In his famous paper “Against the Moral Standing of Animals,” the philosopher Peter Carruthers deploys a Rawlsian version of contractual moral theory to argue that non-human animals (qua animals) “make no moral claims on us.” Upshot: “they have no rights.” Big claim. Challenging claim. Kind of annoying claim.
Contractualism, as Carruthers presents it, assumes that rational and consenting humans will, when asked to construct an arrangement (contract) to guide human behavior toward a stable society, reasonably extend basic rights to all humans while denying them to all non-humans. They will, he suggests, make this distinction on two grounds: a) that non-humans animals cannot offer their consent to a human contract and b) that rational humans could never imagine living their lives as non-human (rational or otherwise) being—hence their placement beyond the pale.
The essential stipulations within contractualism are that humans are rational and able to consent to a contractual agreement. These stipulations, however, would seem ipso facto to exclude humans who are cognitively impaired, senile, or inflicted with dementia. Why–in this act of imagining a social contract— would certain moral rights be extended to these groups of “impaired” humans but not to non-humans? This is a significant challenge for Carruthers (one originally presented by Singer), and his answer to it exposes the devastating weakness of the overall argument.
In essence, Carruthers maintains that while neither group—non-humans nor “impaired” humans—can fulfill the basic requirements for contractualism, the impaired humans would alone be granted rights because a) we love them as family members; and b) we can imagine ourselves in such a condition. This rationale, however, fails for several reasons, three of them marginal and one fundamental. (I’m sure there are more, but I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m doing here.)
The marginal: First, many people in fact love their pets more than their relatives (think of that weird uncle versus your loving dog)—for this phenomenon there is empirical evidence. Second, the privileging of impaired humans over non-humans requires that we accept a reality in which a non-human (say, a pig) who is more cognitively and emotionally aware than a human (dementia patient) has no rights vis-a-vis the human. This second problem would certainly qualify as speciesism, thereby raising the question of how any moral theory that accommodates speciesism could be called fair. Third, contractualism seems to exclude historical reality, one that undermines Carruthers’ claim that humans would automatically think of humans in terms of humans. Historical newsflash: whites would not have thought thusly of blacks in 1800 in America, Germans would not have thought thusly of Jews in 1940, and Tutsis would not have thought thusly of Hutus in 1990. Contractualism fails to accommodate tribalism and nationalism.
But these are only dents in Carruthers’ argument—they could all be, I suppose, hammered out. The big flaw, the fundamental flaw, is a philosophical contradiction. At perhaps the most interesting point in the argument, Carruthers argues that, despite the fact that animals do not have rights, we should not harm them. We should restrain our harm because harming animals harms humans, predisposing us to violence, hooliganism, and general bad behavior. Example: if we came across a bunch of punks beating a cat senseless, Carruthers claims we should object to this behavior not because the cat suffers but because it degrades the humans who are beating the cat, bothers others who witness the beating, and might bleed over into the prospect of humans harming humans.
When Carruthers tossed out this example I knew his case was toast.
Here’s why: what if the punks were beating up a chair? Would the outcome that Carruthers predicts for the cat be the same? Would humans be similarly upset, or reach the same “humans would be harmed conclusion”? Of course not. We’d call it performance art and probably give it an NEH grant or something. The reason for worrying about the impact of beating a cat versus a chair is that we know, on a basic emotional and empathetic level, that the cat suffers. The chair doesn’t suffer. Emotions, in other words, are critical in our assessment of who deserves rights.
Carruthers knows this about emotions. He knows emotions matter when it comes to contractualism. Recall, he said we’d care enough about the drooling invalid family member to grant him rights because, alas, he was someones’s relative and thus subject to the human (and non-human) emotion of love. If you grant emotion in this scenario, you have to grant it in the cat/chair scenario. And if you do that, the contract is drowned by, of all beautiful things, our bleeding heart.