An analysis and evaluation on Scanlon’s ‘What We Owe to Each Other’ (1998)

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Scanlon’s Contractualism in What We Owe to Each Other

Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other introduces the idea of Contractualism, as “an act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement” (Scanlon, 2000:153). Contractualism is thus, in its own right a theory of justice that, in one way, introduces a thought process to help individuals justify their reasons for thinking why an act is right or wrong – in particular, why an individual feels wronged, and why they think the act inflicted upon them is wrong. In another way, what is wrong is also the most important moral premise. Wrongness is not justifiable: the most important thing to remember about ‘wrong’ is not asking whether something is wrong or not, but rather, how or what it means for one person to be wronged (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Scanlon’s line of argumentation presupposes the Kantian ideal of treating individual humans beings as rational agents: as ends in and of themselves, as opposed to as a mere means to get to those ends. This is also known as the idea of “mutual recognition” (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). This idea of mutual recognition in turn, emphasizes the importance of what we owe to each other to be the relationship we, as individual human beings have towards other individual human beings. Also, all individuals share the opinion that reason is the most important moral priority, and that value is constructed around reason, not vice versa (Watson, 2002:221). It is useful, in this respect, to differentiate Contractualism from both Contractarianism and Utilitarianism.

Contractualism vs. Contractarianism and Utilitarianism

Hobbes’ and Gauthier’s Contractarianism and Utilitarianism both differ fundamentally from Contractualism in the sense that they both look at morality as well as justice in an instrumental fashion; they emphasize the idea that we behave morally because it is useful for us to do so. Rationality is explained mainly to be instrumental, as a way to finding the best means to one’s ends. Following that line of thinking, both Contractarianism and Utilitarianism also mostly use hypothetical reasoning, e.g. if I want to be successful, I must study hard. This entails the central idea that if we behave morally, then we are happy (in the Utilitarian case) or safe (in the case of Contractarianism). Contractualism on the other hand, is completely different from the previous two, because it appeals to fundamental principles that we cannot reject. Reasoning is not hypothetical, but rather, categorical – as in, following the previous example given, it is good to study hard (as opposed to the previous “if…then…” formulation). Reason is thought to be an end in itself, in the sense that rationality does not consist of being instrumentally rational, but rather, in acting according to principles of reason. Morality, therefore, is not just an instrumental good, but also a good in itself, which is an idea that comes very much from the Kantian stream of thought. An example to illustrate this idea of morality is that of Christian morality: according to the Christian line of thought, the will of God is good in itself, therefore it is right for us to do. Similarly, the idea of wrongness in Scanlon can be understood as categorical.  Finally, Contractualism presupposes individual human beings to be morally equal, unlike Contractarianism and Utilitarianism, theories that treat individual human beings as simple agents that take part in a social contract due to factors such as fear or simply, to be in a better situation, in aggregate.

The clash between Contractualism and Contractarianism/Utilitarianism also represents a clash between instrumental and absolute reason. Instrumental reason follows the “if…then…” argumentation method, and has as a goal finding the optimal means to one’s ends. At the opposite side of the spectrum, absolute reason aims at statements that are not contingent on an outcome. For example, the instrumental statement “if I want to be healthy, I should eat well” is only true if eating healthy is actually going to make me healthier as well. On the other hand something like “it is good to be healthy” is true no matter what the world is like. In this sense, Scanlon’s Contractualism differs fundamentally from the Utilitarian line of thought. What We Owe to Each Other is in and of itself not a contingent question, rather, there is an absolute principle that dictates what we owe to one another: that which one cannot reasonably reject.

Reasonable Rejection

In What We Owe to Each Other, Scanlon states that one can only reasonably reject a principle when one is being directly harmed or experience suffering because of the principle. This rejection starts from the objection of the individual when they feel like they are being wronged or treated unjustly. Although in cases of suffering or harm one can reasonably reject a principle, a case where one does not benefit from the situation, or feels the situation affects them in a bad way cannot be a reason for rejecting a principle. Therefore, for one to make sure whether they can reasonably reject a principle, they must also make sure to ask themselves how this rejection might affect other people. This is, yet again the Kantian influence on Scanlon’s writing – the emphasis on interpersonal relations, respect for other individuals and thus the treating of individuals as ends in and of themselves at all times rather than as mere means (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

When it comes to Scanlon’s idea of Reasonable Rejection, we can observe that Scanlon’s theory isn’t completely categorical: what one cannot reasonably reject is somewhat contingent on what the overall situation is like. The notion of human nature becomes interesting; there seems to be something about being human, that makes us want to justify our actions to one another. We are capable to reflect on how our actions affect others and we can abstract from that. Scanlon seems to appeal to Human Nature as a justification for his “Reasonably Reject” condition – which is different in this sense from utilitarianism, where the focus is on outcomes in the world, as well as from Kant, who focuses on reason distinct from Human Nature in the sense that any rational creature is subject to the moral law.

Scanlon makes a distinction between impact on self and impact on others, but ultimately says that both count. Ashford and Mulgan give a good example of this statement: if a certain principle affects me in a bad way but alternatives affect another person badly even more than it affects me, then my reason does not give me valid grounds for rejecting the principle. If I am a sensible individual, then I would no longer object to that principle, because I see that the other person would be in a worse situation than I currently am in, if I were to object. The reason for my objection, however, is not based on the overall level of utility, which would be the Utilitarian line of thought. Instead, it has to do with a categorical understanding of mutual respect. This argumentation for a Utilitarian would not make any sense: to compromise one’s own pain due to realizing that another person’s pain is greater only follows the Utilitarian way of thought if the overall utility is greater, not on the basis of respect alone (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

One of the things that we owe to each other is contributing to each other’s interests: in the Contractualist line of thought, it is not about trying to get rid of things that make individuals ‘unhappy’ (which is the Utilitarian way of thinking) or put them in an ‘unprofitable’ situation, but rather, thinking about which principles individuals would be unable to reasonably reject. Living morally is being able to live together whilst respecting each other (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Thus, morality becomes a question of what we owe to each other. In the words of Scanlon,

“Moral education seems to me plausibly understood as a process of cultivating this desire [to be able to justify one’s actions] and shaping it, largely by learning what justifications others are in fact willing to accept, by finding which ones you yourself find acceptable as you confront them from a variety of perspectives, and by appraising your own and others’ acceptance or rejection of these justifications in the light of greater experience (…) People are willing to go to considerable lengths, involving quite heavy sacrifices, in order to avoid admitting the unjustifiability of their actions and institutions” (Scanlon, 1982:117).

This concept of shaping is another indication of Scanlon, yet again borrowing and being inspired by Kantian ideas: the idea of being able to distance ourselves from desire and shape it in accordance with morality. At the same time, Scanlon takes a different approach, in that what is right or wrong is also contingent on how we interpret other people in the world. It is no longer founded upon some abstract principle (e.g. the moral law), but takes into consideration the experience of what it means to be human. Desires, it seems, play an important role here. The relationship between reason and desire under Scanlon deserves a more detailed examination.

Reason and desire

In Scanlon’s book, the question is about which of the two has primacy. If we accept something as a good reason, is it because it fulfills a desire of ours? Are all reasons we have at some point desires? Is it the reasons, or the desires, that motivate us? The question of “why be moral”/”what motivates us to be moral” becomes relevant: are we moral because it fulfills one of our desires as social animals (i.e. fitting into society, mutual respect fulfilling our desire for belongingness, etc.), or are we perhaps moral because we accept reasons on a more abstract level?

Adams attempts to reply to these questions through this following statement: “I think it is more plausible to say that the operation of desire virtually always depends on reasons, and the operation of reasons virtually always depends on desires or desire-like states, than to say, as Scanlon does, that reasons are ‘the only motivating factors’ (35)” (Adams, 2001:575). Perhaps, following Adams’ statement, reasons and desire are really two sides of the same coin. There is a very Kantian aspect to this statement, in that it implies that we are at once objects that are under the influence of the causal order of the world (i.e. things happen to us), as well as free subjects, moral agents outside the causal realm, that take responsibility for their actions. When we study man as an object, for instance, in a psychological experiment, we see him in the former sense; responsibility might not necessarily enter the picture here. When we look at man under the common law, as a part of a community, we interpret him under the scope of the latter sense.

Adams wants to focus more on this notion of ‘caring’ for things: according to Adams, we have reasons to act on what we care about, and conversely, what we care about is to some extent up to us. That is, we can choose to care about some things more than others. It could even be interesting for us to go as far as to say that the object of political philosophy and any theory of justice, is to ask what we should care about. For example, Nozick and Locke say we should care about liberty; Mill and Bentham say we should care about welfare; what does Scanlon say we should care about, does he think it should be up to us, and that we inevitably reach the conclusion that we should care about what we cannot reasonably reject? Or does he care for something further than that? What Scanlon is looking for in his theory is respect and mutual recognition: whether this aims more at individual liberty or at welfare, or is an entirely distinct approach, is up to the reader to decide. Scanlon seems to suggest that we should care about respect and mutual recognition before we should care about liberties and/or welfare.


1. The issue with strict non-aggregation

The Utilitarian argument against Contractualism’s strictly non-aggregation argument is fairly simple: it is that Contractualism simply cannot completely avoid aggregation. John Taurek’s article, ‘Should the Numbers Count?’ provides a good example for this case; he gives a hypothetical situation where we have six people, that are all dying. We are the ones that have the life-saving drug to prevent them from dying – the problem is, one of the six people needs the full dose of the drug to be saved, whilst the other five only require a fifth of the drug to survive (Taurek, 1977:294). The Utilitarian view would be straightforward: we would save the greater number of people, as opposed to the one person. The problem with this kind of situation and Contractualism is that because it rejects aggregation. The five would not be able to justify their reason for receiving the drug as due to them being more in terms of numbers. Each of the five will respectively reject the principle to let the one person have the drug by saying that principle would lead to each of their respective deaths. On the other hand, the one person that needs the full dosage would reject the principle that lets the five survive. Each respective person’s reason (all six of them) for rejecting the principle would be all for the same reason – it would cause themselves to die perhaps unfairly (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). In this situation, the most logical solution would be to toss a coin (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012), so that there are equal chances for both groups to be saved. None of the individuals would be able to reject this principle because any other situation would either give one group of the other a lesser possibility of survival. The ultimate question is, however: does this feel like a fair situation? It is true that Contractualism treats individual human beings as equals – and it is also true that each individual person’s rejection is taken equal consideration, but does saving one person over five, or having to resort to a coin toss sound like a just/fair case? Contractualism’s inability to fully answer to this situation is somewhat problematic.

2. Contractualism’s limited scope of morality

Watson presents an interesting point on Contractualism’s limited scope of morality – the question of whether other living beings such as nonhuman animals or even human beings with limited mental capacity (e.g. handicaps, individuals with mental illnesses) are given “moral standing” (Watson, 2002:228). Whilst Utilitarianism makes it clear that their line of thought applies to all living beings, Scanlon does not clarify in What We Owe to Each Other, whether his idea is applicable to all living creatures, or even a possibility at all for all living creatures. The only information given by Scanlon on the scope of his morality is “if the notion of justification to a being of that kind makes sense” (Scanlon, 1982:113), as well as “distinctive capacities as reason-assessing, self-governing creatures” (Scanlon, 2000:106). Scanlon also speaks of the importance of treating animals ethically but not necessarily as individuals to whom we owe something (Scanlon, 2000:184).

As we can see, Scanlon is very vague on this topic, which creates various problems; first, his consideration on the position of nonhuman animals compared to human animals is questionable. Are and should nonhuman animals truly be considered as lower capacity beings? Who says they are not equal to human animals? This presupposition can be quite problematic, and the fact that this is presented as a reason for which Scanlon’s scope of morality might not be extended to them is not fully justified and explained. Second, a Utilitarian criticism to Scanlon’s approach to nonhuman animals would be that what is important is not whether we have certain duties towards animals or not. Rather, it would be wrong to inflict pain on them because they simply would feel suffering and pain (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012). Utilitarianism, emphasizes that it is the nonhuman animals’ potential of suffering that is more important than whether they are rational beings or not – and that this realization is important in not only understanding why torturing nonhuman animals is wrong, but also why torturing human animals would be wrong too (Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T., 2012).

Taking this idea a step further, another example would be the mentally disabled or those with mental illnesses – people with a reduced or limited capacity to reason. Those persons are definitely human animals, but can they really fit into Scanlon’s description of “distinctive capacities as reason-assessing, self-governing creatures” (Scanlon, 2000:106)? Scanlon’s realm of morality in this way is somewhat limited in that his explanation for his set limit is insufficient and perhaps inconsiderate of other important factors (e.g. suffering, as pointed out by Utilitarian thought). A possible reason for this limited scope can be found in the way Scanlon treats reasons and desires with respect to each other. Watson makes an interesting point on Scanlon’s approach to the idea of reason and desires: “Scanlon replaces the Platonic dualism of arational appetites [(i.e. desires as without reason)] and reason with the distinction between critical judgment [(us using reason consciously)] and precritical evaluative tendencies [(desires have a point, but this point needs to be fleshed out and perhaps critically evaluated)]” (Watson, 2002:225-226). In doing so, Scanlon creates a rift between the way we understand ourselves and the way we understand other beings, such as nonhuman animals. From what he says, we can gather that, our once young selves as well as nonhuman animals either have thoughts about what is right or they don’t possess the same kinds of desires that we do. This does not sound satisfactory. For example, a young boy might reach out to eat sweets without deliberating about the tastiness of the sweet; he directly desires the sweet. Thus, the reason for this problem of scope lies in the way Scanlon handles desires. Another way of looking at this problem is looking at the concept of responsibility.

3. Emphasis on moral responsibility

As previously mentioned, according to Scanlon everyone needs to be concerned with what is right and wrong, because it affects what we owe to each other and our relationships with one another. This idea highlights Scanlon’s failure to distinguish between an amoralist and an individual that is morally undeveloped or stunted. Watson summarizes Scanlon’s view on being morally culpable: “To be morally blameworthy is to be an apt target of moral criticism. Moral criticism is a claim that someone has been faulty in “self-governance,” either for slighting or failing to notice the moral reasons against what they do. Thus moral criticism and attributions of responsibility presuppose the capacities for rational self-governance” (Watson, 2002:238). The problem here is that it seems to suggest that if I, for example, drink a bottle of poison without realizing it, I am to be held responsible for my mistake. This seems very unsatisfying; in the sense that I had no way to know that there was poison in the bottle. Therefore, according to Watson, not all instances of failing to act according to reason (as would be the case with the amoralist) lead to unreasonableness: the conception of responsibility provided by Scanlon is almost “austere” and “detached” (Watson, 2002:240). It seems that there should be more to moral responsibility than simply the idea of being open to moral appraisal. Watson further suggests: “It might be thought that what is missing is the further judgment that those we hold responsible are deserving of certain kinds of treatment in view of those appraisals” (Watson, 2002:240). For example towards a sadist, unlike towards the mentally disabled we seem to have an underlying desire to treat the sadist differently because of his moral failures; but under Scanlon’s view, when a mentally disabled person that is incapacitated to reason adequately commits a seemingly cruel act, we are in no position to blame them, because morality simply doesn’t apply. This conclusion is deeply dissatisfying, as it is unclear how the sadist, whom we do blame, is in any significant way different from the disabled person.

4. The priority on morality and what we owe to each other

Watson speaks of Scanlon’s failure to explain why there should be ultimate priority given to morality rather than other things (i.e. full explanation to amoralists on why they should think morality is important). Interestingly, Watson points out that Scanlon looks for counter-arguments against amoralist views on morality, but does not himself give a full reason/explanation for why morality should count, and why it should be of utmost importance in all individual human beings’ lives (Watson, 2002:234). Scanlon’s seems to believe that we have a predisposition to care about respect and morality without justifying his reasons for believing so. He seems to accept it as a part of human nature.

Adams similarly mentions whether what we owe to each other necessarily has to be morality. Scanlon’s idea of what we owe to each other is smaller in scope, compared to morality – because he emphasizes the personal dimension for his theory of justice. As Adams words it, “The main obstacle to Scanlon’s recognizing such objections [objections to principles that would justify values and ideals] as establishing moral wrongness in his central sense is that he thinks reasons that enter into determining what we owe to each other must be what he calls personal reasons, having to do with the “interests” (202) or “the claims and status of individuals in certain positions” (219)” (Adams, 2001:579). The criticism Adams gives on Scanlon’s small scope in what he thinks we owe to each other, is on his concentration solely on the idea of ‘personal reasons’: “Valuing, for their own sake, great trees or great art, for example, will not necessarily give rise to personal reasons in this sense. In some cases it will. Loving great art, for example, gives rise to a personal reason to demand the right to express that value. But it does not generate a personal reason, in the relevant sense, for objecting to other people’s indifference to that value. How plausible is it, for example, for people who have never had any desire to visit Afghanistan to claim a personal reason for objecting to the Taliban’s destruction of historic artworks?” (Adams, 2001:579). According to Scanlon, what we owe to each other is largely based on some sentiment of mutual respect; this seems to exclude things we value for their own sake. Does what we owe to each other reach out to aesthetics, things we value? Can environmental justice be a thing, animal rights? Scanlon’s inability to take these considerations in as a possibility further emphasizes the lack of scope of “what we owe to each other”.

In conclusion, Scanlon’s “what we owe to each other” draws on both Utilitarian and Kantian lines of thought, and yet is different from both in many fundamental respects. Contractualism focuses on the idea of what we owe to each other, as individual moral beings unlike Utilitarianism, which suggests maximizing utility as a solution to making the aggregate ‘happy’. Although Contractualism takes the significance of the individual from Kantian thought, it then differs from Kantian thought on a different level: attitudes matter in Contractualism, and the idea of universality is not as emphasized as in Kantian thought. Although promising, many shortcomings remain for Scanlon’s theory; the inability of Contractualism to aggregate is questionable in situations where it might feel natural to choose helping the larger group over the individual. Also, the audience to which Contractualism opens its scope of morality to can be seen to be quite limited – living beings such as nonhuman animals, or even actual human animals that perhaps have disabilities or disorders might be completely overlooked. Finally, Scanlon makes some questionable assumptions about responsibility and morality in general. In spite of this, Scanlon’s theory offers a powerful alternative account of Justice.

Read your philosophy kids,



  • Adams, R.M. (2001), ‘Scanlon’s Contractualism: Critical Notice of T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other’, The Philosophical Review, 110(4): pp.563-585
  • Blackburn, S. (1999) “Am I Right?” The New York Times (Books), Available at:
  • Ashford, E., Mulgan, T. (Fall 2012 Edition) “Contractualism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available at:
  • Parfit, D. (2003), ‘Justifiability to Each Person’, Ratio (new series), 16(4): pp.368-390
  • Scanlon, T.M. (1982), ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, in Sen and Williams (ed.), Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 103-129.
  • Scanlon, T.M. (2000) ‘What We Owe to Each Other’, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp.432
  • Taurek, J.M. (1977), ‘Should the Numbers Count?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(4): pp.293-316
  • Watson, G. (2002), ‘Contractualism and the Boundaries of Morality: Remarks on Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other’, Social Theory and Practice, 28(2): pp.221-241

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