Self-organizing moral systems: Beyond social contract theory

Gerald Gaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


This essay examines two different modes of reasoning about justice: an individual mode in which each individual judges what we all ought to do and a social mode in which we seek to reconcile our judgments of justice so that we can share common rules of justice. Social contract theory has traditionally emphasized the second, reconciliation mode, devising a central plan (the contract) to do so. However, I argue that because we disagree not only in our judgments of justice but also about the degree of reconciliation justice calls for, the social contract presupposes a single, controversial, answer to the proper degree of reconciliation. In place of the social contract’s ‘top-down’ approach, this article explores the idea of self-organizing moral systems, in which each individual, acting on her own views of justice (including the importance of reconciliation), responds to the decisions of others, forming systems of shared justice. Several basic agent-based models are explored to begin to understand the dynamics under which individuals with diverse views of justice may come to share common rules. It is found that, surprisingly, by increasing the diversity in a system, we can sometimes increase the possibility of agreement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-147
Number of pages29
JournalPolitics, Philosophy and Economics
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2018


  • diversity
  • public reason
  • self-organization
  • social contract
  • social morality
  • spontaneous order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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