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The Breadth of the Contract II: Grass, Grain, and Olive Oil

19 June 2012

Part I of this proposal examined the ethics of meat and proposed a contractarian account of how consuming animal products can be ethical. Can be, rather than is, in as much as it placed some fairy stringent demands upon that ethical status, demands which are rarely met. The social contract, I proposed, extends to the animals we eat. However, the contract needn’t end at sentience. Non-sentient life can also be conceived of as existing in social relationships with sentient and sapient life, since the three forms of life have evolved in a relationship of mutual dependence which requires that the thriving of one cannot be achieved without the participation of the other two.

This essential dependency is, I would posit, the ground of a social relationship subject to ethical evaluation and restriction. The reason for this is, at root, purely pragmatic: we depend upon plant life in order to survive and the survival of plant life, to some degree, turns upon how we interact with it (largely in the macro sense of species depletion and biosphere sustainability). This is not necessarily to assert the existence of a normative natural law governing human-plant interactions, though such an argument could certainly be made, but merely to assert that a social relationship exists between humans and plant life which is, like all social relationships, subject to ethical considerations. Those familiar with the Scholastic (particularly Thomistic) natural law- and virtue-based ethical tradition will likely take note of the Aristotelian, teleological rational justification inherent in the paradigm of ‘thriving,’ (John Finnis has popularised the Thomistic concept of ‘human flourishing,’ which is essentially the idea I am going for, merely without the anthropocentrism inherent to the Thomistic teleological paradigm), however, if those persons are also familiar with the later contractarian thinking of Grotius, Pufendorf, and the Scottish Enlightenment they will be aware that such a teleological is far from alien to the contractarian tradition, though the mode in which I am employing it is Aristotelian in the mode of Aquinas and MacIntyre rather than ‘scientific’ in the early modern mode.

Now, the precise nature of what constitutes ‘thriving’ is hardly clear but it is reasonable to endeavour to make a rough description which ought to be fairly broadly agreeable and which will clarify the nature of the social relationship(s) between sapient, sentient, and non-sentient life. Perhaps the criterion of thriving which we may take to be nearly self-evident, or at least very evident upon any sort of reflection, is that ‘thriving’ requires that the necessities of continued living exist and be available. Thriving, thus, requires that the conditions of sustainable existence be continually met. Plant life (in the macro, rather than in any species of genus-specific, sense) having evolved to thrive without human intervention, with the important exception of cultivars employed in agriculture, for non-agricultural plants this can likely mean a policy of simple non-interference. That is to say that what such plants need to thrive is for us not to interfere in their thriving, not simply directly but also in the sense of not harming the environments which they require in order to do so. In the case of agricultural cultivars, whose relationship with humans is more intimate, the case is more complex. This is because a) the cultivars are partly the product of eugenic intervention in their evolution and usually dependent upon human-created conditions to thrive and b) because their human-influenced evolution means that they are often incapable of existing in a balanced natural environment, which is to say that they are native to natural environment are potentially destructive invasive species. Therefore direct human intervention in the life cycles of such plant life is necessary to ensure both its thriving and that of the surrounding ecosystem.

The point of human thriving is likely the most complex, since it bears once again on the previous two categories. The actual content of human thriving is beyond the remit of this particular discussion as my intend is examine the relationship between our thriving and the life upon which it depends. Our thriving, in whatever it consists, turns unavoidably on our use of plants for food and, to less necessary extent, clothing and building materials. Therefore we cannot but interfere in the thriving of natural plant life and the question becomes one of how we ought to go about that to our own maximal benefit and that of the life which we are instrumentalising. The key principle of doing so is sustainability, since it is to neither our benefit nor that of the plants we employ that our agricultural methods should lead to ecosystem depletion. If we are to strive toward our mutual thriving it is incumbent upon us to act with a mind to continued environmental viability, both for own sake and out of respect for the just claim to thriving (which somewhat awkward phrasing I have elected to employ in order to avoid prima facie conceptual awkwardness of assignment ‘rights’ to plants) of the non-sapient life which we must instrumentalise (to argue that we act to guarantee such would be to exaggerate our own capacities). I am aware that reducing the terms of the contract to a quantifiable object like sustainability risks reducing observance of the contract to a form of utilitarianism (cf. the rise of Christian utilitarianism in early modern Scottish contractarianism). This being a preliminary discussion I have not really the space to expand beyond the more than adequately complex principle of sustainability but I would assert that a more sustained exploration would draw out a more holistic picture of human contractual obligations. Unpacking the loaded notion of ‘sustainability’ and its precise implications for human actions is itself a major project around which a I could build an entire blog but I hope to investigate it from time to time in this (contractualist) and other lights.

I hope you have enjoyed this thought experiment regarding a contractualist model for understanding our relationships with the things we eat. Like Grotius’ own De iure the end herein has been to proffer an ethical framework for an extant reality: I am endeavouring to investigate why, through the language of contractualism, it is ethically permissible to do the thing I do, which is consume other things in order to further my own life. Despite my earlier thought on the matter, I consider this a contractalist rather than contractarian account since, though it assumes a certain degree of natural ethical normativity, in as much as it has assumed that consuming animal and plant products are, considered in themselves, ethical neutral acts because they are natural to our species, it proceeded from there, I hope, to construct a coherent contractual framework for our relationships non-sapient forms of life. I would warmly invite comments, critiques, and counter-arguments to the positions I have advanced herein.

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