Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, August 13, 2009

24. Morals by Agreement: The Lockean Proviso

Note: This post is the twenty-fourth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

This is the sixth and final (for now, anyway) post on the book Morals by Agreement, by David Gauthier.

Gauthier summarizes his argument in chapter 7, of Morals By Agreement as follows:

"If you seize the products of my labour and then say 'let's make a deal', I may be compelled to accept, but I will not voluntarily comply. We are therefore led to constrain the initial bargaining position, through a proviso that prohibits bettering one's position through interaction worsening the position of another. No person should be worse off in the initial bargaining position that she would be in a no-social context of no interaction. The proviso thus constrains the base from which each person's stake in agreement, and so her relative concession and benefit, are measured. We shall show that it induces a structure of personal and property rights, which are basic to rationally and morally acceptable social arrangements."

As best as I can tell, Gauthier's argument is effectively the same as in the previous chapter. That is, if people are going to set up a society based on cooperation, chapter 6 argued that people who break their agreements wouldn't be accepted in such a society, since they would make it impossible for people to make agreements 'rationally'. In chapter 7, the argument is that cooperative society also needs to exclude people who better their own position at the expense of others, since people who act this way make it irrational for people to participate in that sort of society.

He notes that another way of expressing this is to say that, within a cooperative society, people have the 'right' not to be coerced or deceived into doing things they would not do voluntarily.

Of course, the history of just about every piece of land on the planet is a history of people having taken it by force at some point and then made any future agreements starting from that position, so Gauthier does make one concession to reality in noting that people will acquiesce to a deal that benefits them, even if that deal is unfair because it represents past acts of coercion - if the deal is better than nothing. So, for example, in South Africa it was not required to undo every act of colonialism before apartheid could be ended.

He also notes that where some people have a large technological advantage over others, it won't necessarily be rational for them to cooperate with the others, as opposed to simply coercing the others to do what they want. He ends the chapter by arguing that this means that the proviso applies only in relations between equals.

Presumably the reason for the distinction is that, in a battle between equals, the retaliation back and forth would leave both parties worse off than a cease fire, whereas in a one-sided battle, the victor is likely to come out ahead, even after allowing for their costs of coercion. Gauthier doesn't (as far as I see, anyway) consider whether this notion has any implications for the behaviour of the government, which, as the only legitimate source of force in society, is in a similar position vis-a-vis its subjects as the technologically superior party is to the inferior. In other words, Gauthier's argument seems to imply that it is 'rational' for the government to coerce people in ways that it is not rational for individual citizens to do.

One thing that was unclear to me was why Gauthier seemed to insist that the prohibition against violating the proviso only applied before the establishment of cooperative society, rather than remaining in force all the time, even after society was established. Perhaps he simply assumes that, once cooperative society is established, refraining from the sort of coercive behaviour that would violate the proviso is already taken care of by the the fact that people come to voluntary agreements (as described in chapter 5) and abide by those agreements (as described in chapter 6).

* Note that it is called the 'Lockean' proviso because John Locke was one of the first philosophers to set out this sort of notion that people had the right to do what they wanted as long as they didn't make others worse off in the process.

Finally, if you would rather get someone else's (more concise) perspective on Morals by Agreement, one of the most interesting internet links that I found summarizing it was these philosophy class notes, written by Dick Arneson

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