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date: 29 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

The social contract tradition derives its ethical force from the hypothetical agreement that parties would reach in an initial choice situation. This initial choice situation brings together a description of the circumstances of justice, various extra-contractarian moral assumptions, and an instrumental theory of rational choice. The circumstances of justice refer to the conditions that require principles of justice. These conditions include the existence of social cooperation along with moderate scarcity. In the absence of such conditions, principles of justice are either unnecessary or impossible to sustain. Social cooperation generates both benefits and burdens, and it is the allocation of those components of social cooperation that requires principles of justice. The application of the social contract to the domestic context dates back to the ancient Greeks, though their version of the contract was somewhat crude and rather one-sided in favor of state authority. Later versions of the social contract would oblige the state to provide much more to citizens in return for their allegiance. John Rawls is widely credited with resurrecting the social contract tradition in the twentieth century. His thought holds special significance for the international social contract, as he extends the contractual approach ethics into the international system where his predecessors declined to do so.

Keywords: social contract, international ethics, John Rawls, justice, social cooperation, state authority, international social contract

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