Revolution in a conventionalist social contract

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The paper examines revolution in a conventionalist social contract. Assuming, rational agency, repeated interactions and information symmetry, revolution cannot be justified within an established social contract. A conventionalist approach to social contract theory ensures that if the contract is established, it must have been accepted topically and by individuals. Furthermore, a change in the social contract has to be the result of a change in topical conventions, making revolution morally impermissible and practically unnecessary.

A conventionalist social contract refers to the idea of social contract as a collection of social conventions. The contract can also be viewed as a super-game equilibrium that depends on conventions which are seen as sub-game equilibria (Binmore, 1998). The current understanding of social contract is derived from a combination of Hobbes's theory of social contract and Hume's approach to social conventions. The two are complimentary more than conflicting, as Hume's theory can also be interpreted as contractarian (Gauthier, 1979).

Social conventions arise from repeated interactions between rational individuals who use social interaction to further their interests. Hence, conventions only become established and survive for as long they can help their participants maximise. A collection of maximising, topical conventions makes up a social contract that facilitates individual maximisation (Skyrms, 2004).

An interaction between rational, utility maximisers is repeated only if it helps both parties maximise and last for as long as it serves its purpose. Successful interactions repeat over long periods of time and eventually become habits of behaviour, or else conventions (Sugden, 2004). Once a convention is established, rational deliberation can be replaced by conventional behaviour for as long as convention participation maximises utility. In addition, conventions facilitate information spreading and therefore lead to information symmetry, participants having the same information. Information symmetry is a vital condition for conventional stability as it ensures that rational agents will make similar decisions and follow similar strategies, thus upholding the convention.

Conventions, topical stable social equilibria are and essential and necessary condition for a stable social contract. Thus, rational agency and repeated interactions lead to the establishment of social conventions, which in turn support the viability of the social contract.

Given this account of the social contract, revolution would imply the existence of a social convention that is not represented by the social contract. However, the conventionalist understanding of the social contracts relies on the existence of conventions. The contract only comes to existence after the establishment of social conventions, thus all conventional rules have been considered in the formation of the social contract. Conventional change is possible and plausible; a change in local conditions causes a change in rational strategy and hence, a change in the topical equilibrium. This change can take over and influence neighbouring conventions and ultimately the contract. However, such change does not constitute revolution.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016


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