Diversity, stability, and social contract theory


The topic of moral diversity is not only prevalent in contemporary moral and political philosophy, it is also practically relevant. Moral diversity, however, poses a significant challenge for moral theory building. John Thrasher (Synthese, forthcoming), in his discussion of public reason theory, which includes social contract theory, argues that if one seriously considers the goal of moral constructivism and considerations of representation and stability, then moral diversity poses an insurmountable problem for most public reason theories. I agree with Thrasher that moral diversity poses a significant challenge for orthodox multistage social contract theories. In fact, I even add a further problem for such theories under the assumption of deep moral diversity. Nevertheless, I argue that my (Moehler, Minimal morality: a multilevel social contract theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018) recently developed multilevel social contract theory overcomes these problems. I focus on some of the underexplored features of this theory to show that multilevel social contract theory offers one conceptually coherent and plausible way to render social contract theory viable and relevant for modern diverse societies.

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  1. 1.

    All references to Thrasher’s work in this article refer to Thrasher’s (forthcoming) article in Synthese.

  2. 2.

    In the context of political philosophy, see especially Kukathas (2007) for a defense of polycentrism and Müller (forthcoming) for a defense of polycentric democracy.

  3. 3.

    For detailed discussion of this two-level contractarian theory, see Moehler (2018) from which I draw in the following. I would like to thank Oxford University Press for permission to reproduce and adapt passages from my book.

  4. 4.

    For detailed discussion of how multilevel social contract theory addresses the problem of compliance, including discussion of the distinction between modus vivendi and overlapping consensus in a Rawlsian context, please see Moehler (2018: 103–107, 125–127, and 172–179).


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The author would like to thank John Thrasher and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful discussions and comments on previous versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Michael Moehler.

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Moehler, M. Diversity, stability, and social contract theory. Philos Stud 176, 3285–3301 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1174-8

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  • Constructivism
  • Multistage social contract theory
  • Multilevel social contract theory
  • Moral diversity
  • Autonomy
  • Compliance
  • Stability