Can Contract Theory Ground Morality?

Posted: 21 Jun 2005  

Philip N. Pettit

Princeton University - Department of Political Science; Australian National University (ANU) - Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS)


The paper in is in three sections. In the first I offer a characterization of contractualism, explaining along the way that under this representation it is proof against two more or less obvious consequentialist objections. In the second section I argue that even when characterized in this manner, however, there remains an attractive and plausible way of taking contractualism that would make it consistent with consequentialism; this would cast it as a theory of the relatively right - the right relative to a practice - rather than the absolutely right. And then in the third section I show that even if this relativised way of taking it is rejected, as Scanlon himself would certainly reject it, there is a second way in which contractualism can in principle be rendered consistent with consequentialism; it may be cast as a partial rather than a complete theory of the absolutely right. Under neither of these ways of taking the doctrine would contractualism ground morality - not at least in every relevant sense - but under each it would retain a significant place in moral theory.

Suggested Citation

Pettit, Philip N., Can Contract Theory Ground Morality?. MORAL THEORIES, J. Dreier, ed., Blackwell, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Philip N. Pettit (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States
609-258-4759 (Phone)
609-258-1110 (Fax)


Australian National University (ANU) - Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200

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