In the Social Contract Theory, Thomas Hobbes states that “morality consists in the set of rules, governing behavior, that rational people will accept, on the condition that others accept them as well” (Rachels and Rachels 90). An argument supporting this theory is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, as described on pages 90 – 94 in The Elements of Moral Philosophy & The Right Thing to Do, there are four possible outcomes that may occur based on what you and the other prisoner decide to do. Regardless, it is in your best interest to confess to the crime. This is because in both scenarios, you will get the lesser of the two prison terms. Confessing will not give you the best outcome, only the guarantee that you will not get the worst outcome (Rachels and Rachels 91).
If both you and the prisoner do not do what is in your best interests, then you will only serve one year. This would be the most rational decision to make if you could talk to the other prisoner and verify that he was willing to act in the same manner. The scenario described in the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows the possibilities available when enforcing a moral code in a society. In other words, you may not be doing what is in your best interest, but instead are doing what is in the best interest of the collective group. In this case, this group is the prisoner and yourself. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows how it is a rational decision to be cooperative as it benefits all who are involved.
There are plenty of real-life applications and examples of this type of scenario. One that comes to my mind is a story that a psychology teacher told my class back in high school. To test the self-interest of a class, a professor gave each student two options: either receive a 5% increase in their overall grades or receive a 10% increase in their overall grades (I do not remember the exact percentages, but they were somewhere in this realm). The only catch was that if more than 20% of the class picked the 10% grade increase, the entire class would not receive any increase at all. The students were also not allowed to converse about this. Unsurprisingly, over half of the class selected to have the 10% grade increase, resulting in no one receiving extra percentages. It was postulated that if the students were able to talk with one another, they would have likely been successful in receiving the extra credit because they would have ensured that majority, if not all, of the class would have selected the 5% increase instead of the 10% increase.
However, without conversation, majority of the students acted in their best-self interest instead of the self-interest of the entire class. This is a practical example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Without the ability to converse beforehand, the group of students could not rationally cooperate and could not reach a mutually beneficial conclusion. Although this is a simple example, it clearly illustrates how the Social Contract Theory is backed by the Prisoner’s Dilemma argument: without the ability to come together and reap a benefit, many individuals were too tempted to pass on an individual benefit, ultimately leading to a lack in morality and disadvantage for the entire group.