Contractarianism and State Obligations

LD has seen its fair share of contractarian frameworks in the past few years, although it’s been a little bit less common this season than in the previous few. For those unfamiliar with contractarianism, it is an ethical theory that posits that agents have an obligation to act towards others according to certain rules because broad compliance with those rules serves each agent’s self-interest. These rules form a hypothetical contract, hence the name. The most popular modern philosopher associated with contractarianism (at least in LD) is David Gauthier; however, the theory has its roots in the social contract arguments of philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau.

For a more detailed/better explanation of what contractarianism is, and its interaction with other contract theories, see

In this article, I’ll focus on arguments commonly seen in debate about state obligations under contractarianism, especially with respect to other nations. However, most of these considerations will be relevant to domestic policy and (to a lesser extent) individual obligations. Many of these arguments strike me as having fairly serious flaws, but also have the potential to be greatly improved.

1. Power and obligations

One common argument that’s been run under contractarian frameworks is the argument that there are no obligations between actors with large differences in capabilities, since a stronger actor can get what they want through coercion and thus has no reason to cooperate.

I see two potential problems with how this argument is run in debate.

The first is confusion over what power means and its implications. The relevant metric is bargaining strength; in a contract situation, actors have a reason to cooperate with anyone with a good bargaining position. ‘Weak’ actors might have crucial bargaining chips against strong. Thus, the United States, which has a far more powerful military than Panama, has an incentive to cooperate with Panama in order to keep the canal open. And though the US has the capability to subjugate Panama militarily, it has strong reasons not to do so, showing that the ability to coerce does not rule out cooperation.

Second, debaters advocating this argument often have an excessively and (as far as I can tell) arbitrarily narrow view of which obligations matter. For an action X towards agent Y to be obligatory or forbidden under contractarianism, there doesn’t need to be an agreement with Y. There just has to be an agreement; it can be with another party.

2. Realism

An argument I’ve seen run on the neg several times on the Jab/Feb topic is a combination of contractarianism and realist international theory. Realism, in short, is the idea that states are uncertain of other states’ intentions and there is no international government that can keep the peace; in other words, the international system is anarchic. Therefore, states will constantly feel threatened by other states and seek to expand their military capabilities relative to other states, which makes conflict more likely. Debaters will advocate realism, usually with a card by John Mearsheimer, a prominent realist scholar, and then say that because states can’t cooperate they have no obligations to one another.

This argument runs into a few problems.

First, realism doesn’t go far enough. For there to be no obligations between states under contractarianism, there has to be no way for states to cooperate for mutual benefit. However, this is implausible. NATO has been around since 1949, and no member states have defected and allied with the Soviets. Various economic agreements such as NAFTA have been passed, and while the economic effects are somewhat controversial, they have succeeded at intermediate goals like increasing the volume of trade. New START was successfully ratified, numerous disad scenarios notwithstanding. Cooperation might be difficult, but it’s fairly clear that states can and do abide by mutual agreements. John Mearsheimer himself writes in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that “One might conclude… that my theory does not allow for any cooperation among the great powers. But this conclusion would be wrong.”

As a side note, keep in mind that contractarianism isn’t necessarily concerned with formal or actual agreements or contracts; what’s relevant is whether there is room for cooperation for mutual benefit.

Second, Gauthier himself probably disagrees. A subtle distinction between his theory and Hobbes’ social contract is that Hobbes says there are no obligations independent of the sovereign (a.k.a a government that enforces laws), but Gauthier argues that actors should dispose themselves to cooperation even in absence of a third party that enforces it.

Third, like the power argument mentioned above, the argument’s focus is too narrow. Realism, at best, just shows that states have no obligation to other nations. However, they still might have obligations to their citizens.

A potentially better version of this argument is that it’s irrational to unilaterally impose environmental protections. Climate change is a collective action problem; each individual nation’s contribution (possibly excepting US and China) isn’t huge; however, collectively they add up to a huge problem. Thus, if one state decides to cut emissions by itself, they will only have a small impact, and the benefits are dispersed across the world while they bear the entire burden. Moreover, it may reduce their leverage in international negotiations. Gauthier argues that it’s irrational for agents to be too cooperative, since that means that other agents will try to exploit them.

Such a position would benefit from the fact that an affirmative that advocates that developing countries expand environmental protection as part of a broader international environmental agreement would likely be untopical since it would either fiat with non-topical actors (i.e. developed countries) or make the advocacy contingent on some uncertain circumstance.

3. Subjective desires

Contractarianism, as it is usually articulated, bases obligations on self-interest. Debaters sometimes argue that anything that an individual or country currently wants to do is in its self-interest. I’ve seen this argued with a rather bizarre analytic involving ice cream and extinction that I’ve never quite been able to make sense of.

However, pursuing self-interest doesn’t mean that anything goes. Even if agents can define their self-interest by picking whatever goals they want, there are objectively better and worse methods for achieving those goals. Most countries probably value security and economic well-being, so if the aff says affirming prevents nuclear war and economic collapse, that definitely matters under countries’ self-interest and probably links into a contractarian framework.

Also, don’t forget that the state is a cooperative endeavor in and of itself; individuals give up certain rights and form a government for their mutual benefit. It might make sense to say an individual has no obligation to promote their own interest under contractarianism, but the state still has an obligation to promote the collective interest of its citizens.

More plausible variants of this argument might be that countries have no interest in the well-being of people of other countries, or in the fate of future generations. Moreover, what constitutes the national interest can arguably be many different things, but debaters must still demonstrate that their advocacy achieves those goals.


Contractarian arguments (as well as complaints that they’re bad or unoriginal) have been around for several years. However, if debaters adopt better versions of these arguments, and made better responses to them, I think these debates have the potential to be very intelligent and interesting.

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