If the situation were changed so that you could communicate with Smith and reach an agreement about what to do (and if we assume that the agreement would be enforced somehow, so you can be confident that it will be kept), then it would be rational to agree that neither of you will confess. In that case, you would each be released after only one year. Obviously this is a better result than if you both confessed.
The conclusion social contractarians draw from the dilemma is that we are better off if we cooperate, adopting an (enforced) agreement or social contract, than we would be if we acted as “independent egoists” (in other words, as people who pursue their own interests without cooperation or agreement). The prisoner’s dilemma is a very artificial situation, of course; but there are many real situations that are similar in the sense that independent egoism will produce worse results than accepting a social contract. Suppose, for example, that two timber or logging companies operate in the forests of a particular region; but the forests are shrinking at an alarming rate as a result. If the companies act as competing independent egoists cutting down as many trees as they can, they may destroy the forests and, therefore, their businesses. Alternatively, however, they might adopt a social contract (and enforcement procedures) requiring them to limit the number of trees they can harvest in a given period of time, plant new trees, etc. – an agreement which would be mutually beneficial, leaving both companies better off than they would be without it.
When a society adopts a social contract, some members of the society may of course break the contract. Someone might try to cut in line (in traffic, at a movie theater, etc.) rather than going to the back of the line, for instance – taking advantage of other people’s obedience to the “first come, first served” rule to get ahead of them. A person who breaks contracts in this way is a “free rider”. Free riders do sometimes gain an advantage over those who obey contracts, particularly when sanctions are mild or contracts are not regularly enforced. Overall, though, social contractarians maintain that we are much better off having and obeying contracts than we are without them.
Evaluation of the Social Contract Theory
Rachels suggests that one strength of the social contract theory is that it gives us a plausible answer to the question “Why should we obey moral rules?”: we should obey them because doing so is beneficial to us, since they facilitate harmonious social living. He also suggests that the theory provides a plausible