Associate 2021-22

Helga Varden


Varden image

Transforming Our Social Contracts

The public legal and political institutions—the social contracts—of many liberal democracies today are marked by deep, seemingly intractable problems of systemic injustice that track long histories of intersectional violent oppression. These institutions are supposed to enable us to interact as free and equal citizens, but their actual practices fall very short of these ideals. Without exception, they condone, facilitate, and even participate in much wrongdoing against segments of their populations—wrongdoing that in a profound sense is not rational. In her analysis of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt concludes that we need a new principle to govern our thinking about peaceful, flourishing co-existence on the planet. Professor Varden’s new book, Transforming Our Social Contracts, proposes that Kant’s philosophy provides us with the principle we need—each person’s right to freedom—but that we must take up all his relevant ideas, right his wrongs, and develop his proposals further. Transforming Our Social Contracts aims to show what it looks like when we look our predecessors squarely and truthfully in the eyes and then try to transform their theories so that they can help us transform our actual societies and institutions. In this way, Professor Varden hopes to show that despite the many shortcomings and failures of the existing liberal theories and philosophical practices, freedom, human dignity, and shared, accountable public governance are still ideals worth working toward by developing the tools these legal-political thinkers left us.