What do we owe to each other? This is a question that contractualist philosopher Thomas Scanlon answers in his book of the same title (1998). This question is also very mundane. Every day we face situations where people expect us to do things, be it professors, bosses, friends, or family. Scanlon argues that disregarding expectations, or being selfish, is okay as soon as the cause can be justified to others. In today’s reality, where people have more freedom and are often confused about their place or purpose in society, Scanlon’s theory works great at explaining the ethically correct way to handle expectations.
In his book, Scanlon argues that humans instinctively seek relationships based on mutual respect, and therefore pursue their interests in a way that will be fair to people with their own interests. The way to achieve this, Scanlon argues, is by following the correct process of rejection: if I want to reject somebody’s expectations because they cause me discomfort, I first have to ask myself if my actions will cause greater discomfort to the people around me—primarily to the person whose expectations I plan to reject. If the answer is yes, my duty as a reasonable human being would be to meet those expectations and not reject them.
Although Scanlon’s method seems rigorous on paper, it appears very reasonable and simple once put into practice. In January 2019, I joined a sorority where I was expected to invest time and money into the organization, and to behave in a certain way. While the members of the sorority made the money commitment very clear to me from the beginning, they were vague about the amount of time I would have to put in, and most importantly they omitted the social pressure that awaited me once inside the organization. However, due to personal circumstances, I figured that leaving the sorority right away wouldn’t be wise, so I stuck around.
What an awkward situation, one might say. Was what they asked of me fair? It took me time to realize that for the most part, it was not. Did this mean that I could just leave my responsibilities behind and stop fulfilling the sorority’s expectations? This part was tricky.
My first reaction was to rebel after my sorority sisters began to pressure me with demands, but this made me feel guilty. I had made a commitment, and these people expected me to plan events, show up for meetings, and spend about seven hours per week helping the organization. Although this was a more than I expected, I did choose to be a part of the sisterhood, so I asked myself what would be the consequences if I stopped showing up. Would it be fair to the sisters that would have to pick up the slack and stay extra time? We all were students, we all had work, and it wasn’t fair to them.
Now, one of the main reasons why I left the sorority was that the demands of the sisters went beyond time commitment. I was expected to not be myself inside and outside the sorority house. I felt pressured to maintain an image with a conservative disposition—I was not allowed to vape, smoke, or drink. These rules weren’t official, but there was an expectation, a pressure, and these were only a few of the things that I was looked down upon for doing.
So I asked myself again, if it would be justifiable for me to disregard these expectations. If I was to be myself and exercise my free will, would this in any way harm any individual sorority sister? If I smoked, or drank, or vaped, would any of the women in the organization suffer from lung cancer or a diseased liver? The answer was no, so I stood strong.
My own example from the sorority, which I find appropriate to not name, has illustrated that Scanlon’s theory provides a mature method to address the question, what do we owe to each other? After familiarizing myself with contractualism, I personally found that being ethical doesn’t always mean demanding justice. To be ethical, a person should try to be fair to others, and to empathize with others, even if those others don’t always reciprocate.