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What We Owe To Each Other by Andrew Nash

One of our favorite shows is The Good Place, a rare mix of hilarious comedy and studies of ethics and moral philosophy. It involves the afterlife, demons, ethics, and jabs at the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s fantastic. 

One of the recurring themes has been a book of moral philosophy by T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other. The book is considered a seminal work in the field, proposing a new form of morality called “contractualism.” To quote a TV critic who summed up this complex philosophy better than I ever could: “… morality didn’t just depend on rules, consequences, or even on who you were, but in how you related to others, arguing that morality could only exist, only be understood, in terms of individuals as connected to one another.” 

What We Owe to Each Other was written in 1998 and the author is still writing. However, I can’t help noticing some parallels between this contractualism and something said by Jesus. In two of the Gospels, Jesus said there are two commandments: 1) Loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and 2) Loving your neighbor as yourself. 

It’s that second one that I think sounds like contractualism. Contractualism is based on the idea of recognizing the rationality, morality, and worth of others. It’s treating those you meet as just as worthy and rational as you are. There aren’t limits to it. 

In fact, Jesus is even tested in another retelling of the Great Commandment in Luke 10. A Pharisee scribe or attorney “wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The moral at the end of this story is that the Samaritan — not the priest and not the Levite — was the only one who demonstrated being a good neighbor. The Samaritan was the only one who connected on a personal level with the injured man. The Samaritan recognized what we owe to each other. 

Jesus told the Pharisee: “Go and do likewise.” 

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