Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory says that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it.

Over the centuries, philosophers as far back as Socrates have tried to describe the ideal social contract, and to explain how existing social contracts have evolved. Philosopher Stuart Rachels suggests that morality is the set of rules governing behavior that rational people accept, on the condition that others accept them too.

Social contracts can be explicit, such as laws, or implicit, such as raising one’s hand in class to speak. The U.S. Constitution is often cited as an explicit example of part of America’s social contract.  It sets out what the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract.

Indeed, regardless of whether social contracts are explicit or implicit, they provide a valuable framework for harmony in society.

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Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behavior occurs when people act to benefit others rather than themselves. Altruism, cooperation, and caregiving are a few examples of prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior is a central part of morality. As social psychologist Daniel Batson notes, much of interpersonal morality involves “giving weight to the interests and desires of others in situations in which our interests and theirs conflict.”

Research reveals that those who act prosocially tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. Those who don’t act prosocially tend to suffer the psychological cost that comes with guilt.

Prosocial behavior is contagious. Studies show that people who see others act prosocially are more likely to do so themselves.

People also seem to have an innate preference for prosocial behavior. For example, in one study, even babies preferred to play with a doll that they saw act in a helpful way over another doll that they saw act in a selfish way.

Law professor Lynn Stout observes, “unselfish prosocial behavior is so omnipresent in American society that it often goes unnoticed.” Indeed, consider how frequently people help each other, donate to charity, and volunteer. For example, in 2014 charitable giving reached an all time high with more than $358 billion in donations. And overall, 45% of Americans volunteer, making the United States third in the world for offering time and talents to help others.

So, while prosocial behavior may often go unnoticed, it can be argued that it is the cornerstone of a just and decent society.

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Morals

Morals are the prevailing standards of behavior that enable people to live cooperatively in groups. Moral refers to what societies sanction as right and acceptable.

Most people tend to act morally and follow societal guidelines. Morality often requires that people sacrifice their own short-term interests for the benefit of society. People or entities that are indifferent to right and wrong are considered amoral, while those who do evil acts are considered immoral.

While some moral principles seem to transcend time and culture, such as fairness, generally speaking, morality is not fixed. Morality describes the particular values of a specific group at a specific point in time. Historically, morality has been closely connected to religious traditions, but today its significance is equally important to the secular world. For example, businesses and government agencies have codes of ethics that employees are expected to follow.

Some philosophers make a distinction between morals and ethics. But many people use the terms morals and ethics interchangeably when talking about personal beliefs, actions, or principles. For example, it’s common to say, “My morals prevent me from cheating.” It’s also common to use ethics in this sentence instead.

So, morals are the principles that guide individual conduct within society. And, while morals may change over time, they remain the standards of behavior that we use to judge right and wrong.

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Moral Imagination

Moral imagination, according to philosopher Mark Johnson, means envisioning the full range of possibilities in a particular situation in order to solve an ethical challenge. Johnson emphasizes that acting morally often requires more than just strength of character. For example, moral action requires empathy and the awareness to discern what is morally relevant in a given situation.

Moral imagination, as defined by Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy, is the ability to be simultaneously ethical and successful by envisioning new and creative alternatives. In other words, can people look beyond the dollars-and-cents impact of a decision to see how it affects others?

For example, consider Nestle Foods. The company refused to target young children with advertising for its high sugar, high fat products. Instead, to keep the company competitive in that market, it innovated and created new, healthier products to advertise to young children.

Indeed, moral imagination, combined with creativity and moral courage, enables both individuals and businesses to act more ethically in society.

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Altruism

Altruism means acting in the best interest of others rather than in one’s own self-interest. Some people believe altruism constitutes the essence of morality.

Although we often act selfishly, we also seem to be wired to cooperate with others. For example, studies show that when people look for mates, they tend to look for kindness more than any other quality.

People’s moral judgments are often driven by emotion. And empathy for others seems to encourage altruism. Another emotion, called “elevation,” appears to inspire altruistic behavior, too. We feel elevation when we see another person act virtuously, such as by helping someone in need.

Altruism also builds social connections. For example, studies show that people who are altruistic tend to be happier, to be healthier, and to live longer.

So, while altruism leads us to do what’s best for others, it also makes us feel good in the process.

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