Morals by Agreement

Morals by Agreement

Morals by Agreement

Morals by Agreement


Is morality rational? In this book Gauthier argues that moral principles are principles of rational choice. He proposes a principle whereby choice is made on an agreed basis of cooperation, rather than according to what would give an individual the greatest expectation of value. He shows that such a principle not only ensures mutual benefit and fairness, thus satisfying the standards of morality, but also that each person may actually expect greater utility by adhering to morality, even though the choice did not have that end primarily in view. In resolving what may appear to be a paradox, the author establishes morals on the firm foundation of reason. Gauthier's argument includes an account of value, linking it to preference and utility; a discussion of the curcumstances in which morality is unnecessary; and an application of morals by agreement to relations between peoples at different levels of development and different generations. Finally, he reflects on the assumptions about individuality and community made by his account of rationality and morality.


The present enquiry began on a November afternoon in Los Angeles when, fumbling for words in which to express the peculiar relationship between morality and advantage, I was shown the Prisoner's Dilemma. (The unfamiliar reader will be shown it in section 3.2 of Chapter III.) Almost nineteen years later, I reflect on the course of a voyage that is not, and cannot be, completed, but that finds a temporary harbour in this book.

The Prisoner's Dilemma posed a problem, rather than solving one. The problem concerns practical rationality, understood in maximizing terms, and it is resolved, or so I now think, in Chapter VI.

It proved to be the second of three core problems that required resolution before my enquiry could issue in this book. The first was to formulate the principle of rational co-operation, which I believe is central to morality. In my account, this principle is related to a rational agreement or bargain, and I was able to develop a gametheoretic treatment of bargaining, which has evolved into Chapter V. The second was to demonstrate the rationality of complying with this principle, which turns out to be the problem of rational behaviour in a Prisoner's Dilemma. And the third was to determine the appropriate initial position from which co-operation proceeds, which requires showing the rationality of accepting a Lockean proviso on initial acquisition. (The unfamiliar reader will meet the proviso in section 3.1 of Chapter VII.) This third problem proved the most recalcitrant; from the initial idea of a contractarian moral theory, which captured my imagination in 1966, some thirteen years elapsed before the role of the proviso became clear.

During those years I published several papers, developing what I now consider proto-versions of parts of the present theory. A reader familiar with those papers will find in them both arguments and attitudes that are contradicted or modified in the present account. I should like to think that this represents progress in my enquiry.

Perhaps changes in attitude deserve a further remark. I have had, and continue to have, somewhat mixed feelings about morals by agreement. Indeed, at one time I thought of setting out much of the . . .

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