Published April 12, 2022
A UB philosopher’s book is a featured selection of an online symposium, currently in progress, hosted by “Syndicate.” The book is “Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance” by Ryan Muldoon, associate professor of philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences.
“Syndicate” is a discussion space for topics within the humanities. The site’s organizers encourage scholarly inquiry and collaboration while also opening a window to that exchange to anyone interested in following the discussion.
For each symposium, one participant on a four-member panel takes a weekly turn critiquing that month’s selection. The author then provides a response. A back-and-forth discussion unfolds among the scholars while the public can comment and share their views in a separate readers’ section. Once the four-week cycle is complete, Syndicate will archive the exchange as part of an open access backlist of titles on its website.
“I was delighted hearing the news about my book being chosen,” says Muldoon, an expert in social and political philosophy. “It’s an exciting opportunity to explore the topics presented in the book and to receive feedback from other scholars that could direct my next steps in this line of research.”
Muldoon’s book is a work of political philosophy that offers an interesting departure from conventional thinking about social contracts, theories that center concepts of morality and justice in ways that are generally agreed upon by members of a society.
“Though the crux of social contract theory has always been about how we are to reconcile our competing political interests,” Muldoon writes, “I submit that from [John] Locke forward, the implicit assumption has been that the depth of political disagreement was not that great.”
While social contract theories defend certain principles and concepts of morality and justice, they’re all creations of their time, influenced by issues specific to a particular historical moment. While thinkers in one era were addressing matters relating to ongoing civil wars, those in a different era were concerned more with affairs arising from the succession of kings. More recent social contract theories argue that people have the capacity for impartiality that can lead to rational positions. These unique problems inspired unique solutions that can be problematic, at best, and irrelevant, at worst, when universally applied.
Muldoon’s reorientation of social contract theory is dynamic. He proposes thinking about social contracts as a process. Rather than developing a model, he suggests a way of thinking that provides the tools that can continually improve social contracts.
Historical social contracts also didn’t address diversity or diverse societies.
“Different people see the world differently, and I talk about this in terms of perspectives,” says Muldoon. “That can be a deep source of disagreement. So I’ve tried to come up with a version of social contract theory that accounts for this diversity in a way that turns it into a resource. Instead of proposing a target for how the world should be, I’ve developed a process for constantly revising the social contract as we learn more about ourselves, which takes full advantage of political disagreement as a way of experimentation and social learning.”
Muldoon’s book takes a humble position that doesn’t search for ideal answers, which likely don’t exist.
“Maybe we can figure out a better way of incorporating social learning into our understanding of justice,” he says. “In a way, this symposium has been a great example of that. People have brought my attention to a host of issues that have caused me to reflect on how this input can be worked into the framework I’m trying to develop.
“It’s an exciting demonstration of the value that comes from bringing different perspective to the question of justice.”