Christian Contractualism and What We Owe to Each Other

Early this year, I began down a winding path of professional development that has influenced my ethics and changed how I think about my place in the world. I began with learning about design thinking, systems thinking, and cybernetic strategy development, which led me to deep reflections on how we work together, what makes teams great, and ethics. Most recently, I read the book What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon.

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced what I think was a nudge of the Holy Spirit that kicked off a chain of logic and an expansion of my worldview. Scanlon’s book doesn’t really have a firm conclusion of, “Therefore, we ought to do X, Y, and Z.” The book gives us lots of pieces and ideas, but Scanlon isn’t prescriptive. My Sunday morning rumination led me to a potential conclusion, though I’m still considering it.

In this post, I’ll briefly define contractualism, share the logic chain, and then the potential outcomes of my thinking.


If you want a longer explanation than what I’ll provide here, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on contractualism.

At a very high level, just reflecting on the phrase “what we owe to each other” provides, I think, a pretty good idea of what contractualism means. But this introductory section from the Stanford Encyclopedia helps expand on this.

Scanlon introduces contractualism as a distinctive account of moral reasoning. He summarises his account thus:

An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behaviour that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement. (Scanlon 1998, p. 153).

But Scanlon’s version of contractualism is not just concerned with determining which acts are right and wrong. It is also concerned with what reasons and forms of reasoning are justifiable. Whether or not a principle is one that cannot be reasonably rejected is to be assessed by appeal to the implications of individuals or agents being either licensed or directed to reason in the way required by the principle. Scanlon’s version offers an account both of (1) the authority of moral standards and of (2) what constitutes rightness and wrongness. As to the first, the substantive value that is realised by moral behaviour consists in a relation of “mutual recognition”. As to the second, wrongness consists in unjustifiability: wrongness is the property of being unjustifiable. The wrongness of an action is not to be equated with the properties that make it unjustifiable. Rather, it is to be equated with its being unjustifiable; the character of wrongness is captured by the higher order fact that wrong acts are unjustifiable. What wrong acts have in common is that they cannot be justified to others. Thus the various moral considerations that guide our substantive moral reflection are unified by a single normative subject matter. In this way, contractualism guides our substantive reflection about wrongness. Wrong is the primary moral predicate; right is defined as “not wrong”. One reason for focusing on wrong is to draw attention to the domain that contractualism is concerned to map, concerning what it is for one person to have been wronged by another.

So in summary, contractualism is an ethical system focused on defining what we owe to one another and then fulfilling that commitment.

I should note that I don’t know if Scanlon is Christian or not. I suspect not (because I typically assume people are not), but I don’t feel like going digging to find out. My faith influences my own approach to contractualism, hence the title of this blog post, because I think our obligation isn’t just to each other but to God and that creates a new level of obligation and justification that must be considered.

The logic chain

I was doing dishes and looking out the kitchen window to the backyard when I started thinking about our cats.

I never wanted to adopt cats, but April did, so I went along with it back in 2008. I knew at the time that they’d likely destroy our furniture, introduce stress and frustration, be expensive, make lots of messes, and make travel and life in general harder. But I believe that, when you adopt a pet, you have an obligation to take care of them regardless of how you feel about it. We can’t cut corners on food or healthcare or ensuring their well-being because those animals didn’t ask to be adopted by us. They lack agency, outside of choosing to run away, and by adopting an animal we have committed to take care of and provide for them for the rest of their lives.

But it’s not just pets who lack agency. Let’s say someone at work gets assigned to my team. They didn’t necessarily join the company to join my team, and they didn’t necessarily choose me, they’re just now stuck with me as a boss. As the person in a position of power (management), I have a duty to take care of both them and our company. My obligation is to provide the employee meaningful work that both benefits the company and keeps them engaged and productive. I should do my best to invest in their professional development, help them maintain a healthy work/life balance, and enjoy their work.

Except then I realized that it’s not just people assigned to my team who didn’t choose it who lack full agency. In this world, almost all of us have to work. We can’t choose to do nothing and still have a healthy, secure, and fulfilling life. Our society and economy demands that a portion of our time be spent working and earning money. In that sense, we have been born into a world that makes demands on us to which we did not agree. We are all part of a web of relationships that should recognize this fact and consequently honor the obligations it creates. The fast food worker is in a service position because they have to be, and as the person paying for their service in the moment, I have a duty to be kind and supportive to them.

What we owe to each other is to behave in a way that one could not reasonably reject. And I think the bar for that behavior, the measurement of it, is elevated when we begin to realize that we are all born into a world that is hard on all of us, and that we all depend on one another and thus have a duty to help take care of one another.

Because what comes next is a reflection on why the world is so challenging for so many people. After all, our total productivity (if you measure goods disassociated from ownership and the means of production) is sufficient to provide a comfortable life for everyone. Leaving aside the challenges of mental health problems, we could easily have enough homes in the United States to end homelessness, and we produce and import enough food to end hunger.

Those of us with much could provide more for those with little, but we don’t.

When God made the world, He declared it to be good. God says that he’ll provide everything we need, and yet many people lack what they need. Why is life hard for so many people? Both in studying the stories in the Bible, and looking around at our society, I think generally life is hard because other people make it so.

Zoom out from the individual perspective, because while we can think of individuals who have more money and items than they need, it’s even easier to think of corporations and companies whose profits continue to grow while employee remuneration stays flat and other people in our society are trapped in poverty and homelessness.

This happens because we want to accumulate more. It’s a means of ensuring security and comfort, and for some it’s also a way to keep score and demonstrate success and power.

Accumulation and hoarding isn’t something I can reasonably justify to a person who was born without the privileges I enjoy like the color of my skin, my intellect, my mental health, my physical health, etc.

Potential outcomes

I don’t think God calls us to give away everything we have. He wants us to have an abundant life, and to be content and enjoy our lives. But I think we ought to spend some time figuring out what that requires, draw a line under it, and then take action with the remainder.

I want to have a third kid if we can, and I want to provide a good life for our kids. They shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not we can keep our house. They should have food in the fridge and on the table. They should have clothes that fit. They should have educational and social opportunities, we should be able to drive them to events, and they should get to experience the wider world. Our family should have healthcare, and April and I should be able to have a comfortable retirement.

But I can calculate what’s required for that, both in the near-term and in the long-term. It’s tempting to accumulate and invest beyond that because then I could retire a bit sooner, or buy a new vehicle even though we don’t really need one, or buy a lake house or something… but I don’t need that. I know my values and requirements, and I can set goals that I’m comfortable with and that let us live an abundant life.

Beyond that, I’m seriously considering donating everything else. We already donate around 12% of our gross income. I don’t know what our total would be in the future, but I’m already close to achieving our goals financially (over the next 20 years), so I could draw a line and just say that everything beyond what we need for our goals gets donated.

Finances aside, I’m also changing how I lead teams. My research back in 2015-2016 indicated that nothing we do as a manager can make an employee happier, and the best we can do is to not make people unhappy. My reading this year is challenging that conclusion because it assumes a total divide between our work and professional lives. One example from the research is, if an employee is going through divorce, we can’t really improve that situation we can just try to not make it worse. But what if, as a team member or leader, we proactively reach out and find ways to support someone? This story from the sysadmin subreddit provides a great example:

On the evening of the 4th of July, I went to bed, and started having strong pain in my left arm, was very short of breath, and felt my heart was racing. So, I was spirited to the hospital, where they measured a 240/180 blood pressure, and carted me right off to the heart catheter lab, where I got a stent. Two days of ICU, five more days of normal station, and then back home. A week later, rehab started (in a cardio rehab clinic right on the shore of a Bavarian lake with a view of the Alps, no less), where I’m still and will stay until mid August. Living in a country with sensible regulations around sick days and health insurance helps as well 🙂

My work (big big tech, I’m an architect in a customer operations team) behaved exemplary. I insisted to have a call with my team to tell them what’s going on and to avoid dropping any balls I had in the air. In that meeting, they took their notes, and assured me everything is fine, all will be well, not to worry etc….

What happened then, however, was incredible. They sent me flowers (very nice ones), and when they got wind that my family was scheduled to move a few weeks later and I couldn’t do anything, they got in contact with my wife, and on the day of the move a ten people delegation from work appeared, did all the schlepping, and painted the house top to bottom. This must have been the most expensive painting team far and wide 🙂 Also, I was told that when our VP got wind of the matter, he proclaimed this to be something like an officially sanctioned team event (so no one had to take a day off) and distributed a round of awards to the team. It went even as far as to the customer, who canceled all regular meetings for the day of the move because the team had more important things to do.

I’ll be back at work in a few weeks, and will have been off for six weeks then. There was no pressure at all to come back earlier, HR was supportive, my line was supportive, and my peers and team were incredibly amazing. There were also no work-related calls either, only friends inquiring how I do.

An officially sanctioned team event to help someone paint and move who was in distress goes way beyond just not making things worse.

Is our work just an exchange of services for money? What more do we owe to an employee? I think it’s important to have healthy boundaries at work and recognize the business relationship, but there should be a human relational element too. And I’m realizing this year that, if we have a slider with pure professionalism and personal distance at the left end, and being close friends with few boundaries at the right end, my slider was perhaps further left than it ought to be. I was already more to the right than the left, and I don’t think work relationships should be all the way to the right, but my slider probably ought to go a notch or two further right because none of us chose to live in this broken world.

Some of us can choose our education, and our career, but often there are influences beyond our control. We certainly don’t choose to have health emergencies.

I’m still percolating on all this. It’s simmering in the back of my brain. But I felt like the nudges of that Sunday morning, and the conclusions that I reached, pull together What We Owe to Each Other and lead to action and purpose.

I’m now reading Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, which takes me back into strategy development and business management but continues to explore the tension of systems design and thinking and how people work together.

3 thoughts on “Christian Contractualism and What We Owe to Each Other

  1. Matthew, I am your neighbor down the street and have also been watching your redevelopment of your backyard and saw the blog. You write brilliantly and I enjoyed the reading.

    Worldview is from the Bible being the Word of God and every word counts. A literal interpretation. Was raised Pentecostal but I mostly disagree with denominations and believe in God’s Word and the Holy Spirit for direction.

    I enjoyed reading this, Matthew. I have just retired from working at Aetna Insurance in the Behavioral Health field. My team was providing authorization for Applied Behavioral Analysis treatment for children and young adults with an Autism diagnosis. I was fortunate to be on a virtual team that was similar to what you included in your blog…it was wonderful. However, not all employees were so fortunate…
    In Scalon’s definition on contractualism, he does not note who is determining these boundaries of what is acceptable of not. In this day and age, I believe, one would have a difficult time coming to a concensus of right and wrong.
    I am now 65 and never thought I would live to see what is going on in our country.



    1. Scanlon’s book goes into how to evaluate the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. It’s quite good, but also super dense and long. I think it jives well with the Bible, but like I wrote, Scanlon gives no final recommendations for next steps. He covers how we should think about what we owe in the areas of friendship, promises, and our responsibilities, and he covers in great detail how we can think about our reasons for doing what we do, but it was only when I really thought about what we owe to each other in the context of God’s Kingdom that it all came together for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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