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The Contractarian View

Morality is based on mutual agreement to the benefit of all parties; when there is no mutual advantage, there are no moral obligations.

The basic contractarian idea is that ethical obligations originate in agreements or 'contracts' between people – agreements that mutually benefit the involved parties.

The thinking here is this: We all have our individual interests. We are perfectly entitled to pursue these, but in most situations we can benefit from the help of others. Others will find it attractive to help as long as they get some kind of help in return; at least if the arrangement we find (the specifics of the contract) serves their interests more than if we had no arrangement. Hence, mutual cooperation is in the interests of everyone. When cooperating we make agreements, and it is these agreements that form the moral obligations.

Such agreements need not be formal, commercial contracts. They may be implicit in people’s considered behaviour. Some argue that this kind of morality is ingrained in us, developed through natural selection, because behaviour reflecting mutually beneficial agreements gives each of our sets of genes an advantage over time.

Contractualist morality tends to be quite modest or minimal in the following way: we can probably all agree to a basic set of minimal moral rules such as “do not kill” and “do not steal”, because such rules typically are beneficial for all parties. However, more demanding moral rules such as “you must help those in need” are not necessarily so: if one is wealthy or in a strong position and in no way benefits from helping eg, starving strangers who can never return your favour, then contractualism would not advise that we should agree to such a rule. On the other hand, it might be in your best interest to help those in need if all agree to do so; you might end up needing help in the future.