In his 1989 book The Limits of Morality, Shelly Kagan claims that our ordinary, everyday morality – which he dubs ‘moderate morality’ – is untenable and must be abandoned in favor of a more stringent ethical code, which he calls ‘extremism.’ This thesis represents an attempt to defend moderate morality against this claim by appealing to a contract-based approach to ethics. In taking on Kagan’s general charge that moderate morality is incoherent, I adopt two of his specific challenges from chapter four as a starting point. These challenges are as follows: first of all, if the moderate wants to establish the existence of constraints, she must also show that these constraints and their principled exceptions (required, for example, if we are to allow most cases of harming others in self-defense) can be generated from a common principle. And secondly, any moderate hoping to appeal to contract approaches to ethics as a way of defending ordinary morality has the further burden of demonstrating that such an approach does not in fact offer support for extremism.
In order to defend a contract-based moderate morality against both Kagan’s more specific and more general challenges, I must show that my account leads to three things: an acceptance of a ‘pro tanto’ reason to promote the greater overall good, deontological constraints that admit of principled exceptions, and options not always to perform the action that results in the greater overall good. I am able to ground all these things in my contract approach because I construe my bargainers’ motivation as being twofold: on the one hand, they are motivated to maximize self-interest, as are the bargainers in many other prominent contractarian accounts. But on the other hand, they are also motivated to formulate a set of rules that gives proper expression and recognition to their moral status as persons. The moral status that the bargainers want their contract to recognize has at least three dimensions: on such a conception, persons are simultaneously worthy of concern, ends-in-themselves, and inviolable.
After setting up Kagan’s challenges in some detail and motivating my decision to use contractarianism as a response to these challenges in chapter one, and after offering a brief sketch of my bargainers’ twofold motivation in chapter two, I go on to give a somewhat detailed account of the way such a contractarian scenario might yield a