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Rationality in Agreement: A Commentary on Gauthier's Morals by Agreement1

  • Gilbert Harman (a1)

Gauthier's title is potentially misleading. The phrase “morals by agreement” suggests a social contract theory of morality according to which basic moral principles arise out of an actual or hypothetical agreement. John Rawls defends a hypothetical agreement version, arguing that the basic principles of justice are those that would be agreed to in an initial position of fair equality. I myself defend an actual agreement version, arguing that the moral principles that apply to a person derive from implicit conventions the person has accepted in dealing with other people. Gauthier's view is different from either of these sorts of contract theory. Instead, he holds that certain basic principles of impartiality are prior to actual agreements.

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2 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

3 Harman Gilbert, “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review, vol.84 (1975), pp.322; reprinted in Meiland Jack W. and Krausz Michael, eds., Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).

4 As we shall see in a moment, Gauthier later argues that the base point should be the expected utility of a situation of no interaction at all, cooperative or otherwise.

5 Schelling Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

6 The research reported here was supported in part by research grants to Princeton University from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the National Science Foundation under NSF grant number IST8503968. The views and conclusions contained in this paper are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the McDonnell Foundation or the U.S. Government.

1 David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Subsequent references to this work will be indicated parenthetically in the text by MA followed by a page number.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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