In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Moral Contractualism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Contractualism Beyond Hobbesian Contractualism and Kantian Contractualism

Philosophy Moral Contractualism
Nicholas Southwood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0166


Moral contractualism is the view that the rightness and wrongness of our conduct is somehow to be understood in terms of some kind of actual or counterfactual agreement. This must be distinguished from political contractualism, which adduces agreements in order to account for the justice or authority or legitimacy of political institutions or decisions. Versions of contractualism differ in terms of how they specify the agreements. The two main versions of contractualism are Hobbesian contractualism (sometimes called “contractarianism”), which is based on the idea of a self-interested bargain or contract between self-interested individuals for the sake of individual gain, and Kantian contractualism, which is based on the idea of a morally constrained agreement among individuals who regard themselves and one another as free and equal persons warranting moral respect. This article will say something about the historical sources of contractualism, but will focus primarily on recent discussions.

General Overviews

There are a number of good general introductions to contractualism, each of which possesses different virtues. A sample includes D’Agostino, et al. 2011; Sayre-McCord 2000; Morris 1996; and Watson 1998.

  • D’Agostino, Fred, Gerald Gaus, and John Thrasher. “Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2011.

    Proceeds by postulating a core contractualist schema that can be broken down into five main elements (the contractual act, the parties to the agreement, the object of the agreement, the reasoning of the parties, and what the agreement is supposed to show), and shows how different versions of contractualism interpret the various elements differently.

  • Morris, Christopher. “A Contractarian Account of Moral Justification.” In Moral Knowledge?: New Readings in Moral Epistemology. Edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons, 215–242. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Presents an accessible, elegant, and opinionated summary of some of the main versions of contractualism and how they differ, and concludes by endorsing a version of Hobbesian contractualism.

  • Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey. “Contractarianism.” In The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. Edited by Hugh Lafollette, 247–267. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

    Offers a highly accessible introduction to contractualism that is both historically grounded and connected to more recent developments. Discusses Hobbesian and Kantian versions and considers some of their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Watson, Gary. “Some Considerations in Favor of Contractualism.” In Rational Commitment and Morality: Essays for Gregory Kavka. Edited by Christopher Morris and Jules Coleman, 168–185. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    A more advanced introduction to contractualism that proceeds by showing how different versions combine both teleological and deontological elements into a coherent whole.

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