Document Type



Master of Arts



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

John Brunero, Ph.D.


Wiland, Eric

Kurtsal-Steen, Irem


This paper provides two arguments against David Gauthier’s version of contractarianism, presented to weaken the cumulative case for this view. Gauthier provides a test for which moral claims are justified: a hypothetical agreement. This agreement consists of those constraints that rational persons would accept. A good many of our moral claims actually fail this test. But despite this fact, complying with justified moral claims makes us better off. By doing so, we are able to gain the benefits of cooperation, available only to those who cooperate. Gauthier thus provides us with a theory of morals by agreement. The first argument of the present paper is as follows. If, upon making this hypothetical agreement, we come to realize that the terms of the agreement itself rely on a conception of morality that is not the object of agreement, we will come to view the agreement as unstable. To re-establish the agreement on more stable grounds, each party to it will, Gauthier supposes, consider which moral claims each would accept in a pre-moral, pre-social situation. The agreement, since it then proceeds from a situation that escapes prior influence of any moral conception, will be a purer, or more stable, test for morality. I will argue that were we to imagine ourselves in such a situation, the resulting imagined person would be quite foreign to ourselves. This hypothetical person, then, becomes the party to the agreement instead of us. The constraints that she would choose in such a situation then appear irrelevant to us. Since these constraints form the agreement, the agreement turns out to be irrelevant to us. The second argument: Gauthier argues that morality faces a foundational crisis and that contractarianism is the only plausible resolution of it. I will argue that this resolution implies an implausible consequence regarding moral evaluation. Moral rationalism is presented and then bolstered as a superior view to contractarianism. With moral rationalism established, it becomes clear that Gauthier’s resolution is implausible. I conclude with some comments about answering the moral skeptic; it may not be the role of the moral philosopher to do this.