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Contract Ethics: Evolutionary Biology and the Human Moral Sentiments

by Howard Kahane

“Optimism gave the progressives a soft and shallow concept of human nature. With the aggressive and sinister impulses eliminated from the equation, the problem of social change assumed too simple a form. The corruptions of power—the desire to exercise it, the desire to increase it, the desire for prostration before it—had no place in the progressive calculations.” —Arthur Schlessinger, Jr.


Combine David Buss with Edmund Phelps, and this is what you get, a book headed for oblivion.


Howard Kahane calls humans grudging reciprocators, which means other types exist, including oblivious non-reciprocators (heiresses floating on a guru enlightened plane); and angry non-reciprocators (Eleanor Burkett). Reciprocation, altruism, and self-interest can all be good depending on situations. Misplaced unethical altruists (anyone donating to televangelists) and well-placed altruists (Jane Russell finding homes for orphans) both exist.


Primarily a book on economic ethics, Kahane’s ideas on cooperation and competition may unsettle tender hearts.


Contract Ethics argues for a better retributive economic system. Fair remuneration for those who contribute goods of great ethical value, despite the fact they are accorded low value by current powerful interests, is more than a matter of compassion, but justice. Kahane finds fault with distributive economic systems, left wing and right alike. The strengths of Contract Ethics include insights on cooperation, competition, and group dynamics as well as its emphasis on meritarianism and reciprocation, honesty and trustworthiness.


Kahane defines restitution as remunerating in proportion to the wrong done. Restitution is proper when a harm done is accidental or motives are difficult to determine. Retribution, he writes, makes wrong doers pay restitution and gives them an additional punishment as a deterrent. Otherwise, crime pays. Citizens often suppress the desire for retribution to present a nice image. Or out of fear or laziness.


Kahane argues all general types of arousal are sometimes beneficial—including retribution—and sometimes they ain’t. The claim that retribution is always bad because retribution is troglodytic in origin is an irrelevant appeal to tradition.


Revenge is the random inflicting of harm for harms received, regardless whether the targets deserve harm. Revenge leads to disasters. James Peterson notes that random revenge is indistinguishable from random violence. In addition to teaching the proper uses of well-placed compassion, we should teach the proper uses of indignation, restitution, and retribution.


Kahane suggests we should be careful which friends and enemies we choose. The lower the competition among friends, and the greater the sacrifices made by all to each other, the greater the trust and friendliness among friends. As individuals are added to a circle of friends, the more friendships go wrong. Some individuals see the presence of friendliness as an opportunity to take advantage, often adopting a nice persona while taking advantage.


Numerous problems result when humans form groups. First, the tragedy of commons: The selfishness of some individuals destroys a shared resource for other individuals. Second, sometimes greater contributors receive less, lesser contributors receive more. Producers of human capital get taken advantage of by those who do not. Third, rhetoric opposite reality: Altruistic rhetoric hiding corruption, incompetence or ruthlessness. Fourth, selfish defection: Failure to reciprocate benefits received. Fifth, groupthink: Social pressure to think like other group members. Sixth, too much loyalty: Individuals assist group even when harms to self or others or both are greater. (Example: Failure to whistle blow.) Seventh, naive selflessness: Dedication to harmful causes.


When societies feature interactions among strangers and the untrustworthy, laws must be consistently enforced. There must exist individuals who make heroic efforts to ensure laws are beneficial and are properly enforced. Advantage taking creates vicious spirals of more advantage taking, and few benefit except the likes of warlords. Kahane points out that when individuals are ordered to comply with unjust duties, disloyalty becomes the right alternative.


Fair Play in the Marketplace, the best chapter in Contract Ethics, delivers a polemic from the unpopular branch of populism.


When anti-meritarian policies spread, more individuals begin to think only chumps and do right things. To maintain power, the high priests of distract screwees or brow beat them. Fine lines exist between warranted cooperation and harmful cooperation.


Despite rhetoric to the contrary, power market theories, often mistakenly referred to as free market theories, are distributive. They treat wealth as if it were in a pile to distribute to the top. The powerful pretend the influences of luck, beauty, heredity, culture, corruption, capital, others’ technologies, and thousands of crooked public policies that benefit themselves are small. Forty percent of the individuals on the Forbes 500 were born there, and the majority of the remainder had enormous help from family members.


An intriguing example of Kahane’s ideas: According to The Washington Monthly, Arthur Laffer, known for the “supply” side, free lunch, Laffer Curve, which he persuaded many rich people to believe by the difficult tactic of telling them what they wanted to hear, now spends his time offering his services to small companies. Allegedly, he agrees to join their boards, the companies advertise his appointment, then he says no thanks and sues the companies for the stock they were going to pay him. The companies pay him because they can not afford the lawsuits. Laffer is also a member of Time’s 100 greatest minds of the century.



The world may not be a war of all against all, but it is a war of the ruthless against billions. “All economic systems involve serious competition,” and in every society the well-placed have grabbed onto more than their share.” All human societies have shirker problems and they always will, but the existence of anti-meritarian governments all over the planet is no excuse for apathy and cynicism.


The effort to strip loyalties based on genes and geography also stripped loyalties based on morality. Selfishness gets wrapped in virtuous rhetoric because at least it is not based on genes or geography.


Kahane's work has a few flaws:


It is subjectivist, overemphasizing genetics and vague fairness, distorting other moral theories.


It fails to give enough weight to consequentialist considerations. Ethics is much more than sociobiology and social contracts. Overly concerned with community standards, it lacks emphasis on accurate standards.


Like many books, Kahane uses specious aphorisms to introduce chapters. This work is not as meritarian as it claims to be. The idea that socialist systems, systems where governments try to control all production and distribution of wealth, can be fair is preposterous. Kahane overemphasizes status and consumerism as sources of meaning.


Kahane needs to make more distinctions and clarifications among social, moral, and other forms of value. Leaving out his generosity to socialism, Kahane is a more astute commentator on economics than most philosophers.


Kahane overestimates the abilities of human intuitions to determine “fairness.” Most individuals are oblivious to major considerations of justice. Individuals excel at determining their fair share of a candy bar in a psychology experiment, but when is comes to big, complex issues, intuitions fail, especially when media moguls bombard us with unjust agendas.


Though flawed, Kahane’s meritarianism is a wonderful relief from authoritarian and distributive works.

Worth reading. 151p (H) 1995            

J.T. Fournier, last update July 7, 2009


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