A Defense of Formal Contractualism

Date of Award

May 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ken Baynes


Contractualism, Ethics, Moral Theory

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


Human dignity is arguably the most important value informing our moral practices. Moral contractualism is appealing, in part, because it is a normative theory that tells us how to act in accordance with dignity or on the basis of mutual respect. According to a popular account of contractualism, responding appropriately to the dignity of all persons requires acting in accordance with principles no one could reasonably reject. I offer a comparative evaluation of two forms of contractualism - formal and substantive. This evaluation offers a unique explanation of contractualism's understanding of moral normativity by examining the theory within a metanormative framework developed in the introduction. I argue that formal contractualism is preferable because, unlike substantive contractualism, it offers a stronger vindication of morality. However, I then argue that on closer inspection formal contractualism is unable to establish that all persons share dignity. Since this would be detrimental to formal contractualism and since substantive contractualism faces its own problem, it looks like contractualism as a whole is in trouble. I believe, however, that contractualism can be rescued. I do this by revising the version of formal contractualism previously examined in a way that guarantees that equal dignity follows from its structure.

According to contractualism, dignity ultimately grounds the moral reasons we have to do what is obligatory. However, forms of contractualism differ on a metanormative level depending on how they ultimately explain the force of our moral reasons. Substantive contractualism explains this by appealing to substantive considerations the value of dignity offers, such as the consideration that we owe others justification for certain actions. Formal contractualism explains this force by appealing to the formal structure of our moral practices rather than to substantive considerations or value. The particular substantive contractualism I address is formulated by T. M. Scanlon. The formal contractualism I discuss is developed by Stephen Darwall.

Little work has been undertaken evaluating the adequacy of each form of contractualism. Such an evaluation is important for two reasons. First, while the normative principle of each form is almost identical the metanormative difference underwriting each may result in different moral judgments in our application of the principle. Second, an important virtue of any theory of right is how well it can give a philosophical explanation of the moral reasons we have. The strength of contractualism as a competing moral theory will depend in large part on how well it can give such an account. Thus, it would behoove the contractualist to identify which form of contractualism offers the strongest explanation of moral reasons. This will be a substantial part of my comparative evaluation.

I begin by formulating two adequacy conditions any moral theory ought to meet. The first is intensional adequacy: a theory is intensionally adequate to the extent that it does not conflict with the conceptual platitudes that characterize moral obligation. The second is vindicatory adequacy: here, a theory is adequate to the extent that it is able to give a philosophical explanation of the moral reasons we have. I argue that unlike formal contractualism, substantive contractualism is unable to meet the vindicatory adequacy condition. Therefore, formal contractualism is preferable.

Although Darwallian formal contractualism is able to fulfill the vindicatory adequacy condition, it faces a separate challenge due to its formal approach. This approach does not take the fact that all persons share equal dignity for granted. Rather, it attempts to establish equal dignity - in the form of equal authority to hold each other accountable - by showing how it is a prerequisite of the practice of blame. If successful, the formal approach, unlike the substantive approach, is able to offer an argument for why all persons share equal dignity. This would be an additional advantage over the substantive approach. However, Darwall's argument fails to establish that equal dignity is a prerequisite of blame. Unless some other argument for equal dignity can be given, formal contractualism is threatened.

We can rescue contractualism by modifying Darwall's account of blame. I start by showing how this modified account is more attractive than Darwall's account. I then employ speech-act theory in order to explicate the prerequisites of this account of blame. By doing this, I am able to show that equal authority to hold accountable is a prerequisite of blame. If we grant that the practice of blaming is warranted, my argument successfully establishes that all persons share equal dignity thereby providing the needed foundation of formal contractualism and so rescuing contractualism as a whole.


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