Contractualism, Reciprocity, Compensation

By Alm, David | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, March 2008 | Go to article overview
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Contractualism, Reciprocity, Compensation


Alm, David, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


TWO GENERALLY RECOGNIZED moral duties are to reciprocate benefits one has received from others and to compensate harms one has done to others. In this paper I want to show that it is not possible to give an adequate account of either duty--or at least one that corresponds to our actual practices--within a contractualist moral theory of the type developed by T. M. Scanlon (1982, 1998). This fact is interesting in its own right, as contractualism is a leading contemporary contender among deontological moral theories, and the two duties I have mentioned are fairly standard ingredients of such theories. (1) But it also serves to highlight a general problem with contractualism, at least in Scanlon's version--namely its one-dimensional view of the keystone of any plausible deontological theory: the idea of respect for persons.

1. Contractualism

Our first order of business will be to give a brief description of Scanlon-style contractualism that will allow us to consider how that theory handles the obligations of reciprocity and compensation. Scanlon offers an account of an action's being wrong, in the sense of wronging someone. He writes:

   [Contractualism] holds that an act is wrong if its performance
   under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of
   principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could
   reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced general
   agreement. (1998, p. 153) (2)

This canonical formulation is somewhat complex, but we should be able to abstract from some of that complexity here. The key idea is that of "reasonable rejection." I will understand it in terms of what Scanlon himself, following Parfit, calls "the Complaint Model" (p. 229). According to this model,

   a person's complaint against a principle must have to do with its
   effects on him or her, and someone can reasonably reject a
   principle if there is some alternative to which no other person has
   a complaint that is as strong. (ibid.)

I choose this interpretation for two reasons. First it makes good sense of the way Scanlon himself applies contractualism--as he seems to acknowledge (ibid.). But also, without the Complaint Model, contractualism has less content than one might wish. It simply becomes hard to apply it with any reasonable degree of precision. (3)

Now, Scanlon does not endorse this interpretation of his theory, and indeed mentions two ways in which that theory supposedly diverges from the Complaint Model (ibid.). (4) Both call for some comment. The first is this: the Complaint Model assumes that "effects on him or her" are effects on well-being, and that is too narrow. However, this "welfarist" interpretation of the Complaint Model does not seem mandatory. Scanlon's actual words--that a complaint must deal with the principle's "effects" on the complainer--suggest no such narrow interpretation. His own view is that the reasons a person may have to reject a given principle must be "personal." As I understand him, such reasons may, and very often do, concern themselves with the person's own well-being, but may also "have to do with [the person's] claims and status" (p. 219). The exact interpretation of this saying is not obvious, I admit, but I would at least take it to imply the following: a complaint must point to something that is bad for the person making it, even if this badness is not best understood in terms of well-being. It is true that requiring in addition that reasons to reject must be reasons of well-being would make the Complaint Model, and hence contractualism, still more definite, but I agree with Scanlon that we would purchase this advantage at the cost of an excessively narrow view of reasons--at least if we understand well-being the way Scanlon does (see chapter 3). Appealing, as I do, to the broader notion of what is "bad for" a person strikes me as a reasonable compromise.

Scanlon's other objection to the Complaint Model is that it ignores the fact that we sometimes, even in contractualist reasoning, presuppose "a framework of entitlements" that we do not attempt to justify in the context (p.

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