I cannot really wrap my head around what Contractualism is. I have taken a logic course and I'm a rising sophomore. Could somebody explain the basic tenets of the theory? Thanks so much.

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    Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Unless you make the difficulties you have more specific, we can not do simpler terms than Wikipedia. It is social contract. – Conifold Jul 8 '19 at 19:18
  • Is there something you are reading that you could quote to show the difficulty? This would make your question more specific. Otherwise it could be closed for being too broad or opinion based. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Jul 8 '19 at 19:24
  • This is what I've been trying to read: plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractualism – Usama Jul 9 '19 at 16:20
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    The basic idea is that a member of society "implicitly accepts" society's terms of coexistence, which are presumably worked out over generations. Contractualism then attempts to derive reasonable terms for a society to follow (and procedures for adopting and revising them) that its members can reasonably acquiesce to. If some conditions are met, contractualism endorses such terms as the basis of public morality. The most influential is Rawls's theory of justice, where the terms are ideally agreed upon from behind "the veil of ignorance", i.e. without knowing one's social standing in advance. – Conifold Jul 11 '19 at 3:43

The way to wrap your head around this (as is true of most things in philosophy) is to step up and back to see the larger ground that contractualism is embedded in. Contractualism is part of moral/ethical philosophy, and one of the foundational concerns of moral/ethical philosophy is the question of why we could/should/do behave morally. There have been a few different ways of approaching this question over the millennia, which we can break down roughly like so:

  • Idealism: the thought that there are objective (if perhaps transcendental) ideals of moral valence (good/bad, right/wrong, etc), and it is up to us to discover and embody them.
  • Consequentialism: the idea that the moral valence of an act is determined (in whole or part) from the consequences of the act.
  • Deontology: the idea that moral valence is derived from agreed-upon rules within a community.

So if we are talking about the act of killing someone, an idealist might say that killing is wrong because God declares it so; a consequentialist might say that killing is wrong because the outcome (the ending of a human life) outweighs any positive value; a deontologist might say that killing is wrong because none of us want to die and we all agree not to inflict death on each other.

Contractualism is a form of deontology. Basically it says that communities of people create what amounts to a contract with all members of that community, a contract which lays out certain rules for behaviors that community members should and should not do. This contract is passed down to people as they are inducted into the community — usually implicitly, without any actual discussion — and violations of the contract produce various penalties according to the nature and severity of the violation. So if a parent says to a child "You can go to the movie when you've finished your chores" that is viewed as an express contract between parent and child; if it is a standard in that community that children finish chores before they go to movies, that rule is part of the social contract for that community.

Contractualism is just one approach to the central question. It has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, so don't overthink it.

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