AR-FAQ - #25

#25 Doesn't the ethical theory of contractarianism show that animals have no rights?

Contractarianism is an ethical theory that attempts to account for our morality by appealing to implicit mutually beneficial agreements, or contracts. For example, it would explain our refusal to strike each other by asserting that we have an implied contract: "You don't hit me and I won't hit you." The relevance of contractarianism to AR stems from the supposition that nonhuman animals are incapable of entering into such contracts, coupled with the assertion that rights can be attributed only to those individuals that can enter into such contracts. Roughly, animals can't have rights because they lack the rational capacity to assent to a contract requiring them to respect our rights. Contractarianism is perhaps the most impressive attempt to refute the AR position; therefore, it is important to consider it in some detail. It is easily possible to write a large volume on the subject. We must limit ourselves to considering the basic arguments and problems with them. Those readers finding this incomplete or nonrigorous are advised to consult the primary literature. We begin by observing that contractarianism fails to offer a compelling account of our moral behavior and motives. If the average person is asked why they think it wrong to steal from their neighbor, they do not answer that by refraining from it they ensure that their neighbor will not steal from them. Nor do they answer that they have an implicit mutual contract with their neighbor. Instead of invoking contracts, people typically assert some variant of the harm principle; e.g., they don't steal because it would harm the neighbor. Similarly, we do not teach children that the reason why they should not steal is because then people will not steal from them. Another way to point up the mismatch between the theory of contractarianism and our actual moral behavior is to ask if, upon risking your own life to save my child from drowning, you have done this as a result of a contractual obligation. Certainly, one performs such acts as a response to the distress of another being, not as a result of contractual obligations. Contractarianism can thus be seen as a theory that fails to account for our moral behavior. At best, it is a theory that its proponents would recommend to us as preferable. (Is it seen as preferable because it denies rights to animals, and because it seems to justify continued exploitation of animals?) Arguably the most serious objection to contractarianism is that it can be used to sanction arrangements that would be almost universally condemned. Consider a group of very rich people that assemble and create a contract among themselves the effect of which is to ensure that wealth remains in their control. They agree by contract that even repressive tactics can be used to ensure that the masses remain in poverty. They argue that, by virtue of the existence of their contract, that they do no wrong. Similar contracts could be drawn up to exclude other races, sexes, etc. John Rawls attempts to overcome this problem by supposing that the contractors must begin from an "initial position" in which they are not yet incarnated as beings and must form the contract in ignorance of their final incarnation. Thus, it is argued, since a given individual in the starting position does not know whether, for example, she will be incarnated as a rich woman or a poor woman, that individual will not form contracts that are based on such criteria. In response, one can begin to wonder at the lengths to which some will go in creating ad hoc adjustments to a deficient theory. But more to the point, one can turn around this ad hoc defense to support the AR position. For surely, if individuals in the initial position are to be truly ignorant of their destiny, they must assume that they may be incarnated as animals. Given that, the contract that is reached is likely to include strong protections for animals! Another problem with Rawls' device is that probabilities can be such that, even given ignorance, contracts can result that most people would see as unjust. If the chance of being incarnated as a slave holder is 90 percent, a contract allowing slavery could well result because most individuals would feel they had a better chance of being incarnated as a slave holder. Thus, Rawls' device fails even to achieve its purpose. It is hard to see how contractarianism can permit movement from the status quo. How did alleged contracts that denied liberty to slaves and excluded women from voting come to be renegotiated? Contractarianism also is unable to adequately account for the rights we give to those unable to form contracts, i.e., infants, children, senile people, mental deficients, and even animals to some extent. Various means have been advanced to try to account for the attribution of rights to such individuals. We have no space to deal with all of them. Instead, we briefly address a few. One attempt involves appealing to the interests of true rights holders. For example, I don't eat your baby because you have an interest in it and I wouldn't want you violating such an interest of mine. But what if no-one cared about a given infant? Would that make it fair game for any use or abuse? Certainly not. Another problem here is that many people express an interest in the protection of all animals. That would seem to require others to refrain from using or abusing animals. While this result is attractive to the AR community, it certainly weakens the argument that contractarianism justifies our use of animals. Others want to let individuals "ride" until they are capable of respecting the contract. But what of those that will never be capable of doing so, e.g., senile people? And why can we not let animals ride? Some argue a "reduced-rights" case. Children get a reduced rights set designed to protect them from themselves, etc. The problem here is that with animals the rights reduction is way out of proportion. We accept that we cannot experiment on infants or kill and eat them due to their reduced rights set. Why then are such extreme uses acceptable for nonhumans? Some argue that it is irrelevant whether a given individual can enter into a contract; what is important is their theoretical capacity to do so. But, future generations have the capacity but clearly cannot interact reciprocally with us, so the basis of contractarianism is gutted (unless we assert that we have no moral obligations to leave a habitable world for future generations). Peter Singer asks "Why limit morality to those who have the capacity to enter into agreements, if in fact there is no possibility of their ever doing so?" There are practical problems with contractarianism as well. For example, what can be our response if an individual renounces participation in any implied moral contracts, and states that he is therefore justified in engaging in what others would call immoral acts? Is there any way for us to reproach him? And what are we to do about violations of the contract? If an individual steals from us, he has broken the contract and we should therefore be released from it. Are we then morally justified in stealing from him? Or worse? In summary, contractarianism fails because a) it fails to accurately account for our actual, real-world moral acts and motives, b) it sanctions contractual arrangements that most people would see as unjust, c) it fails to account for the considerations we accord to individuals unable to enter into contracts, and d) it has some impractical consequences. Finally, there is a better foundation for ethics--the harm principle. It is simple, universalizable, devoid of ad hoc devices, and matches our real moral thinking. TA/DG

SEE ALSO: #11, #17, #19, #96