happiness should be the directive rule of human conduct, he doesn't refer to individual happiness. In the same way, this happiness doesn't have to be continuous, and therefore unattainable happiness, but rather the prevalence of pleasure over pain, making this happiness achievable (Midgley, 2009).
Mill's principle of utility leads to a society that is in general happy. However, the implications of this moral theory can be problematic. If the total happiness is the end of the moral actions, it can be assumed that it would be acceptable and even desirable to "sacrifice" or use part of the population to achieve something better for the rest. Ideas like this could even justify slavery since the services provided by a slave provide to a family would outweigh whatever harm the slavery condition could cause to one particular person (Plato, 1974). This aspect would create inequality, as many people would suffer to maintain greater happiness while serving others. Besides, treating some people as they are just means to achieve something would imply that these individual lives have no value, and strip away their human dignity.
Looking on to Kantian Ethics theory, it was founded by Immanuel Kant and is the second most convincing account of morality in normative ethics (O'neill, 1993). In Kant's moral philosophy, people acting morally and treating each other with respect is all that matters. Whether or not an action is deemed "permissible" or "impermissible" is decided from what Kant refers to as the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is a moral law that should be done because it is the right thing to do. Personal emotions should not play a role in this deciding process, therefore what is wrong for one person should be universally wrong for everyone else (O'neill, 1993). The only thing that matters in the Kantian philosophy is the intent of the action, not the consequences of that action.
The Social Contract Theory is the most convincing account of morality in normative ethics. Leviathan Hobbes explains moral philosophy as laws of nature, and they are means that have peace as an end (Craig & Sinnott-Armstrong, 2004). This peace is better for every individual in society. To understand what he means by the laws of nature, we must start by describing the state of nature. All men are equal, and so they have an equal hope of obtaining their ends. It means that when two or more men want the same thing, their way of achieving it is through competition, thereby becoming enemies.
In the state of nature, the individual's conservation is what drives their action, so to survive; they would do whatever it takes to subdue the other (Craig & Sinnott-Armstrong, 2004). In this state, there is conflict because of competition when people try to get what they need, diffidence when men act to keep their safety, and glory when men invade for reputation or pleasure in the contemplation of their power. Hobbes says that a state like that is a state of war in which every man is against each other. This war doesn't necessarily consist of actual fighting, but of the disposition that at all times there is no assurance that battle is not going to happen. In a state of war, every man has the right to do anything for their conservation, there is no security for anybody, and everyone lives in fear (Craig & Sinnott-Armstrong, 2004).
In this case, there is an implicit contract, a covenant which must be fulfilled, or else agreements would be made in vain. Because of man's nature, there must be a power to compel men to the performance of their covenants. If this doesn't happen, men would fear that the other is not going to fulfill the agreement, and there would be no peace, but a continuous state of war (Michael, Divine Command Theory). However, because of the way in which everyone is under the contract, and the contract is being enforced, both by fear of the state of nature and fear of punishment by a higher authority if the contract is broken, individuals can expect to live peacefully. When they fulfill the contract for their own sake and peace, this simultaneously brings peace to the population in general. While it is true that men would be giving up some of their liberties by agreeing to the contract, it would be natural for them to do so to obtain security of self-preservation (Robert, 1979).
The three theories can be useful when dealing with moral dilemmas, and both reach their conclusions rationally. They analyze the impact of the moral action on society, but they reach different conclusions to what actions are morally right or wrong. This situation may be due, in part, to the value put in people individually and as a whole, and to the autonomy and perceived control that a specific individual would have within society, ruled by any of those moral theories. People could argue that utilitarianism is impartial and promotes social harmony since it requires us to balance our interests with those of others. While we obtain an illusion of harmony on the surface, that wouldn't be the case if we pay attention to particular populations that constitute minorities (Weilenberg, 2005).
While the three moral theories address valid points and could be an excellent guide to what amoral action is, being both valuable to an extent, the social contract has better outcomes for both societies and individuals. The social contract theory could be interpreted as being more equalitarian, as it recognizes all individuals as equals, with the same power to obtain what they need. It also asks the same from every person, to give up their right to all things to preserve peace, which benefits every individual as well as the society in general. Equally, the social contract can make people feel safer, as they feel more in control, and that can produce a more peaceful and just society, even if it is out of their interest for survival. This situation can keep a good general level of happiness, like in utilitarianism, without sacrificing people's individual-happiness.
Bentham, J. (1994). The principle of utility, In Ethics, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press
Craig, W.L. & Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2004). God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hare, J. (2014). Religion and Morality, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-morality/
Michael W. Austin, 'Divine Command Theory', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/
Midgley, M. (2009). Trying out ones new sword, In Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: introductory readings in ethics. Eds. Sommers & Sommers. Harcourt Brace College
O'neill, O. (1993). Kantian ethics, In Ethics, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press
Plato, (1974). The ring of Gyges, In Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: introductory readings in ethics. Ed. Sommers & Sommers. Harcourt Brace College
Pojman, L. P. (2007). Ethical theory: Classical and contemporary readings. Australia: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning
Robert M. A. (1979). A New Divine Command Theory. Journal of Religious Ethics 7: 66-79. Reprinted in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Russ Shafer-Landau (ed.), Malden MA./London: Wiley-Blackwell (2013), pp. 220-224.
Weilenberg, E. (2005). 'God and Morality' in his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-67.
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