You are on page 1of 4

Seth Martin, Roanoke, VA March 30, 2013

Social Contract Theory and the Case of Found Money

Many would agree that Social Contract Theory is an excellent normative and descriptive theory of ethics for dealing with interactions between human beings, and that it may be the most practical theory for dealing with moral interactions between individuals, and individuals and their society. Social Contract Theory first appears around the 400s B.C. in written works of Plato in which Socrates states he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract (Crito). Rachels, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, defines Social Contract Theory as being the morality that consists in the set of rules, governing behavior, that rational people will accept, on the condition that others accept them as well (p. 85). Social Contract Theory postulates that individuals make contracts with others because it is in their best interests to make such contracts, to be on the receiving end of said contracts. Nevertheless, Social Contract Theory is an incomplete theory of morality in that it is inherently limited to the domain of interactions between individuals, and individuals and society, and cannot address the internal morality of the individual. Social Contract Theory cannot explain why individuals abide by the rules defined by social contracts when it is not to their benefit and breaking the rules, and so the contracts, would be to their benefit. Most individuals at some time in their respective lives experience a situation in which they could break a social contract to their benefit, but they choose not to do so, even after careful consideration of the situation that demonstrates their compliance is not mere habit or the product of social conditioning. As a case in point, consider the individual who finds a $100

1 of 4

Seth Martin, Roanoke, VA March 30, 2013

cash note lying on the floor with no one else around to witness the find, and can make a reasonable guess as to whom the money belongs because of where he found it or some other clue, and furthermore knows that the expected owner may suspect him of stealing the money if he returned it. In this scenario, the finder may keep the money or may offer the money to the expected owner, or at least make an inquiry with the expected owner in an effort to ascertain if it does in fact belong to him. A significant percentage of individuals when faced with such a situation will do one of these three. In this scenario, the moral reasoning for only two of these three options can be explained by the understanding of morality that is possible under Social Contract Theory. The moral reasoning of the individual who keeps the money because he anticipates the expected owner may unjustly accuse him of stealing it when he returns it returned can be explained under Social Contract Theory; among other explanations is that in anticipation of the expected owner treating him unfairly by unjustly accusing him and so therefore breaking the contract, he is justified in breaking it preemptively. The moral reasoning of the individual who keeps the money because he will be $100 richer and there will be no negative social repercussions can also be understood under Social Contract Theory; among other explanations is that this individual for some reason does not feel bound by the social contract and so does not feel obligated to obey the rules, in this case to not take another persons property even if that person does not have possession of it. However, the individual who returns the money, who chooses to keep his end of the social contract while anticipating the other party will break the same contract, who will incur no personal or social benefit and who may in fact incur a social detriment, cannot be explained by the moral thinking possible under Social Contract Theory.
2 of 4

Seth Martin, Roanoke, VA March 30, 2013

This scenario is of particular interest in addressing the domain limitation of Social Contract Theory in that while the scenario involves another individuals property, it only involves the moral reasoning of the individual who finds the money. As the finder anticipates the expected owner to accuse him wrongfully, in terms of Social Contract Theory he anticipates the other party to break the social contract. With this anticipation, the social contract is effectively void and this scenario is left in a Social Contract Theory vacuum. Furthermore, even if there was a contract, there can be no enforcement of the contract as no other individual was present to witness the find and so there can be no negative social consequences to the finder if he decides to keep the money; and there is a social disadvantage to him in returning the money if the expected owner suspects him of stealing it. While an argument could be made that the finder cannot be sure that there are no witnesses or that this occurrence is not some type of morality test deliberately perpetrated upon him by the owner of the money, such an argument would be a red herring as rarely are such tests conducted in the real world and one can also imagine reasonable circumstances under which no witness could possibly be present. With no witness and no possible negative consequence to breaking the contract, the finder may still return the money, which is in effect to his disadvantage because he will be $100 poorer and the rightful owner may accuse him unduly. Returning the money or inquiring after its ownership requires a more basic level of morality within the domain of the individual, and which is not addressed by Social Contract Theory. The morality that would lead the finder to return the money to the expected owner, despite the personal detriment to his finances and the anticipated social detriment incurred from the expected owner, is not addressed by Social Contract Theory and so must come from
3 of 4

Seth Martin, Roanoke, VA March 30, 2013

somewhere else. That Social Contract Theory cannot explain the moral action of the individual not motivated by leverage of other individuals or his society, is proof that the theory is not a complete moral system. Social Contract Theory, while an excellent normative and descriptive theory for addressing dealings between individuals and individuals and their society, must in order to be complete, be coupled with some other moral system that deals in the domain of the individual, such as was Psychological Egoism for early Social Contract Theory philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Social Contract Theory.) and as was Kantianism for recent Social Contract Theory philosopher John Rawls (Social contract.).

References/Bibliography: Plato. 360 B.C.E. Crito. Trans Benjamin Jowett. Internet: The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html on 29 March 2013. Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart. 2012. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Seventh Edition. New York: The McRaw-Hill Companies. Social contract. Internet: Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_contract#John_Rawls.27_Theory_of_Justice_.281971.29 on 29 March 2013. Social Contract Theory. Internet: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/ on 29 March 2013.

4 of 4