The ties that bind

The Limits of Hobbesian Contractarianism
February 3, 1995

Though Jody S. Kraus's book discusses the limits of Hobbesian contractarianism - three major contemporary Hobbesian contractarians are treated in the volume - the inspiration for its arguments comes largely from John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Kraus attributes to Rawls's influence the reasons for the "contemporary renaissance" of Hobbesian contractarianism in moral and political theory. In fact, he sees Hobbes's theory as the dominant contractarian alternative to Rawls's theory.

Kraus finds the Hobbesian contract deficient since it attempts to "generate normative conclusions from virtually no normative assumptions at all." This, in turn, has a bearing on what he terms as "collective action problems", something which inspite of the efforts of contemporary Hobbesian contractarians still remains a difficulty. The problems of Hobbesian contractarianism, argues Kraus, are that of normatively minimalistic contractarian theories.

On the other hand, Kraus finds in Rawls's A Theory of Justice, "a well-developed contractarian theory of moral principles and political legitimacy inspired by Kant's idealistic contractarian theory." For him, Rawls's work has all the strengths of contractarianism, which he combines with a strong normative precommitment in his theory. Notwithstanding the ambitious nature of Kraus's enterprise, the book is flawed, I think, for three reasons.

Kraus follows the current confusion in Hobbes scholarship in wanting to demonstrate logically the Hobbesian system. This not only raises false expectations on behalf of Hobbes's system, but introduces issues and concerns (moral ones, largely) that are far removed from Hobbes's philosophy. Michael Oakeshott correctly pointed out, not so long ago, that Hobbes's civil philosophy belonged to a system of philosophy and must be seen as such.

Secondly, though the book is critical of the normatively minimalistic contractarian theories of Jean Hampton, Gregory Kavka, and David Gauthier, Kraus is not unduly ruffled by their use of the tools of game theory. After all, these works have merely been a restatement of well-established positions on Hobbes in the language of game theory, with very few new insights to offer. The reasons for holding on to decision and game theory are to be found in Kraus's infatuation for Rawls, whose use of rational choice theory is seen by Kraus as one of "the most influential innovations in Rawls's work . . .". Deficiencies in contemporary Hobbesian contractarianism is in their use of rational choice theory, and not of the original Hobbesian contract as Kraus would want us to believe.

But lastly, the shortcomings of Kraus's book are also the flaws of the Rawlsian framework. Rawls's theory is geared to finding a moral basis for democratic society in which justice would constitute a pre-eminent part. The way he goes about achieving his objective partakes of a central confusion inaugurated in the 19th century by J. S. Mill. This entailed an obsessive search for an idea of truth (in Platonic fashion) and possession of reason by leaders. Rawls would have us believe that rational men and women (say in a constitutional convention) could reach a consensus regarding constitution, law, and politics as long as they were guided by his two principles of justice. The moral status of these principles are to be decided, of course, by a meritocratic elite.

What is more suspect is Rawls's method, more specifically his notions of original position and veil of ignorance. We are asked to divest ourselves of all that is acquired and artificial. There is no place for history or a social identity, and diversity has no meaning. We must, instead, shed the excess baggage of our present condition; complete detachment is what is required for achieving a just society. We abandon, as a result, our place in society, class, creativity, morals, conception of self, genealogy. Once this happens, Rawls proposes to build a contract. We shall enter society without an idea about our conception of the "self" or personal identity. All one is left with is the fig leaf of Rawls's two principles of justice.

But the more serious implications of Rawls's theory are what it entails for politics. His inspiration in reviving the contract tradition comes from Kant, Locke, and Rousseau. These philosophers however, were primarily concerned with the problem of legitimacy and arbitrary power. Rawls, on the other hand, is preoccupied only with who gets what and with distribution. In turn, he reduces the notion of liberty to gratifying desires and the imperatives of a consumer's society, thus retaining a basic utilitarian approach. These very concerns -legitimacy, arbitrary power, subordination, rule of law - were central to Hobbes. He did not share the modern radical fallacy of assuming that there were basic natural (and pre-political) ties that inevitably hold a community together. Thus the need for an artificial, formal and impersonal notion of association embedded in the civil relationship.

Kraus's claims, whether they are about the normative poverty of hypothetical inquiry (the hypothetical scenario in Hobbes is not normatively deficient; rather it is one, as Noel O'Sullivan has argued elsewhere, where no individual or perspective is privileged), or his extravagant claims on behalf of Rawls's idealistic contractarian theory, do not convince. The Hobbesian contract, on the other hand, requires a reflective, uncluttered look, primarily by the author himself.

Jyotirmaya Sharma is a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

The Limits of Hobbesian Contractarianism

Author - Jody S. Kraus
ISBN - 0 521 42062 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 334pp

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments