Contractarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #37

Contractarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #37

Imagine a world without rules.
Nothing is illegal. Nothing is immoral.
Everyone is absolutely free. This might sound like utopia to you, but according to 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, it would actually be your worst nightmare. Hobbes called this hypothetical time, with no rules
to govern our behavior, “the state of nature.” And he described life there as “solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And he was probably right. The land of do-as-you-please sounds great – until you realize that everyone else is also doing as they please. That’s when you find out that you have an abundance of freedom, but you do not have any security. Because, when everyone’s constantly watching their backs, whoever is the biggest bully will be able to dominate, simply by fear and aggression. And even if you happen to be the biggest bully, life’s not going to be any better, because when enough weaker bullies get together even the strongest can be overthrown. So, this type of system – a sort of anti-system, without rules and without order – is a terrible way to live. And Hobbes pointed out that rational people
would want to change the system. They’d trade in some of their natural freedoms, in exchange for the security offered by civil society. The key to saving the world from chaos, he
said, was a contract. [Theme Music] Hobbes didn’t think there was anything deeply
real about morality. It’s not written in the stars, or waiting to be discovered by reason, or handed to us on stone tablets by the divine. Morality, he believed, is not primitive, or
natural. Instead, Hobbes proposed, anytime you get a group of free, self-interested, rational individuals living together, morality will just emerge. Because free, rational, self-interested people realize that there are more benefits to be found in cooperating than in not cooperating. Like, say I have an avocado tree growing outside
of my house. I consider it mine, and I can take all the
avocados I want from it. You have a mango tree, and you can take all
the mangoes you want. But sometimes avocado-have-ers grow tired of avocados, and mango have-ers grow tired of mangoes. This might actually be a bad example because
is there any such thing as too much guacamole?! But sometimes you just really want a mango
smoothie. And in the state of nature – where there are no rules – the only way for me to get a mango is to steal it. And the same goes for you and my avocados. So we found ourselves living in a world where we steal from each other, which means that both of us are always on edge, and we see each other as enemies. But remember, we’re rational,
so we find a better way. We make an agreement.
We promise not to steal from each other. And we promise to trade, avocados for mangos. Now we have more security and a more interesting
diet. What we have created is a contract – a shared
agreement – and suddenly, morality is born. This view, espoused by Hobbes and followed
by many today, is known as contractarianism. Contractarians say that right acts are those that do not violate the free, rational agreements that we’ve made. And we make these agreements because we think
they’ll make our lives better. So basically, we trade in some freedom for the
benefits that come out of cooperative living. Avocado-for-mango contracts are pretty straightforward. We both want something, and we make an explicit contract that we both believe will result in us being better off. But some contracts aren’t so obvious. We’re also bound up in a lot of implicit contracts – ones that we’ve never actually agreed to, but sort of find ourselves in. For instance, natural born citizens of the United States never agreed to follow the law of the land. Immigrants who become citizens do; they have to engage in an explicit contract as part of the citizenship process. But for the rest of us, we are expected to follow all sorts of rules that we never agreed to follow. Now, if you try to explain to the cop who pulled you over that you never agreed to the speed limit, so you’re not bound to follow it, well, I’m pretty sure you’re gonna get a ticket anyway. And that might seem really unfair to you. But contractarians will tell you that it’s
not. Because you reap all kinds of benefits from
being a part of this system. You get to drive on safe roads, drink clean water, and if your house catches on fire, people will show up and do their best to put it out. Rights imply obligations, by Hobbes’ thinking, so when you take from the common pot – by enjoying the goods that the system provides – you are also expected to pay in. That’s what happens when you pay taxes, and when you show up for jury duty, and when you accept the punishment for violating the rules – even rules that you disagree with. So, contracts are a pretty brilliant way for
making society not just survivable, but possible. They save you from a situation that Hobbes described as a “war of all against all,” and puts you in this idyllic land where everyone cooperates. But can you really count on cooperation? To explore that question, let’s head over
to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy. In the 1950’s, Canadian mathematician Albert W. Tucker formalized an idea that had originally been posed by American game-theorists Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher. Since then, many versions of this dilemma
have been presented. But Tucker’s scenario goes like this: You and your partner in crime are both arrested
and put in separate rooms for interrogation. The prosecution doesn’t have enough evidence
to convict you for your main offense. The best they can hope for is to give you
each a year in prison on a lesser charge. So, the prosecution offers you each a deal:
If you rat out your partner, they’ll let you go free. But now you and your partner face a dilemma. If you both remain silent, you know you won’t
get any more than a year in prison. But if you’re enticed by the thought of doing no time at all – all you have to do is squeal, and you’ll go free while your partner does three years. The problem is, enticed as you are by the offer, you know that your partner is thinking the same thing. And if you each give up the other, then the prosecution will have enough evidence to send you both away for two years. So now you think, no, it’s better to stay
silent. That way, you’ll only get the one year – as long as you can count on your partner to reason the same way. But what if he doesn’t? What if you stay quiet and
your partner’s the rat? Well, that means you’re doing three long years,
while he gets away scot-free. Facing that unpleasant prospect, if you’re both rational agents, you’ll be drawn to the conclusion that looking out for yourself is the best option, because it carries with it the prospect of either zero or two years, rather than the one or three years that you might get if you stay silent. Thanks, Thought Bubble. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us some interesting
wrinkles in contractarianism. Even though it was rational for both prisoners to squeal, they’d actually have been better off if they could count on each other to stay quiet. Cooperation pays, but only when you trust
your fellow contractors to keep their agreements. This is why a lot of defection occurs among
strangers. Defection is where you break the contract you’re in – whether you agreed to be in it or not – and you decide to look after your own interests, instead of cooperating. For example, the next time you’re driving
during rush hour, you’ll see rampant defection. Instead of following the rules, waiting their turn, and merging when they’re supposed to, people will speed down the shoulders and try to sneak up to the head of the merge lane – which ends up slowing down everybody. But, you see much less defection among people who know each other, because when you flagrantly violate a contract among people you know, it comes with a heavy social cost. There’s a special kind of moral outrage for somebody who freely makes an agreement they didn’t have to make, and then violates it. Because, our whole society is built on the
trust that people will keep their word. But, there’s another important part of this
theory – one we haven’t mentioned yet. And that is: In order for a contract to be
valid, the contractors must be free. You can’t force someone into a contract. And the contractors must be better off in the system that the contract makes possible, than they would be outside of it. Sure, there are probably some rules that don’t work in your favor all the time, but the system, overall, must make your life better than if you were on your own. So contractarianism necessarily rules out
things like slavery. Any given person will always be better off outside a system that enslaves her, so that type of system could never be legitimate, even if it’s agreed upon by the majority of the group. And maybe you’ve noticed something else about this moral theory – something that’s distinct from, say, the divine command theory, or kantianism, or even utilitarianism. With contractarianism, there is no morality
until we make it up. There’s nothing fundamentally “real”
about it. But it becomes real, as soon as you and I agree that it is, because once we agree to particular rules, they become real, and binding. So in a way, contractarianism is the most permissive of the moral theories we’ve looked at. Morality is determined by groups of contractors,
so whatever they agree to, goes. Which means, of course, morality can change. If, as a group, we change our minds, we can
simply modify the contract. Which is what happens, explicitly, when we change laws, and implicitly, with shifting social mores. But contractarianism is still pretty rigid
in some ways. If you take on an obligation, you have a duty
to keep it. This theory starts with the assumption that we get to choose what responsibilities we incur, so we’re all held to a high standard for keeping the agreements we choose to make. Next time, we’re gonna conclude our unit
on moral theory with a look at virtue theory. Today, though, we learned about contractarianism. We talked about Hobbes’ state of nature,
and the implicit and explicit contracts. We learned about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and
the benefits, and costs, of violating contracts. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association
with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like: It’s Okay to be Smart, Physics Girl, and Shanks FX. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.


  1. All you need to do is suppose that your counterpart is engaged in exactly the same process you're engaged in (you are both facing identical propositions) and then you can cross off both squares where you make different choices. At this point, not squealing clearly defeats a mutual rat-out. Without an implied symmetry breaking between you and your counterpart, there's no dilemma here at all.

  2. The Prisoner's Dilemma underscores the importance of trusting your friends (they are not your friend, if you cannot cooperate with them), because being with someone who chooses non-cooperation can have bad penalties, instead of someone who cooperates. The Prisoner's Dilemma can be mathematically modeled, and it is why it is a favorite in Philosophy. There is also a dark side to the world —— an underworld, if you will —— and habitual non-cooperation has its own outcomes in the dark world, just like there is a dark Internet.

  3. Has anyone stopped to think why Laws are even placed to begin with? If children were raised to be well-mannered and considerate and Money and Status were not Objects of Praise people would be able to get along just fine. Television, Movies and other Media as well the display of others, perpetuate the Idea that Wealth is synonymous with Worth; an education and Degree makes you superior to your (supposed) inferior peers instead of its original intentions; and you can't have Education and Status without Money and therefore, Theft, Embezzlement and Fraud is committed. Technology has it's advantages, certainly, but put in the wrong hands may prove disastrous. In short, our culture is to blame for propagating False Ideals thus, leading to the decadence of Society and hence, our need for Policing and Laws. Take away the Love of Distinction and Equanimity will be seen.

  4. There's a very popular movie about a contract called The Hitcher (1986). Most people, including one of the participants in the film for most of its runtime, and the people who produced the vapid (2007) remake, didn't actually realize that it was all about a simple contract, though. Sort of the way people who think morality is innate or divine overlook how much is negotiated.

  5. I wonder if we will ever find that perfect balance of freedom and security…people either want anarchy or authority…i want neither at full extent, i want to be safe and have just enough liberties to live a fulfilling life.

  6. Contractarianism seems like the logical choice for a free society. To be more specific, we get together to make the laws based on personal moral value (wither that be divine command, natural law, etc). With the prisoners dilemma, years of computer tests have shown cooperation to be the winning strategy. Likewise, we can see countries who base their laws on sound moral grounds are more successful than others.

    In other words, I don't see contractarianism as defining morality, but as a viable implementation.

    "Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
    "And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land." (Mosiah 29:26-27)

  7. Hobbes used to do " thought experiments" go walks , he had an inkwell in his cane I read Political Science and hold an HND with merits ! Read Locke more sense, Rousseau " father of revolution " De Tocqueville hated him . Charles. Secondat Baron Montesquieu spirit of the laws basis of USA

  8. Lets take the Avocado/Mango example. Hank HAS an avocado tree and I Have a mango tree, and this is all taking place in "The state of nature" as Hobbes calls it. But that is a contradiction, how can I OWN a mango tree, property rights is itself based upon contractarianism, which is not present in the world Hank and I are in.
    Also what happens in the case when Avocados are essential to human life(ie you need avocados to survive) but Mango isn't, shouldn't I as a human have access to Avocados, to survive? After all since our trade of Avocados for Mangoes were based upon mutual agreement, Hank could simply choose not agree to this trade and I would die out.
    Thirdly why is there an assumption, in the state of nature every one is trying to kill or takedown others for stuff, since all of us need all the stuff why aren't these rational, free, self interested individuals choosing the most viable alternative i.e to use what they need. If one looks in the animal world, lions don't monopolize a particular type of prey or maybe a region of hunting.

  9. 30 seconds in and I had to comment! why does this man, like most, jump on the wagon of criminal behaviour when freedom is mentioned, if there was no rules and legislations why would people assume everybody would be criminals?, lets not forget we have laws in place that prevent or rather punish criminals!

  10. I think that the idea of stealing is newly founded. In the state of nature, there is no stealing for there is no morality to judge such act. It's just life and acceptance of life in the most physical and concrete way possible. In the state of nature, everything is yours if you can take it and nothing is yours for it can be taken away any time. It's just a different kind of contract.

  11. Hmm you have very good videos but one isn't entirely correct- you attribute trade to Hobbs when his idea is that you wouldn't ever be able to grow a tree in the first place. You actually touch on Smith and Hume's beliefs who were against the contract theory. Locke is ignored and does believe in divine right and several of his ideas are brushed over and put together with Hobbes. Makes me worry considering other topics you have covered that I know nothing about, of which i have taken as truth.

  12. "You get so many benefits out of this system like getting to drive on safe roads (*stares at giant pot holes that haven't been fixed in the 6+ months they've existed*) and getting to drink clean water" (*stares at flint michigan and the various towns and cities whos drinking water is now flammable because of fracking*)

  13. IDK why Hank lapsed into objectivistic talk at the end (7:55). The "validity" of morality is not the same thing as objectivity…. Hobbes tells us, compacts of mutual trust are invalid until there is an enforcer put in place. No one should be expected to keep their end of a bargain unless it is rational to do so. And it will never be rational to do so unless it is in your interest to do so. And it will never be in your interest to do so unless there is a serious threat of punishment for violations of the bargain. Hence, we need a Leviathan. A monster of a government.

  14. Utilitarianism and Contractarianism are quite compatible.
    Contractarianism might be tough on the youth but it's the best way to make sure we all live happy lives. And Utilitarianism is the way to get to Contractarianism.

  15. The main problem I see with Contractarianism is that it doesn't resemble a contract. You can't decline to participate.

    The thing about contracts is, they're voluntary. It's not just that you can choose the one you like best, but that choosing none of them is always an available option. Not so with the social contract. There's no way to opt out entirely.

    The failure to provide this option creates an incentive to become Hume's Clever Knave, someone who purports to abide by the contract but doesn't really. This would defection, but not just occasionally. Constant defection.

    And if that's the incentive, then the system has flaws. The real rewards go to the most deceptive of us.

  16. @CrashCourse You say in this theory "There is no morality until we make it up", but you also say "these contracts are rationally made because we think they make out lives better". So the objectivity/subjectivity of this theory is based on whether or not these contracts objectivity or subjectivity make our lives better. Which means there is an objective version of this theory. Correct?

  17. Well you just helped me pass the first semester with all your videos about the different ethical theories, thank you sir!

  18. what if breaking rules of the contract is not for your own benefit, but because the contract is unfair, for many people, and so breaking it will get you in trouble but it will help erode an unjust contract. In this sense morality is not only independent of the contract, but it is also opposed to it. Also, contracts are inherently coersive, because you cannot escape the contract. And while there are other contracts, whichever is the most powerful has an interest in making all the other contracts appear identical to itself, so that people cannot opt out of the contract and into a different one. When I sign an ACTUAL contract, I know what it contains, but this contract of government is liable to change at any time and we cannot see its contents. It's not a contract, it is ownership of the citizenry. Take that Hobbes. I just debunked your entire stupid contract theory in only a paragraph with less jargon so that people can understand it. I'm a better philosopher than you. Wheres your contract now you old decaying pile of bone dust.

  19. ~2:20 : if there are no rules then, by definition, I don't have only one way of getting the avocado… The fallacy of the false dilemma ahhaha

  20. In the mango-avocado example you take it for granted that in a rule-less "natural state", there is a rule that one person 'owns' the avocado's and another the mango's. By definition, this rule cannot exist in the natural state: there are no rules, ergo no rule to dictate any kind of ownership either.

    Practically speaking, this would make sense if you would regard stealing from a basket of collected food. However, as long as there are plenty of avocado's and mango's, we wouldn't even need to make up the first rule of 'this is mine, that is yours'. If there is not enough, any other rule could emerge, among which a rule of sharing based on your needs and the needs of others. From anthropology we learn that a common rule among tribes living closer to nature, is to take no more than what you need.*

    * This reminds me of a remark in the comments saying that people don't go living in nature or in the mountains, away from society. I have news for you: quite some people do, actually.

    I hope someone from Crash Course or someone with relevant background in philosophy can point me to learning more about why the rule of ownership is disregarded as being a rule within this so called rule-less conceptual 'state of nature'?

  21. I think Hobbes created the state of nature to end the seemingly indefinite wars at the time and into the future and whether he even believed in his own theory or not—in a literal sense. Ironically, if he were alive today I’d ask him to elaborate on the existence of the “soul” and give him a chance to retract his opposition of Aristotle on the topic, because he had a beautiful one—pun intended. ? No one actually thought he was atheist did they!? I think he’s one of the most poetic, prophetic, and legendary christian men who have ever lived. Just my two cents. ??

  22. Islamic principles as a contract are the best you will see in a society if applied. From Human developement to equity to rule of law to social issues and contracts of buying and selling and marriage and divorce and inheritance laws. Its a complete system. We unfortunatly dont study well enough. In addition to that all the shariah law scary content that people send online its difficult to be attracted towards studying it. But we should give it a shot, study it from its own sources.

  23. The inhalation of humanity is worth more than civilized society . Look what has become of the civilized society with its ever increasing need for the control and destruction of the individual. Both state of nature and civilized society are terrible and you are screwed either way

  24. I don't know if its fair to say that contractarians don't have preexisting morality, and that it is simply created by the contract itself. Hobbes morality was based in natural law, at least to the degree that self preservation was an ultimate morality. Maybe that's semantic, but it is a foundation for his philosophy.

  25. Now you kids understand why diversity sucks in Contractarian societies, since closeness to others is the basis for what we call, "high trust" societies, but who cares, I am just an evil alt right idiot :v

  26. Once, far away, I had both a mango Tree and an Avocado one. i dont anymore. this flash philosophy hit me right in the feels

  27. "in order for the contracts to be valid, the contractors must be free" – so if there is not freedom there is not valid contracting which makes the system based on this theory crumble. Only true freedom can provide true, stable contracts and relations between people imo

  28. Actually getting a driver's license you are agreeing to follow rules. Obtaining any licenses means you will and why they exist.
    But I get the idea more like peeing in public or having to wear clothes. Things that you naturally do by rules exist.

  29. 4:07 – when people want the pot to stop being a common pot, how does a society reverse that? I mean, at 7:10 we say you can't force someone into a contract, but proponents of a "social contract" do just that.

  30. Like when slavery was legal. Just shut up and be a slave. Harriet Tubman was a horrible contract breaker. We are all born in the system.

  31. I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery. I never signed your social contract. If only everyone would follow the N.A.P
    Sadly we now have a bunch of dumb kids that think Socialism is great. Socialists don’t believe in Private Property starting with individual liberties.

    Oh and Taxation is Theft

  32. I am of the opinion that evolution is the founder of social cooperation . But , I know I am still learni g . Its just where I am now .

  33. Yes , any amount of guacamole is too much . I am completely biased having grown up near a neglected avacado sitio in Brasil and smelled spoiled avacado every season .

  34. Is anyone else realizing that they have vascilated between two or three of these moral theories ? I am mostly a Kantist but also at times Contractarian ….in some aspects .

  35. As a passionate public speaker, I actually gave a presentation that tied together the prisoner's dilemma, game theory and the plot of Saw V.

  36. The prisoner's dilemma, which is a paradox since partners-in-crime often cooperate even when they are strongly motivated to rat the other guy out, is something of a paradox of psychology, though we now have good understanding how we've come to evolve to keep mum and not snitch (or cooperate blindly with our business partner.)

    Similarly, cats are prone to be curious, trusting and forgiving. (Wild African Cheetahs are — notoriously and problematically — one saucer of milk away from being domesticated.) And while this can put cats in dangerous or abusive situations, far more cats benefit from these traits than are endangered by them. So it turns out with humans that blindly cooperate with each other against antagonistic systems.

    Also of note, our police systems are conspicuously bad at concealing their authoritarian and inhumane propensities, so by the time someone is being taken in to turn states, there's a strong sense that doing so is cooperating with with the Geheime Staatspolizei against the dissidents and Allies.

    Edit: Formatting

  37. Speaking of imbalanced contracts, observe the YouTube TOS, or pretty much any communication- or computer-service EULA, and tell me these are things you'd agree to without coercion.

  38. A problem occurs when people without adequate bargaining power are forced into contracts they wouldn't otherwise agree to. Someone who works for slave wages because the only other option is starvation, isn't freely entering into a contract.

  39. How does you agree morality is real make morality real? Is like someone saying sun doesn’t exist until we all agree it exists. the sun exist whether you agree it exists to not and same goes for morality

  40. prisoners dilemma is what happens when you don't know how to own up to your actions and take the punishment situations like that show the egoism of humans in play, watching this and videos on the types of egoism for my final coming up lol

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