Sunday, 18 December 2016

So what if I would agree?



The next justification of political authority that Michael Huemer considers in his book The Problem of Political Authority is what is called Hypothetical Social Contract Theory. The broad idea is that what justifies political authority is that you would agree to government coercion were you not the irrational, selfish and ignorant fool that you are. My inclination when addressed in such a manner is to say, so what? Grant that I am the irrational, selfish and ignorant fool that you say I am, why does what I would agree to if I were otherwise make it right for the government to force me to do what I don’t want to do?

A standard example of hypothetical agreement justifying something is that of the unconscious patient in need of life saving surgery. Surgery, unless agreed to, is an assault: but you can’t agree to it if you are unconscious. The idea here is that what justifies the surgeon cutting you up anyway is that you would agree to him doing so if you were conscious.

A first condition on this justification is that your actual agreement is impossible to obtain. If you were fully conscious and we knocked you out and operated without getting your agreement we would still have assaulted you. A second condition is your hypothetical agreement must not depend on significant alteration of your values. If your religion forbids you to undergo surgery under any circumstances then you wouldn’t agree to the surgery unless you gave up your religious belief. The important point about these two conditions is that if, despite the failure of these conditions, you still think that the surgery is justified then you are not defending it by hypothetical agreement but by something else.

It is clear that both these conditions fail for political authority. Agreement is possible to obtain. For each government, there are some who would not agree to it without significant alteration of their values since they want some alternative form of government and there are others who are anarchists and reject all government.
Up to this, point, then, there is neither an actual nor an hypothetical social contract justifying political authority. The next step in this line is for hypothetical agreement to take a very different role: rather than somehow constituting a social contract, and thereby justifying political authority,  it reveals to us the nature of a government that could not reasonably be rejected. The idea now is that there is a form of political authority that would be agreed to ‘by reasonable persons under ideal conditions of deliberation’ (p.39) and a government exercising political authority of that form is thereby justified.
Ideal conditions include being better informed, fully rational, unbiased and being reasonable includes being willing to accept some give and take. To keep the justificatory power for us, however, these conditions cannot include such things as ‘after all have converted to the one true religion’ (p.40). Reasonable people have different religious and philosophical views and different conceptions of the good. The point is to claim that there is some form of political authority that reasonable people under ideal conditions could agree to despite these differences.

Huemer considers both Nagel’s and Rawls’ defences in this line. First of all, there might not even be agreement that there should be a government. Even if all agreed that there should be a government, there is no reason to think that ‘all reasonable people [would]  achieve agreement on the basic principles of government any sooner than they reach agreement on the correct religion, the correct moral theory, and so on’. (p. 42) So this approach might not even get off the ground.

Even if such an agreement could be made, the reasonableness of the hypothetical agreement does not justify the coercion of actual people who have made no such agreement. Huemer illustrates this by the case of an employer offering a job that no one could reasonably reject. In such a case, the employer may not force me to take the job if I reject it. So once again, we would have to assume the legitimacy of political authority is already in place to think it justified for the government to coerce people to what they would agree to were they reasonable and hence the hypothetical agreement cannot be used to justify political authority.
Huemer identifies two major strands in Rawls’ use of hypothetical agreement: that it reveals what is fair or it reveals constraints on moral reasoning ‘that we do in fact accept’ (Rawls A Theory of Justice p. 17). Rawls’ version of the hypothetical agreement is a matter of what we would agree to be the basic principles of justice in what he calls the original position, a position in which we are fully rational and generally informed, self-interested but deprived of personal information of what exactly our interest is. What we would agree to reveals what is fair and the nature of the original position makes the constraints ‘vivid to ourselves’(Rawls A Theory of Justice p. 17).

 Huemer offers two examples to show that fairness thus revealed does not justify coercion, hence does not justify political authority. Sue makes Joe an offer on his car that a reasonable owner would accept, but Joe refuses it. Joe finds a diamond in his back garden and could rectify the moral arbitrariness of his lucky increased wealth by giving half its value to Sue. In neither case do we think that Joe is obligated nor would coercion be justified.

The problem with the constraints on moral reasoning is that, as they stand, they are insufficient to determine the right form of political authority without supplementation by the true moral theory, so as such they are useless for the task for which they are being used. On the other hand, if they are merely taken to be necessary conditions then what is required is to show that all forms of political authority but one violates them.  Rawls attempts no such proof and arguably utilitarianism (the main theory against which Rawls is offering his theory of justice) satisfies them: nor for that matter do defenders of ‘egalitarianism, libertarianism or anarchism…appear to have violated any widely accepted constraints on moral reasoning’ (p.56).
Huemer concludes that political authority is not justified by any social contract, neither actual nor hypothetical nor ideal.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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