Contractualism

» September 10th, 2013

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.

 

 

 

 

 

7 Responses to Contractualism

  1. John T. Maher says:

    The rights arguments bores me. It has been done to death.

    Wouldn’t it be better to say that animals are denied subjectivity. Ergo they may not have rights. This exclusion from the polis may be construed as placing humans and animals in a state of perpetual Lockean hostility. Carruthers argument changes if animals are granted subjectivity and therefore standing to assert rights. It is otherwise anachronistic if Carruthers excludes animal subjectivity and grants human exceptionalism. In the example you offer above about the historicity or rights extensions, all three othered groups blacks, Jews, Tutsis were more or less denied subjectivity by the hierarchies or power. Likewise Rawls fails to discuss these issues although he notes further work needed to be done on animals. (I think I have the 1957edition). The problem with the models of utilitarianism (not here) and deontology (here) is that they are designed to be comprehensible to humans by limiting the variables and assumptions. This is old skool and uninteresting.

    I dislike rights arguments and “dignity rights” in particular. Cora Diamond used her ‘treating likes alike’ argument to dissect dignity rights versus animal rights and preempt Regan’s Lifeboat problem concerning dignity rights (Was actually a variation on the sainted Phillipa Foote’s consequentialist Trolley problem). A die off of those who have not developed a consciousness inclusive of other forms of life is far preferable to the artificial constraints of Kantian arguments such as saving kitties from punks for the sake of human character. (As a historical punk who has rescued animals both peacefully and violently from human abuse I say whatever I did I did was for the critters and not my own character development).

    I would excise the last sentence if I could to eliminate affect as the basis for moral action. Certainly affect motivates humans to act but it is not necessarily for moral reasons. A separate post on affect would be more useful.

  2. Taylor says:

    Mark Rowlands (Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice) offers a neo-Rawlsian contractarian defence of animal rights. And here’s another one: http://www.juliehilden.com/animal_rights.html

  3. Marty says:

    Please explain the photo? I hope it’s staged?

    I’ll read the article later…

    • Mountain says:

      I would assume the thing that looks like a bat is some kind of workout gear, and that the woman is warming up/exercising. Or perhaps it actually is a bat, and she’s warming up before a game of baseball/softball. The dog is coincidentally positioned in a way that s/he looks like s/he is in the swing path of the bat. I think that’s just the because of the angle of the camera, though. I’m pretty sure the dog is at least a few feet downhill from the woman, and in no danger.

  4. CAA says:

    First of all, I tend to agree that there are significant problems with Carruther’s argument here, but to advocate for the devil. . ..

    “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. ”

    –But in a contract situation, the power of these obligations should reflect their generality. See Harman’s explanation of the asymmetry of obligations not to harm and obligations to help in his defense of relativism. So even if the empirical claim is true, the peculiarity of this population will result at most in some weak prohibitions concerning cruelty to animals.

    “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. ”

    –But this just begs the question again Carruthers. Of course, he won’t grant that “speciesism” is a form of injustice or unfairness and so it assumes what the argument is trying to provide reason to believe.

    “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.”

    –I’m not sure about this. He need not deny this and there are plenty of explanations available to him for why this occurs. He can certainly hold that people didn’t understand justice in the past and so made unfair contracts. Or bite the bullet and say that these appear unjust from the perspective of our contracts but not from previous contracts. It’s unclear to me what form of contractualism specifically Carruthers is arguing for, at least in Animal Issue he canvasses both Rawls and Scanlon’s views but doesn’t seem to commit to a particular for of contractualism.

    On the cruelty to the cat example–it seems to me that Carruthers need not deny that the cat is being “harmed.” If he does deny it, it is presumably his neo-Cartesian view of animal consciousness that motivates it. But, if he accepts that the cat is being harmed, presumably his view is that the harm to the cat can’t violate any obligation to the cat, but instead other obligations that we have to other people. We might use the example of wanton destruction of a plant, which for some sense of “harm,” can plausibly be said to harm the plant but does not violate plausibly any obligation that we have to the plant. Certainly the harms are different (at least on my view they are, I don’t know whether Carruthers thinks or thought that they were), but that isn’t the question. The question is whether the harm violates a moral obligation and on C.’s view it cannot because obligations can only be a obligations to respect other human beings’ interests.

    Carruthers has a very interesting article (well, if you have an interest in issues in philosophy of mind) on suffering without subjectivity in which he argues that some non-human animals may not experience consciousness but still suffer in a way that can elicit sympathy or care. He explicitly indicates that this fact does not entail that we have moral obligations to care or stronger ones to prevent the suffering, but only that that is a possibility.

  5. sdunne1989 says:

    “We should restrain our harm because harming animals harms humans, predisposing us to violence, hooliganism, and general bad behavior.”

    I actually think he’s just confusing causation and correlation here. Yes, people who engage in violence against non-humans tend to be more likely to engage in violence against humans, but it’s pretty clear that the former isn’t causing the latter. The Nazis (who had very progressive animal welfare laws) and certain fringe members of the animal rights movement are pretty good counter-examples. This is an old claim (I think it was originally made by St. Thomas Aquinas) and I think it’s been pretty thoroughly debunked.

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