Many of us have a shared assumption that humans are naturally competitive beings, ultimately ruled by the laws of nature. We would be no different than the fauna with its predators and preys, or even trees competing with each other by trying to reach more sunbeams as they grow up, meanwhile their roots struggle for more and more nutrients underground.
In so considering, if there is any incentive for a human being to associate and cooperate with other, it would be the possibility of getting mutual competitive advantage in this hostile and wild nature. Thus, the reason we find for the formation of communities would be the possibility of living a better life than a life that is lived alone. A division of labor among people allows the gain of a specialization surplus, which generates a more effective transformation of our environment in order to provide a better standard of living for the whole.
A person, then, would be working on behalf of others insofar as equivalent benefits could be obtained in exchange. A society in which each and every person gets an amount of material goods that is proportional to its own productivity is, therefore, the most just society that humanity can possibly achieve. Once we consider ourselves as rational beings who seek the maximization of one’s own pleasure, a market-oriented society would bring about the ultimate maximization of the total well-being.
This whole mindset presents itself as a very appealing one for the contemporary western civilization in general. Either consciously or subconsciously, the idea that the aggregate behavior of many selfish individuals results in the common good makes good sense for many of us.
The structuring arguments for such ideas were developed across the era known as the Enlightenment. Among the most famous thinkers of that time is Locke, whose legacy chiefly consists in establishing a few keystones for the so-called Contractarianism, having rejected the basis for the legitimacy of absolutist power. Unlike Hobbes, for instance, the Enlightenment thinkers dismissed the necessity of a ruling ‘Leviathan’ for the avoidance of complete chaos among men and women. Both Hobbes and Locke have approached this issue by expressing the abstract idea of a social contract, with the latter doing so while defending that people could rebel against a given political power if their inalienable rights (liberty and the pursuit of happiness) were not granted.
By following Locke’s path, one might conclude that even if we assume a conception of a self-centered human being, we can - and should - govern our societies while seeking the fulfillment of all inalienable rights to each and every person. This is not to say that the Enlightenment thinkers refused the existence of empathetic feelings by the human being, but stressed that a social contract is to be stronger and more enforceable if it doesn’t rely on such feelings or values.
One of the most sophisticated contractarian theories ever made - that of John Rawls, over the second half of the past century - was eager to conceive society in such terms with an appraisal for social equality: the Rawlsian contract carefully expressed the basis for the establishment of the ‘difference principle’, according to which an increase in the gap of the distribution of wealth and income could be justified only if the poorest could benefit from such change, by augmenting their own absolute quantity of goods.
However, even such principle emerges from the abstract idea of a social contract, which would be established having mutual advantage as the justification for life among others. Furthermore, Rawls defends that a society that follows the rules of such contract would come about only if justice were both possible and necessary, an idea that retreats to David Hume’s account of ‘circumstances of justice’.
All of that being said, we get to the million dollar question: should we think of justice by conceiving life in society as being justified by the attainment of mutual advantage? Are we really such competitive, vicious, Social Darwinist being that has to think of social relations in terms of a contract?
Way before the contractarian threshold came into existence, and also way before the absolutist rulers of that time were alive, one of our greatest philosophers expressed his thoughts about society in a drastically different way. For Aristotle, the human being was sociable by nature: further than that, it sought the fulfillment of its needs and desires necessarily through its relationships with others.
One current stream of thought that challenges Contractarianism by leaning (partially) upon Aristotle is known as the Capabilities Approach. Martha Nussbaum, one its most influential thinkers, stresses her discomfort with Rawls (and his use of Hume) quite clearly:
"Social contract theories typically stipulate that justice makes sense only when people are so placed that it pays for them to exit from the state of nature and make a compact for mutual advantage. The various specific conditions outlined by Rawls (using Hume) and the classical theorists – moderate scarcity, rough equality, and so on – all emerge from that general idea. By contrast, the capabilities approach takes its start from the Aristotelian/Marxian conception of the human being as a social and political being, who finds fulfillment in relations with others. Whereas contractarians typically think of the family as ‘natural’, and the political as in some significant sense artificial, the capabilities approach makes no such distinction. (…) The political conception of the person that it uses includes the idea of the human being as ‘by nature’ political, that is, as finding deep fulfillment in political relations, including, centrally, relations characterized by the virtue of justice." (Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, 2006, p. 85)
I personally find the position held by the Capabilities Approach to be much more promising and sound according to what humanity really is. One of us may well choose to depart from a life in society and start seeking to sustain himself much like a Robinson Crusoe. But it’s ultimately impossible to think of any person reaching adulthood without having been raised among a given culture, taught to speak a determinate language, and having heard about values which ascend on the realm of political life.
Once humanity truly starts to think of itself in such way, we’ll be set to develop a much different and broader ethics than that which has proven so important to the developing of many constitutional arrangements across the planet. I’d surely recommend the reader to find out more about Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and the capabilities approach. In the book from which the quotation above was extracted, Nussbaum expresses how contractarianism exposes its serious limitations when confronted with issues of global justice, people with disabilities and nonhuman animals. I could personally say that the capabilities threshold can be seen as more adequate not only for being able to appropriately address such issues, but also for its categorical way of assessing human relations in general.