Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Naturalism and Moral Conventionalism: A Critical Appraisal of Binmore's Account of Fairness

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Naturalism and Moral Conventionalism: A Critical Appraisal of Binmore's Account of Fairness

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Economists have demonstrated during the last three decades a growing interest in issues related to fairness and morality. Indeed, the rise of game theory has considerably changed the disciplinary landscape between economics and moral philosophy: economists now have a tool at their disposal directly relevant to making significant contributions to moral philosophy. This article provides a critical examination of a specific attempt to produce a theory of fairness through the gametheoretic lens, namely Ken Binmore's theory of the social contract (Binmore 1994, 1998, 2005). Binmore presents his account as an attempt to "treat morality as a science" (Binmore 2005, 1). It pursues two goals: first, to account for the origins and the content of our fairness judgments; second, to argue for an egalitarian view of fairness. Clearly, the justifiability of the second prescriptive goal depends on the success of the first descriptive goal. However, several philosophers have argued that pursuing the first goal might undermine the justifiability of the second (see, for instance, Joyce 2006). My examination of Binmore's account responds to this general philosophical worry.

Binmore's theory of fairness builds on the popular philosophical device of the original position, independently developed by John Rawls (1971) and John Harsanyi (1953). However, Binmore gives a naturalistic twist to this device. He naturalizes it through two related claims: first, he argues that genetic and biological evolution has encoded the original position in our genes. In particular, he claims, biological evolution has endowed us with the ability to sympathize and empathize with others, regardless of genetic relatedness. Second, Binmore argues that cultural evolution has led to the emergence of standards of fairness under the forms of empathetic preferences that make interpersonal comparisons of utility possible. The original position is then conceived by Binmore as a genetically encoded but culturally loaded algorithm, which humans use to coordinate in the "game of life", i.e. the game whose "rules are determined by the laws of physics and biology; by geographical and demographic facts; by technological and physiological constraints" (Binmore 1998, 4). The game of life has a multiplicity of Pareto-efficient equilibria. The original position device is instantiated in what Binmore calls the 'game of morals' and selects one equilibrium on the basis of an egalitarian standard of fairness.

My goal in this paper is to clarify the implications of the naturalization of the original position for the status and the significance of fairness claims and judgments. I shall argue that the means by which the original position is naturalized makes it vulnerable to moral skepticism. Specifically, I argue that Binmore's naturalization of the original position implies that fairness judgments are grounded on the power structure of the society. A moral skeptic can then argue that these judgments do not have any moral content and authority, and thus, cannot be objectively true. I explore a possible answer to the moral skeptic's challenge by arguing that Binmore's account displays a variant of moral conventionalism. However, I conclude that Binmore's conventionalist answer leads to a purely behaviorist view of morality, which implies that there is nothing special about morality and fairness norms. In response, I consider alternative accounts of moral conventionalism which emphasize the importance of the reasons that establish moral conventions. These alternatives escape most of the difficulties which are associated with Binmore's account.

The article is organized as follows. Section 2 presents Binmore's account by explaining the naturalization of the original position as a device to coordinate in the game of life. Section 3 raises the critique from moral skepticism against Binmore's account, as the latter is understood as an instance of moral naturalism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.