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The Breadth of the Contract I: Meat, Milk, and Honey

4 June 2012

The philosophical blogosphere has been quite abuzz lately about the ethics of eating meat. Spurred by a recent essay contest from the New York Times to lay out a brief ethical defense of meat-eating, the discussion has been raging seemingly not over whether or not eating meat is ethical as such but over the possibility of a coherent ethical defense of meat-eating. The long silence of meat-eaters regarding a coherent ethical defense of our dietary preferences has always lent credence to the claim, sometimes leveled by vegetarian and vegan ethical writers, that there exists no such defense and that omnivores necessarily ignore the ethics of our food choices. Thus this proposition, which was begun well before the current surge of interest in philosophical food ethics, seems quite timely, since in it I seek to propose an model for ethical use of non-human life, including ethical meat-eating. With a maximum of brevity, though in two parts, I shall endeavour to lay out the basics of such a contractarian model.

The concept of the ‘social contract’ is amongst the most popular theories of normative socio-political ethics. It became one of the dominant modes of ethical thinking in the West following its advancement by Francisco Suaréz, Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke and, despite a fall in popularity after the rise of Utilitarianism in analytic philosophy and Marxism in continental philosophy, continues to form the undercarriage of Western international law. It has seen a renaissance of late, first in a heavily Kantian form through the liberal contractualism of John Rawls and later through the renaissance of interest in pre-Kantian ethical perspectives, which is well-represented in modern jurists like John Finnis. While social contract theory is employed in defense of human rights, advocates of animals and environmental issues are rarely seen to turn to it in defense of animal rights, animal welfare, and environmentalist positions, generally preferring Utilitarian or non-contractualist categoricalist arguments. The principle codifiers of social contract theories either explicitly excluded animal and ecological considerations from their considerations (ex. Pufendorf) or merely constructed their model of the contract in such a way that few if any interpretations allow for the inclusion of non-sapient life (ex. Rawls).

What is rarely considered is whether non-sapient or even non-sentient life can be considered party to the ‘social’ contract. The single quotation marks here are a conceit to the fact that non-sentient life cannot properly be said to party to a society and thus a ‘social’ contract. Any contractarian ethic which includes non-sentient forms of life could not properly call itself a ‘social contract theory,’ or at least would have to consider itself a fairly distinct subset of such. It should also be pointed out that such an ethic would contractarian rather than contractualist, as the latter term, coined by John Rawls and generally associated with the school of thought which he founded, assumes that the parties of the contract a rational agents, which is clearly impossible for non-sapient forms of life. By contrast a contractarian account, as exemplified in the thought of Hugo Grotius or John Locke, does not require moral agency in order to be considered a full member of the contract. This characteristic, usually applied to children, persons suffering from development delay or other cognitive impairments, and those who suffer from diminished cognitive capacity due to brain injury or advanced age, can by the very same token be applied to non-human forms of life that never possess the capacity to actually understand the contract.

Traditional contractarian and contractualist ethical theories afford, at most, indirect moral standing to non-human animals, usually on the grounds that they constitute the property of a contractor or at the potential insistence of human contractors.[1] However, some animals, including those animals domesticated for the purposes of animal husbandry or agriculture, can be said to be moral agents capable of being party to the social contract. Animals such as are raised for animal agriculture (cattle, pigs, sheep, etc.) possess the same characteristics as humans which make us potential contractors: potency, meaning they are capable of actions that affect the utility of other agents; vulnerability, meaning their own utility can be affected by other potential contractors; and responsiveness, meaning they are capable of modifying their behaviour in response to new stimuli or environments.[2] The particular cognitive capabilities of the potential contractor animals, inferior though they are to those of humans, are not relevant to that potential anymore than in the case of humans with diminished or impaired cognitive abilities, such as infants or the mentally impaired. Contractors have no call to care for the interiority of other contractors, including their intellectual capacity, so long as those other contractors abide by the contract.[3]

The animals’ side of the contract is clear enough: provide, from their own bodies, foodstuffs and other materials for human consumption. The human side is more complex. Because animals are not reasoning beings they cannot issue their own terms. Therefore we must consider, from a position not of benevolence but of disinterested reason, what are just concessions from us in exchange for the benefit which we seek to receive. A relevant consideration here is the natural state in which the animals exist (not the specific animals, since domestication has long since altered their evolution and this proposal does not pretend to extend to some pre-contractual time or state, but considering the animals as representatives of broader types). It is unreasonable to demand that we force the animals to exist in conditions less agreeable to them than they would likely exist in the wild and this makes clear the first term: we must be kinder to the animals than nature. The next consideration is what we can positively offer the animals in exchange for what we take from them. At base this is answered by the first established term but it must needs be explicated. What we are able to offer in exchange is contextually specific but must always meet certain base levels of ‘kindness,’ though these levels could certainly be flexible. They would be defined by what it is reasonable to expect that humans, in any given context, to be able to provide. The means of nomadic pastoralist are not the means of the agribusiness and the two cannot be held to identical standards. This ‘flexible standard’ might be best conceived of as a maximin of health, comfort, and safety and a minimally unpleasant death. Domesticated animals being recognised as party to a contract with their keepers the terms of the contract become fairly clear: humans will make ethical use of animals for human systems, including healthy living conditions and humane methods of slaughter, and in exchange humans may harvest animal products, including meat, from those animals. It is the responsibility of humans involved in animal-based food systems, consumers as well as producers, to ensure ethical treatment of the animals on our plates.

This contractualist account of human moral responsibility to domesticated animals places clear restraints upon human consumption of animal products and affords animals direct moral standing as contractors, rather than merely indirect standing as property or by virtue of the insistence of human contractors. If meat is to be eaten ethically then the welfare of the animals from which it is produced must always be taken into account by producers and consumers of meat products in order to fulfill the human responsibilities under the contract with our domesticated animals. Though the animals themselves are not conscious of the contract and thus are unable to enforce it or withdraw from it should humans fail to uphold our end the contract, so long as humans act ethically within it, provides a far surer ground for ethical treatment of animals, and thus ethical animal products, than mere human beneficence.

Part II of this proposal will examine an even more radical possibility: the extension of the social contract to non-sentient, that is to say plant, life. In preparation for the ideas I will present I invite to give some thought to following question, especially if you are of the opinion that vegetarianism and/or veganism is morally superior lifestyle to one that consumes meat and/or animal products: by what right do you consume plants?

Notes and Bibliography


[1] Tucker, C., and MacDonald, C., “Beastly Contractarianism? A Contractarian Analysis of the Possibility of Animal Rights,” Essays in Philosophy 5 (2005), 3, 7; Abbey, Ruth, “Rawslian Resources for Animal Ethics,” Ethics & the Environment 12 (2007), 2.

[2] Tucker and MacDonald, “Beastly Contractarianism?,” 9.

[3] Tucker and MacDonald, “Beastly Contractarianism?,” 9.

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