Hi all –

I'm especially pleased this month to introduce our Featured Philosopher, Ann Cudd.  Ann is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas (rock chalk!), and has done truly pioneering work in moral and political philosophy.  Her post follows the break.  Welcome Ann!


Thank you, Dale, for inviting me to be a featured philosopher on Pea Soup, which has become such an important venue and voice in the philosophical world!


I am going to write this post about a part of a project that I am currently working on (and have been for a couple of years), which is to extend and defend a theory of mutual advantage contractarianism (MAC). MAC claims that morality and justice are the principles that can be justified to rational persons as rules to structure human life as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. These theories are to be distinguished from contractualist theories ala Rawls, which uses the contract to construct the rules of morality and justice from a fair and impartial position, or Scanlon-type contractualism, which holds that morality consists in those rules and principles that no one could reasonably reject. What attracts me to MAC is its ability to derive morality from minimal moral premises, but I realize it has a lot of detractors to try to win over who think it’s monstrous.


There are many objections that people have raised to (MAC), but I will write about just one that seems particularly trenchant to a feminist – the exclusion problem. The exclusion problem asserts that those who cannot contribute to a cooperative venture for mutual advantage cannot be included in the social contract. Two groups that are claimed to be excluded from a mutual advantage contract include the disabled and the global poor. I argue that once “contribution” is properly understood, very few human individuals must rationally be excluded from the contract and thus the scope of justice. I leave aside the problem of the disabled for now and concentrate on the able-bodied global poor and powerless. If we consider the nature of benefit or contribution, we can see that the requirement that all included contribute to the cooperative venture leaves out very few human individuals who do not pose an active threat or ill will towards us.


Inclusion of persons globally is rational because they contribute to mutual advantage. To see this, we should understand “contribution” in a more nuanced way than simply as the material benefits that one can contribute materially, at an instant, with given, available resources, what we might call the time slice view of contribution. Rather, I argue that we should consider contribution broadly, dynamically, probabilistically, and as relative to circumstances. To be a member of the contract one needs to have the potential to contribute over time given the circumstances in which they find themselves. We can expand our understanding of contribution in four ways.


First, we can expand contribution to include different kinds of benefits. Material benefit is not the only kind of benefit we get from interactions with others. Our friends, family, and colleagues benefit us through the warm feelings of satisfaction that we get from their happiness and pleasure. We will want to include those others who cannot materially benefit us but who contribute to our well-being in non-material ways. Of course, some of the time we may feel satisfaction from the pain of others. But for most of us this is a minor and often temporary source of an ambivalent form of pleasure (“schadenfreude” or revenge). Furthermore there is no reason to think that such concerns are particularly aimed at those who are not currently contributing materially to the social product. This observation about non-material benefits of inclusion has less significance for the global justice exclusion problem than for the disability exclusion problem, however. When it comes to distant others we are more likely to feel indifference.


Second, we should expand the notion of contribution to consider a full life. No one contributes materially at every moment throughout their lives. The MAC I am defending takes into account the full life of each individual contractor and requires for membership in the contract only that she be a (potential) net contributor over that lifetime. There are three classifications of persons who are included when we look at contribution in this way who would be excluded by a time-slice view of contribution: the not yet (children) and not now (temporarily disabled) but future contributors and the once but not future (aged and permanently disabled) contributors.  Those who are not yet and not now but future contributors are likely to be in the future, but their ability to contribute will be maximized if they are included as members of the contract. The once but not future contributors are to be included in the contract typically because they can use their wealth or investment in love and affection from friends and family to claim a share of the cooperative surplus through trade or reciprocity. MAC requires trades be completed and reciprocation be followed through on as the condition for the possibility of cooperation. But those who have not enough wealth or enough reciprocated affection and sympathy from others ought rationally still be included as full members of the contract because to do otherwise would set a worrying example for others. If we throw out members of the contract when they become old or disabled, trust will weaken and persons will begin to change their attitudes from mutual advantage to self-preservation. No one knows when they, too, might become one of the unfortunate, when they will lose their wealth, family, and friends and be in dire need of assistance from strangers. Knowing this leads rational persons to agree that we ought to include anyone as a member of the contract who is able to be or has been up until misfortune strikes a net contributor. Thus, many persons who are not currently contributors due to youth, age, or infirmity will be classified as net (potential) contributors and so included among the contractors.


Third, we should expand the notion of contribution to account for what persons could contribute if they were included in the scope of global justice. What and how much persons can contribute depends on the circumstances in which they live, including the technology and capital available to work with, and social roles open to them. A person who can contribute very little in a poor, traditional society may be able to contribute much in a society in which she is free to seek employment or other opportunities in an industrial economy. Thus, MAC includes all those who would be net contributors if they were included among the contractors.


Fourth, in order to assess the rationality of including and cooperating with persons, we need to assess that probabilistically, in expectation, since we must decide ex ante how to invest our own efforts. Although there is more or less uncertainty about how much we can achieve through cooperation, long experience suggests there is almost certain to be some mutual benefit achieved. The implications of this more nuanced understanding of contribution are that we will want to include everyone who can be expected to be able to produce a material surplus, which means nearly all human individuals. 


One might object that the cost of making some individuals into contributors will be too great for MAC to include among the contractors. If the cost of nourishing and educating persons to a level where they can contribute is greater than the amount they will consume, then they cannot be part of the cooperative venture for mutual advantage. Persons who are healthy adults and have access to just about any resources are at least able to produce more than they consume. This includes extremely poor persons who currently do not have such access, but could if they were included among the contractors in a cooperative scheme for mutual advantage. While very young children cannot produce more than they consume, most of them will, given adequate care, grow up to produce more than they consume even taking childhood an old age dependency into account. Only the very severely disabled cannot produce at all. If they increase the overall surplus contribution, and this is a very low bar for able-bodied persons, then it would be irrational not to include them in some arrangement that each can expect to be to her advantage.


So that’s the argument for inclusion of the global poor in a mutual advantage contract. I will need to run a slightly different argument for the disabled. But the basic argument strategy, which is to construe contribution broadly, dynamically, probabilistically, and as relative to circumstances, will get us most of the way there. Or so I assert. I look forward to your comments.

20 Replies to “Featured Philosopher: Ann Cudd

  1. Thanks for this post, Ann (If I may). I have a background question that doesn’t yet get into the substance of your argument for MAC’s inclusion of the global poor as contractors. It is this: what is the baseline against which you calculate advantage?
    To explain: your account strikes me as quite Hobbesian, who of course uses the idea of a particularly brutal state of nature as his baseline from which to calculate rational advantage. Others have used less nasty versions of a state of nature. By contrast, Rawls uses the idea of an equal distribution of the products of social cooperation (and not, as critics have sometimes averred, the current state of distribution) as the baseline from which to calculate advantage when applying the difference principle. What is your baseline?

  2. Thanks for your question, Pete. The question of baseline is crucial for assessing whether it is rational for all to comply. The goal of my account is to construct morality with the thinnest possible moral grounding assumptions in order to secure widest acceptance of the construction. So my theory asks what is the basis for the possibility of agreement and compliance with interaction for mutual advantage?
    I think that Gauthier basically got that right with the Lockean Proviso: one’s no interaction outcome. Of course that is a theoretical ideal and needs to be described. But that’s not a part of the project I have made much progress on yet.
    Sorry for terse responses. I am working on an iPhone while driving across Missouri!

  3. I wonder how significantly different you see this view as being from the view that what one has reason to do depends on what advances one’s concerns together with a conception of morality according to which if some action is morally required of x, it must be that x has good reasons to do x. These two claims together would entail that when it is true that one is morally required to x, it must be that x-ing advances one’s concerns.

  4. Hi David! Thanks for weighing in. I do endorse what you suggest, but I want to interpret “one’s concerns” very broadly and as a matter of long run self interest given the facts of human life (I.e. That we are fragile, mortal, social beings who are good at detecting cheaters, at least in the long run.)

  5. Hi Ann, first: thanks for a very interesting and thought-provoking post. I want to ask about the underlying motivation for the view.
    MAC involves the idea that “morality and justice are the principles that can be justified to rational persons as rules to structure human life as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” so as to bring about “a mutual advantage contract”.
    This mode of thinking, with contracts for mutual advantage, seems originally to have been developed for one sub-domain of human interaction, namely trade (or the buying and selling of services and goods). If right, that means that defenders of MAC want to export the characteristic thinking of that sub-domain to the whole domain of ethics (viz. all branches of ethical thinking).
    Two-part question: would you agree with that characterization of the development of this type of moral theory? And, if so, what is the underlying rationale for wanting the whole of ethical thinking to be turned into the type of ethical thinking developed for one particular sub-domain?
    (Is it, for example, in order to convince those who already want to do all their thinking in terms of contracts for mutual advantage – or is the idea that the style of thinking they’ve developed is superior to the types of reasoning developed within other domains of reasoning about broadly ethical issues?)
    As I said, this gets at the underlying motivation for trying to expand MAC in the way you want to, and not directly at the very interesting suggestions you made about how to do this expansion. So since the two-part question is not really on topic, you might want to save the discussion of it for some other occasion when that question is what’s at issue.

  6. My influences in ethics are primarily a heterogeneous group I sometimes call “eudaimonists”; this includes care ethicists and people often identified (incorrectly) as “communitarians,” such as MacIntyre and Taylor. I think I can make more precise one point of disagreement between eudaimonists and contractarians.
    Eudaimonists talk a lot about dependence, and specifically about the ways in which my flourishing or well-being depends on the flourishing of other people around me — my friends and family, but also strangers in my city and nation, and perhaps even distant strangers. It seems like contractarians can accommodate this, with talk of mutual advantage and the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged: cooperation, under the terms of the social contract, makes everyone better off.
    But, for eudaimonists, my flourishing is constituted in part by the flourishing of other people around me, while for contractarians the dependence may be merely instrumental. Using the reasoning underlying many contractarian accounts, if some exceptional individual could get more for themselves by refusing to cooperate, then they should do so. For eudaimonists this possibility is incoherent: an individual who lacks ties of dependence to others is, in that respect, simply failing to flourish.
    I think this difference shows up clearly in your sketch of non-material benefits. You write, “Our friends, family, and colleagues benefit us through the warm feelings of satisfaction that we get from their happiness and pleasure.” That’s a strikingly instrumental way of understanding the value of my personal relationships; I could get those same warm feelings (and perhaps at much less material cost to myself) by plugging into Nozick’s experience machine. For eudaimonist, it’s the actual relationships that constitute part of my flourishing; the ways in which this network of people take care of each other and are cared by others in turn.

  7. I wonder what picture of well-being you favor. On most subjectivist pictures of well-being, not all of one’s informed desires are held to make up one’s well-being. Usually such folks have thought it best to exclude some of one’s concerns, such as moral or quasi-moral concerns, from having the sort of special connection to what benefits the person whose concern it is. On this sort of picture, it seems to me, it is not clear what is normatively special about the concerns that are connected to my own welfare as opposed to the informed concerns that are not. Perhaps, on such a picture of welfare, I have the same sort of reasons to pursue some things that are not of benefit to me that I have to pursue things that are of benefit to me, namely that I informedly care about them. But perhaps I have mistakenly just assumed that you are attracted to subjectivist accounts of well-being.

  8. Sven: Thanks for your questions, which are thought provoking. I don’t agree with your account of the historical origin of MAC. Contract thinking about justice goes back at least to Plato, although not connected to mutual advantage. Hobbes is really the historical origin of MAC, but he was writing about morality and justice in general, not just about trade. Locke also has elements of mutual advantage thinking in his discussion of how the “enough and as good for others” proviso can be satsified even when some are appropriating the limited land, namely because through greater efficiency of agriculture all can benefit. So it is not the economists who thought of connecting mutual advantage and contract, though Adam Smith of course had lots to say about what I call mutual advantage.
    That said, I would say that the motivation for applying this across the board to morality and justice is because it is a compelling motivation to think that keeping these agreements will benefit all: me and others.
    However, I probably misspeak if what I say implies that there is nothing else that falls in the moral domain. I think that we need to understand moral emotions and virtues like generosity, beneficence, and mercy differently. They are not contrary to justice, nor are they required by justice. I mean to confine MAC to understanding justice understood as either a moral or a political principle.

  9. Dan: Thanks for that! I love this way you describe Eudaimonism, and I want to try to co-opt it for MAC. I agree that my description of why we take pleasure in the pleasure and achievements of our friends and family is clumsy. I don’t agree that this difference between your description and mine is necessitated by MAC. But please push back if you think that it is.
    Your description sounds like Rawls’s description of the Aristotelian Principle. So it seems that it can fit with contractualist thinking. Now why would you think that MAC cannot accommodate this? I would say first that becoming a eudaimonist in your sense would be the best strategy for accommodating oneself to MAC, and therefore is rational to adopt it. Is there any reason to think that being a eudaimonist makes one susceptible to being made a sucker? That would be a count against it on MAC’s view, but that is not the end of the story. The question for me is whether in the long run one is better off thinking like a eudaimonist.
    Now the point about the experience machine is not unique to MAC. I am talking about the best strategy for life in the long run, and if we can be in an experience machine for a whole life without being able to tell the difference between that and “real life”, then I think I will have to bite the bullet and accept the experience machine life. But if the experience machine is a short term, and when you get out of it there are no real ties to others, then MAC says you shouldn’t accept the experience machine life.

  10. David: I am not willing to say that all the things that we informedly care about are things that contribute positively to our well-being. We can be mistaken about such things, I think. The type of example I have thought about are adaptive preferences that have been caused by oppressive social norms. So for example the desire to match some sexist ideal of feminist grace or beauty. I think that I can be informed about the desire’s origin and still be motivated by it, but despite my desiring, it still may be contrary to my long run best interest. So in some cases I think that there are objective constraints on what counts as in our best interest, or well-being.

  11. Many thanks for your reply, Ann. You’re probably right that the origins of MAC-style views go back earlier than the development of modern economics.
    A follow-up comment on your reply about the underlying motivation of MAC: You say that “the motivation for applying this across the board to morality and justice is because it is a compelling motivation to think that keeping these agreements will benefit all: me and others.”
    If we read this as saying that MAC is compelling because it helps to promote a concern to benefit all, then there would seem to be a more fundamental moral idea lurking in the background: namely, that it’s desirable that all be benefited.
    However, I suspect that that’s not the idea, but that the mutual advantage bit is really important, too. That is, unless others do things that benefit me, MAC-theorists seemingly want to claim, I should refrain from bestowing benefits onto them. This raises the question of the underlying motivation for insisting upon this mutuality in the benefiting. And it seems to me that there might be different reasons we might put forward here.
    One would be that, if I benefit others, but they don’t benefit me, then this creates a sort of inequality, whereby one party serves the other, and the other is being served, which can be seen as an unattractive kind of relational inequality, or objectionable servant-master relation. Here the worry about benefiting without being benefited would be that this would make us into other people’s servants and them into our masters. Another would be a thought like “what’s in it for me?”, such that the mutual advantage-contractor doesn’t really care about social relations of inferiority and superiority, but instead mostly cares about securing whatever (say) material or other non-relational benefits might be on offer.
    There seems, then, to be some rather different ways of further unpacking or further developing the underlying motivation for MAC that you mention. This could either mean that MAC-followers could say that their view could elicit a kind of “overlapping consensus” among different theorists (which might be thought to be a nice mark in its favor), or that there really are certain deeper ideals or goals it would be good to carefully tease out. If the latter, we might want to try to clearly articulate those “deeper” goals/ideals and see if, when clearly articulated, these goals/ideals would sometimes not seem to be promoted by the sorts of conclusions that MAC-theorists sometimes draw. (But, of course, you want to expand MAC, so your MAC-theory would be rather different than those of, say, Gauthier or Narveson, who think that justice requires rather little of us.)
    Anyway, thanks again for your reply!

  12. Thanks for your response, Ann, and I wish you safe travels! I have a question now about your third argument, above, that the notion of contribution should be expanded into the counterfactual sense of something like: what people would contribute were they in different (more felicitous) conditions than they actually occupy (I hope this is a fair gloss).
    The foundational appeal of MAC, going back to Hobbes, seems to me to be that it is based in what it is actually rational for us to want. Thus, moral rules can be justified to all rational beings in a straightforward kind of way. But, when the notion of contribution is expanded in the way you suggest, I worry that it weakens this appeal. This is because we are no longer concerned with the facts of what people actually contribute, and thus with what is in fact in our interest, but with an idealized notion of what they could contribute were the world only a different (and better) place. It is no longer about what is in my interests, but about what would be in my interests in some other world.

  13. Sven: Those are some interesting suggestions about the motivations for MAC. I definitely resonate with the reasoning that allowing some to be benefitted withou benefitting creates inequality which seems unfair and something we want our theory of justice to condemn. This describes systematic oppression for instance, and Gauthier noted that norms that require women to do unreciprocated caring– and like it, I might a add– ought to be condemned. MAC passes this test.
    I like your overlapping consensus of motivation suggestion and will think about it some more.

  14. Pete: That’s not exactly what I meant though I can see that you might think that from what I wrote. My point is that we cannot take the potential future contribution of someone to be set exogenously to our decision of how to treat them. If we include the global poor as those to whom justice is owed then they will be more likely to develop the capital and capacities to benefit us more through trade than they would benefit us by treating them as slaves or colonizing or just ignoring them.
    I agree with you about one major appeal of MAC being its appeal to the facts of this world.

  15. Hi Ann,
    This is a great project, and I’m glad you are working on it. Here is one more thought, and I’d be interested to see whether it fits into your project. On Hobbesian contractarianism,we put forward claims regarding our desires or preferences, and we will make contracts only with those from whom we expect to benefit. Three are the obvious material goods of cooperation (for Hobbes, buildings, navigation, culture, etc.). If I want these goods, I’ll enter bargaining schemes with those who have material goods to offer, and here this might exclude women, minorities, and the disabled, because they have been excluded from positions that would increase their material bargaining power, and/or because those in the dominant group might believe that they have little to offer in virtue of traits that they have or lack. But there are other, nonmaterial goods of cooperation — things that I need for self-preservation (and as Hobbes notes, the desire for self-preservation is our strongest desire and one that never goes away — so we can cash out what I’m going to say next in terms of this desire). These nonmaterial goods of cooperation correspond for Hobbes, I think, to the rights we “lay down” if others do so as wall, in the hopes of protecting ourselves from destruction and for achieving a better life than the one we might expect to have in a state of nature. I assume we’d agree to lay down our “rights” to kill, harm, steal, lie, break promises, and so on — whatever would allow us to satisfy our desire for self-preservation but not at too high a cost. We’d each benefit from contracts made when we give up these “rights,” not just when we expect to gain some material goods. And when it comes to giving up these “rights,” I would think that women, minorities, and the disabled would have just as much to offer as anyone else. So this would give them a way into self-interested bargaining schemes. Stating this all in terms of the desire for self-preservation might be a way of not building into the bargaining scheme any moral assumptions about people’s dispositions to keep contracts.

  16. Hi Ann (if I may too),
    Interesting project! I think the general line of response sounds promising and hope this question has not been asked already.
    If I am tracking things correctly here, your view we is that we should include the global poor as those to whom justice is owed in part because if we do so “they will be more likely to develop the capital and capacities to benefit us more through trade than they would benefit us by treating them as slaves or colonizing or just ignoring them.”
    Do we need to also balance said benefits against the costs we will likely incur by choosing to include them in the moral contract? I can imagine various costs here, but I am thinking of the actual worry that including the global poor in the contract will help poor countries develop (as you suggest) but that this will massively exacerbate the possibility of environmental disaster in the not too distant future.

  17. Anita: Thanks, I do like your suggestion if I understand it correctly, which is to pay more attention to the desire for self-preservation as a reason for including more in the social contract. That is, because these others pose a threat to me rather than because they can benefit me. So to disarm that threat I offer to contract with them to mutually lay down our rights to kill, harm, steal, etc. Is that right?
    This is one reason to contract with them, for sure. And I think that the rich ignore this reason at their great peril if they ignore the marginalized and the poor and allow wealth and income inequality or misrecognition to become too great.
    There are a couple of problems with this as the only reason for including the relatively powerless, though. One is that they are going to be included on very unequal terms, because of their relative powerlessness. Another is that if they are powerless enough, then they won’t be included at all. And the last reason is that avoiding threat does not generate fellow feeling in the way that I think focusing on the positives of mutual advantage does.

  18. Brad: Thank you! I think you have pinpointed a real worry, which I share, with mutual advantage, and my views on capitalism (which I wrote about in Capitalism For and Against: A feminist debate Cambridge, 2011). That is, all this economic growth will, at least in the short run, create a lot of environmental damage. And the Earth may not have enough time to recover before catastrophic damage occurs.
    Economic growth begins in a very dirty way as industrialization grows and people are able to buy heat, clothes washers, cars, air conditioning. Then it levels off and may even decrease as people replace the cruder versions of each with more efficient ones. As the environment becomes a luxury good and people become richer, they will “consume” more of it, which in this case means preserve more of it. People do want clean air and water after all and will pay for it. Look at what California has been able to do about cars.
    I cannot see denying the global poor their chance at washing machines (see Hans Rosling’s YouTube The Magic Washing Machine on this point), however. That’s not going to work, nor should it.
    So my view is that we need to help countries skip over the dirtiest technologies and jump to cleaner ones wherever we can. And we need to invest in cleaner technology research and development wherever we can. But I admit that it is a race against time for the Earth.

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