Battlepanda: Animals and Contractualist Ethics


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Animals and Contractualist Ethics

jedmunds at Pandagon writes:
Killing animals and eating them seems to me to be a perfectly amoral thing. I’d go so far as to say that not eating animals is not morally better than eating them. I can’t figure out how it can be. Not without taking some kind of leap of faith about the existence of an august and objective moral code discernible by reason or otherwise.

I don’t believe in such a thing. I cannot understand the basis for extending even the concept of morality to animals. This is because morality, such as I can understand it, is derived from social contract. There is no meaning to the concepts of right and wrong beyond the humans that create them. It goes without saying that animals cannot be a party to a social contract, though I would extend it to animals or beings intelligent enough to be a theoretical party to the social contract (that is you can assume a social contract with a being intelligent enough to enter one, even if practically speaking it cannot do so). And since animals cannot be party to the social contract, we owe them no moral obligations. Since we owe them no moral obligations, it cannot be immoral to eat them. Granted one can choose to refrain from eating animals, even based on one’s own conscience. But that does not make that choice more moral.
As an unrepentant card-carrying Benthamite utilitarian, who does believe in the existence of an august and objective moral code, I'm tempted to say "So much for social contract theory." If your ethical theory doesn't tell you that it's wrong to set fire to a dog, your ethical theory is missing something. And unlike the hypothetical scenarios used in arguments against utilitarianism (and other flavors of consequentialism), the choices we make about how to treat animals are the sort that human beings make every day - so it really matters if your ethical theory fails to get it right.

But I can't say that in all honesty, because social contract theory, a la Rawls, can provide a basis for ethical treatment of animals.

As you should recall from your Intro to Ethics class, Rawls argues in A Theory of Justice that an ethical theory should be derived from the social contract that would arise among persons in the "original position" behind the "veil of ignorance." That is to say, among self-interested persons who are ignorant of their class, race, gender, intelligence, strength, and even the values that they hold. (Rawls comes to some pretty strong conclusions about the form such an ethical theory would take, but those conclusions aren't important for the purpose of this blog post.)

What if the veil of ignorance were extended so that those behind it would not even know what species they were? It would take some serious reflection to work out the full implications of this for the social contract, but I think it's safe to say that setting fire to dogs and keeping calves in veal crates would be violations of it.

I'm not pushing this extension of Rawls' ethical theory here. After all, I'm a utilitarian. I'm just pointing out that contractualist theories can have implications for our treatments of animals, and if jedmunds truly is a contractualist, he should take this possibility seriously.