2.1 Contractualism: Keep our words

In exploring the weakness of the arguments for ethical egoism, we said that ethical reasoning requires giving equal consideration to the interests of all people. We will grant this as an assumption about the meaning of ethical reasons and ethical justifications. We are assuming that ethical reasons, in contrast to self-interested reasons, are impartial. This is not to say that selfish or partial reasoning is incoherent. But they usually stand in contrast with ethical reasoning. Recall we said that the fundamental problem in ethics is figuring out how to balance our own interests against the interests of others. Another way to express this idea is in the form of a question: How do we determine the extent to which our actions should be bound by ethical reasons as opposed to our being free to act purely out of self-interest? Our goal now is to explore the nature of ethical reasoning more fully.

Contractualists, noting that humans are social creatures, believe that ethically right actions are those we can justify to others in our community. The theory takes its name from the promises, expectations, and agreements--the contracts--we establish with each other. When we pursue a PhD we enter an implicit social contract, an unwritten agreement that we will do our own work, assume responsibility for our own research results, and not appropriate the work of others as our own. Not to fulfill implied promises is to show disrespect for others in our group and to jeopardize their ability to satisfy their interests.

To try to justify our actions to each other, we discuss our conflicts, try to resolve them, and then memorialize important agreements in writing, signing on the dotted line when we take out a student loan or accept a teaching assistantship. Professional codes articulate the promises, duties, and obligations expected of all experts in a group. Codes are formal expressions of a group's respect for the humanity of each of its members.

Author: Douglas MacLean and Gary Comstock
Maintained By: Gary Comstock
Last Updated: 2008-08-09