Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Rationality in Agreement

A Commentary on Gauthier's Morals by Agreement1

Gilbert Harmana1

a1 Philosophy, Princeton University

Gauthier's title is potentially misleading. The phrase “morals by agreement” suggests a social contract theory of morality according to which basic moral principles arise out of an actual or hypothetical agreement. John Rawls defends a hypothetical agreement version, arguing that the basic principles of justice are those that would be agreed to in an initial position of fair equality. I myself defend an actual agreement version, arguing that the moral principles that apply to a person derive from implicit conventions the person has accepted in dealing with other people. Gauthier's view is different from either of these sorts of contract theory. Instead, he holds that certain basic principles of impartiality are prior to actual agreements.


1 David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Subsequent references to this work will be indicated parenthetically in the text by MA followed by a page number.