The Morality of AR: FAQs
Additional topics: Moral Relativism -
Assigning Rights Moral Positions No
Moral Code What If?
Suffering or death?
Euthanasia Debate 2
1. This position, known as moral relativism, is quite ancient but became fashionable at the turn of the century, as reports on the customs of societies alien to those found in Europe became available. It fell out of fashion, after the Second World War, although it is occasionally revived. Ethical propositions, we are asked to believe, are no more than statements of personal opinion and, therefore, cannot carry absolute weight.
The main problem with this position is that ethical relativists are unable to denounce execrable ethical practices, such as racism. On what grounds can they condemn (if at all) Hitler's ideas on racial purity? Are we to believe that he was uttering an ethical truth when advocating the Final Solution?
In addition to the inability to denounce practices of other societies, the relativists are unable to counter the arguments of even those whose society they share. They cannot berate someone who proposes to raise and kill infants for industrial pet food consumption, for example, if that person sees it as morally sound. Indeed, they cannot articulate the concept of societal moral progress, since they lack a basis for judging progress. There is no point in turning to the relativists for advice on ethical issues such as euthanasia, infanticide, or the use of fetuses in research.
Faced with such arguments, ethical relativists sometimes argue that ethical truth is based on the beliefs of a society; ethical truth is seen as nothing more than a reflection of societal customs and habits. Butchering animals is acceptable in the West, they would say, because the majority of people think it so.
They are on no firmer ground here. Are we to accept that chattel slavery was right before the US Civil War and wrong thereafter? Can all ethical decisions be decided by conducting opinion polls?
It is true that different societies have different practices that might be seen as ethical by one and unethical by the other. However, these differences result from differing circumstances. For example, in a society where mere survival is key, the diversion of limited food to an infant could detract significantly from the well-being of the existing family members that contribute to food gathering. Given that, infanticide may be the ethically correct course.
The conclusion is that there is such a thing as ethical truth (otherwise, ethics becomes vacuous and devoid of proscriptive force). The continuity of thought, then, between those who reject the evils of slavery, racial discrimination, and gender bias, and those who denounce the evils of speciesism becomes striking. --AECW
2. Many AR advocates (including myself) believe that morality is relative. We believe that AR is much more cogently argued when it is argued from the standpoint of your opponent's morality, not some mythical, hard-to-define universal morality. In arguing against moral absolutism, there is a very simple objection: Where does this absolute morality come from? Moral absolutism is an argument from authority, a tautology. If there were such a thing as "ethical truth", then there must be a way of determining it, and obviously there isn't. In the absence of a known proof of "ethical truth", I don't know how AECW can conclude it exists.
An example of the method of leveraging a person's morality is to ask the person why he has compassion for human beings. Almost always he will agree that his compassion does not stem from the fact that: 1) humans use language, 2) humans compose symphonies, 3) humans can plan in the far future, 4) humans have a written, technological culture, etc. Instead, he will agree that it stems from the fact that humans can suffer, feel pain, be harmed, etc. It is then quite easy to show that nonhuman animals can also suffer, feel pain, be harmed, etc. The person's arbitrary inconsistency in not according moral status to nonhumans then stands out starkly. --JEH
3. There is a middle ground between the positions of AECW and JEH. One can assert that just as mathematics is necessarily built upon a set of unprovable axioms, so is a system of ethics. At the foundation of a system of ethics are moral axioms, such as "unnecessary pain is wrong". Given the set of axioms, methods of reasoning (such as deduction and induction), and empirical facts, it is possible to derive ethical hypotheses. It is in this sense that an ethical statement can be said to be true. Of course, one can disagree about the axioms, and certainly such disagreement renders ethics "relative", but the concept of ethical truth is not meaningless.
Fortunately, the most fundamental ethical axioms seem to be nearly universally
accepted, usually because they are necessary for societies to function.
Where differences exist, they can be elucidated and discussed, in a style
similar to the "leveraging" described by JEH. --DG
This question has always seemed to me to be a fancy version of "But we want to do these things, so what is wrong with that?" The idea that an act, by virtue of an intention of ours, can be exonerated morally is totally illogical.
But worse than that, however, is the fact that such a belief is a dangerous position to take because it can enable one to justify some practices that are universally condemned. To see how this is so, consider the following restatement of the basis of the question:
"Suffering can be excused so long as we breed them for the purpose." Now, cannot an analogous argument be used to defend a group of slave holders who breed and enslave humans and justify it by saying "but they're bred to be our workers"? Could not the Nazis defend their murder of the Jews by saying "but we rounded them up to be killed"? --DG
"Shame on such a morality that is worthy of pariahs, and that fails to recognize the eternal essence that exists in every living thing, and shines forth with inscrutable significance from all eyes that see the sun!" --Arthur Schopenhauer (philosopher)
There are two ways to interpret this question. First, the questioner may be referring to "the animals" as a species, in which case the argument might be more accurately phrased as follows:
"The ecological niche of cows is to be farmed; they get continued survival in this niche in return for our using them."
Second, the questioner may be referring to "the animals" as individuals, in which case the phrasing might be:
"The individual cows that we raise to eat would not have had a life had we not done so."
We deal first with the species interpretation and then with the individuals interpretation. The questioner's argument applies presumably to all species of animals; to make things more concrete, we will take cows as an example in the following text.
It is incorrect to assert that cows could continue to exist only if we farm them for human consumption. First, today in many parts of India and elsewhere, humans and cows are engaged in a reciprocal and reverential relationship. It is only in recent human history that this relationship has been corrupted into the one-sided exploitation that we see today. There IS a niche for cows between slaughter/consumption and extinction. (The interested reader may find the book Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin quite enlightening on this subject.)
Second, several organizations have programs for saving animals from extinction. There is no reason to suppose that cows would not qualify.
The species argument is also flawed because, in fact, our intensive
farming of cattle results in habitat destruction and the loss of other
species. For example, clearing of rain forests for pasture has led to
the extinction of countless species. Cattle farming is destroying habitats
on six continents. Why is the questioner so concerned about the cow species
while being unconcerned about these other species?
Finally, a strong case can be made against the species argument from ethical theory. Arguments similar to the questioner's could be developed that would ask us to accept practices that are universally condemned. For example, consider a society that breeds a special race of humans for use as slaves. They argue that the race would not exist if they did not breed them for use as slaves. Does the reader accept this justification?
Now we move on to the individuals interpretation of the question. One attempt to refute the argument is to answer as follows: "It is better not to be born than to be born into a life of misery and early death."
To many, this is sufficient. However, one could argue that the fact that the life is miserable before death is not necessary. Suppose that the cows are treated well before being killed painlessly and eaten. Is it not true that the individual cows would not have enjoyed their short life had we not raised them for consumption? Furthermore, what if we compensate the taking of the life by bringing a new life into being?
Peter Singer originally believed that this argument was absurd because there are no cow souls waiting around to be born. Many people accept this view and consider it sufficient, but Singer now rejects it because he accepts that to bring a being to a pleasant life does confer a benefit on that being. (There is extensive discussion of this issue in the second edition of Animal Liberation.) How then are we to proceed? The key is that the AR movement asserts that humans and nonhumans have a right to not be killed by humans. The ethical problem can be seen clearly by applying the argument to humans. Consider the case of a couple that gives birth to an infant and eats it at the age of nine months, just when their next infant is born. A 9-month old baby has no more rational knowledge of its situation or future plans than does a cow, so there is no reason to distinguish the two cases. Yet, certainly, we would condemn the couple. We condemn them because the infant is an individual to whom we confer the right not to be killed. Why is this right not accorded to the cow? I think the answer is that the questioner wants to eat it. --DG
"It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery." --Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet)
This argument was used to claim that black people were better off as slaves on plantations than as free men and women. The same could also be said of people in prison, yet prison is considered one of society's harshest punishments. Animals on factory farms suffer so much that it is inconceivable that they could be worse off in the wild. The wild isn't to the animals who live there; it's their home. There they have their freedom and can engage in their natural activities. The fact that they might suffer in the wild is no reason to ensure that they suffer in captivity.
The questioner makes two assumptions here. First, that happiness or contentment accrues from being fed and protected, and second, that the animals are, in fact, fed and protected. Both of these premises can be questioned.
Certainly the animals are fed; after all, they must be fattened for consumption. It is very difficult to see any way that, say, factory-farmed chickens are "protected". They are not protected from mutilation, because they are painfully debeaked. They are not protected from psychological distress, because they are crowded together in unnatural conditions. And finally, they are not protected from predation, because they are slaughtered and eaten by humans.
We can also question the notion that happiness accrues from feeding and protection alone. The Roman galley slaves were fed and protected from the elements; nevertheless, they would presumably trade their condition for one of greater uncertainty to obtain happiness. The same can be said of the slaves of earlier America.
Finally, an ethical argument is relevant here. Consider again the couple of question #13. They will feed and protect their infant up to the point at which they consume it. We would not accept this as a justification. Why should we accept it for the chicken? --DG
A simple approach to this question might be to suggest that we all must work for a living and it should be no different for animals. The problem is that we want to look at the animals as like children, i.e., worthy of the same protections and rights, and, like them, incapable of being morally responsible. But we don't force children into labor! One can make a distinction, however, that goes something like this: The animals are permanently in their diminished state (i.e., incapable of voluntarily assenting to work); children are not. We do not impose a choice of work for children because they need the time to develop into their full adult and moral selves. With the animals, we choose for them a role that allows them to contribute; in return, we do not abuse them by eating them, etc. If this is done with true concern that their work conditions are appropriate and not of a sweat-shop nature, that they get enough rest and leisure time, etc., this would constitute a form of stewardship that is acceptable and beneficial to both sides, and one that is not at odds with AR philosophy. --DG
Dominion is not the same as tyranny. The Queen of England has dominion over her subjects, but that doesn't mean she can eat them, or wear them, or experiment on them. If we have dominion over animals, surely it is to protect them, not to use them for our own ends. There is nothing in the Bible that would justify our modern-day practices that desecrate the environment, destroy entire species of wildlife, and inflict torment and death on billions of animals every year. The Bible imparts a reverence for life; a loving God could not help but be appalled at the way many animals are treated.
It is true that the Bible contains a passage that confers on humanity dominion over the animals. The import of this fact derives from the assumption that the Bible is the word of God, and that God is the ultimate moral authority. Leaving aside for the moment consideration of the meaning of dominion, we can take issue with the idea of seeking moral authority from the Bible. First, there are serious problems with the interpretation of Biblical passages, with many verses contradicting one another, and with many scholars differing dramatically over the meaning of given verses.
Second, there are many claims to God-hood among the diverse cultures of this world; some of these Gods implore us to respect all life and to not kill unnecessarily. Whose God are we to take as the ultimate moral authority?
Finally, as Tom Regan observes, many people do not believe in a God and so appeals to His moral authority are empty for such people. For such people, the validity of judgments of the supposed God must be cross-checked with other methods of determining reasonableness. What are the cross-checks for the Biblical assertions?
These remarks apply equally to other assertions of Biblical approval
of human practices (such as the consumption of animals).
Jesus may have been a vegetarian/vegan. First, you have to understand that nobody is a perfect vegan. Veganism is an ideal for which one strives - like any other virtue.
With that understanding, the logic is simple.
1. A compassionate vegan/vegetarian is someone who tries to reduce the pain and suffering to other sentient beings through his/her actions, including diet.
2. The thought of Jesus promoting a vegetarian diet should not be surprising to us. If you are a follower of Jesus, hopefully you will want to read the words he shared with the Essenes, found in ancient manuscripts from the 3rd century:
"Thou shalt not kill"
'Thou shalt not kill,' for life is given to all by God, and that which God has given, let not man take away. For-I tell you truly, from one Mother proceeds all that lives upon the earth. Therefore, he who kills, kills his brother. And from him will the Earthly Mother turn away, and will pluck from him her quickening breasts. And he will be shunned by her angels, and Satan will have his dwelling in his body. And the flesh of slain beasts in his body will become his own tomb. For I tell you truly, he who kills, kills himself, and whoso eats the flesh of slain beasts, eats of the body of death. For in his blood every drop of their blood turns to poison; in his breath their breath to stink; in his flesh their flesh to boils; in his bones their bones to chalk; in his bowels their bowels t o decay; in his eyes their eyes to scales; in his ears their ears to waxy issue. And their death will become his death.
"I have given you every herb bearing seed... to you it shall be for meat"
Kill not, neither eat the flesh of your innocent prey, lest you become the slaves of Satan. For that is the path of sufferings, and it leads unto death. But do the will of God, that his angels may serve you on the way of life. Obey, therefore, the words of God: 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to everything that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is breath of life, I give every green herb for meat.
"eat not anything which fire, or frost, or water has destroyed"
But I do say to you: Kill neither men, nor beasts, nor yet the food which goes into your mouth. For if you eat living food, the same will quicken you, but if you kill your food, the dead food will kill you also. For life comes only from life, and from death comes always death. For everything which kills your foods, kills your bodies also. And everything which kills your bodies kills your souls also. And your bodies become what your foods are, even as your spirits, likewise, become what your thoughts are. Therefore, eat not anything which fire, or frost, or water has destroyed. For burned, frozen and rotted foods will burn, freeze and rot your body also. Be not like the foolish husbandman who sowed in his ground cooked, and frozen, and rotten seeds. And the autumn came, and his fields bore nothing. And great was his distress. But be like that husbandman who sowed in his field living seed, and whose field bore living ears of wheat, paying a hundredfold for the seeds which he planted. For I tell you truly, live only by the fire of life, and prepare not your foods with the fire of death, which kills your foods, your bodies and your souls also."
"It is the fire which blazes outside your body, which is hotter than your blood. With that fire of death you cook your foods in your homes and in your fields. I tell you truly, it is the same fire which destroys your foods and your bodies, even as the fire of malice, which ravages your thoughts, ravages your spirits. For your body is that which you eat, and your spirit is that which you think. Eat nothing, therefore, which a stronger fire than the fire of life has killed. Wherefore, prepare and eat all fruits of trees, and all grasses of the fields, and afl milk of beasts good for eating. For all these are fed and ripened by the fire of life; all are the gift of the angels of our Earthly Mother. But eat nothing to which only the fire of death gives savor, for such is of Satan."
"So eat always from the table of God: the fruits of the trees, the grain and grasses of the field, the milk of beasts, and the honey of bees. For everything beyond these is of Satan, and leads by the way of sins and of diseases unto death. But the foods which you eat from the abundant table of God give strength and youth to your body, and you will never see diseases
Eat, therefore, all your life at the table of our Earthly Mother, and you will never see want. And when you eat at her table, eat all things even as they are found on the table of the Earthly Mother. Cook not, neither mix all things one with another, lest your bowels become as steaming bogs. For I tell you truly, this is abominable in the eyes of the Lord.
The fact that Jesus may or may not have eaten meat occasionally does not change his basic philosophy toward all of God's creatures.
Animals' inability to understand and adhere to our rules is as irrelevant
as a child or mentally handicapped person's inability to do so.
The relevant distinction is formalized in the concept of "moral agents" versus "moral patients". A moral agent is an individual possessing the sophisticated conceptual ability to bring moral principles to bear in deciding what to do, and having made such a decision, having the free will to choose to act that way. By virtue of these abilities, it is fair to hold moral agents accountable for their acts. The paradigmatic moral agent is the normal adult human being.
Moral patients, in contrast, lack the capacities of moral agents and thus cannot fairly be held accountable for their acts. They do, however, possess the capacity to suffer harm and therefore are proper objects of consideration for moral agents. Human infants, young children, the mentally deficient or deranged, and nonhuman animals are instances of moral patienthood.
Given that nonhuman animals are moral patients, they fall within the purview of moral consideration, and therefore it is quite rational to accord them the same moral consideration that we accord to ourselves. --DG
Killing, per se, is not the central concern of AR philosophy, which is concerned with the avoidance of unnecessary pain and suffering. Thus, because plants neither feel pain nor suffer, AR philosophy does not mandate fruitarianism (a diet in which only fruits are eaten because they can be harvested without killing the plant from which they issue). --DG
The questioner's position--that, in essence, we should give rights only to those able to respect ours--is known as the reciprocity argument. It is unconvincing both as an account of the way our society works and as a prescription for the way it should work.
Its descriptive power is undermined by the simple observation that we give rights to a large number of individuals who cannot respect ours. These include some elderly people, some people suffering from degenerative diseases, some people suffering from irreversible brain damage, the severely retarded, infants, and young children. An institution that, for example, routinely sacrificed such individuals to test a new fertilizer would certainly be considered to be grievously violating their rights.
The original statement fares no better as an ethical prescription. Future generations are unable to reciprocate our concern, for example, so there would be no ethical harm done, under such a view, in dismissing concerns for environmental damage that adversely impacts future generations.
The key failing of the questioner's position lies in the failure to properly distinguish between the following capacities:
The capacity to understand and respect others' rights (moral agency).
The capacity to benefit from rights (moral patienthood).
An individual can be a beneficiary of rights without being a moral agent. Under this view, one justifies a difference of treatments of two individuals (human or nonhuman) with an objective difference that is RELEVANT to the difference of treatment. For example, if we wished to exclude a person from an academic course of study, we could not cite the fact that they have freckles. We could cite the fact that they lack certain academic prerequisites. The former is irrelevant; the latter is relevant. Similarly, when considering the right to be free of pain and suffering, moral agency is irrelevant; moral patienthood IS relevant. --AECW
The assumption that animals don't care about us can also be questioned. Companion animals have been known to summon aid when their owners are in trouble. They have been known to offer comfort when their owners are distressed. They show grief when their human companions die. --DG
I would save my child, but that is only instinct. A dog would save her pup. Whomever I save, however, it proves nothing about the moral legitimacy of experimenting on animals. I might save my own child instead of my neighbor's, but that hardly proves that experimentation on my neighbor's child is acceptable.
The one I choose to save first tells us nothing about the ethical decisions we face. I might decide to save my child before I saved yours, but this certainly does not mean that I should be able to experiment on your child, or exploit your child in some other way. We are not in an emergency situation like a fire anyway. In everyday life, we can choose to act in ways that protect the rights of both dogs and babies. --LK
Like anyone else in this situation, I would probably save the one to which I am emotionally more attached. Most likely it would be the child. Someone might prefer to save his own beloved dog before saving the baby of a stranger. However, as LK states above, this tells us nothing about any ethical principles. --DVH
There are two ways to interpret this question. First, the questioner might really be making the excuse "but I didn't kill the animal", or second, he could be asking about the morality of using an animal that has died naturally (or due to a cause unassociated with the demand for animal products, such as a road kill). For the first interpretation, we must reject the excuse. The killing of animals for meat, for example, is done at the request (through market demand), and with the financial support (through payment), of the end consumers. Their complicity is inescapable. Society does not excuse the receiver of stolen goods because he "didn't do the burglary"
For the second interpretation, the use of naturally killed animals, there seems to be no moral difficulty involved. Many would, for esthetic reasons, still not use animal products thus obtained. (Would you use the bodies of departed humans?) Certainly, natural kills cannot satisfy the great demand for animal products that exists today; non-animal and synthetic sources are required.
Other people may avoid use of naturally killed animal products because they feel that it might encourage a demand in others for animal products, a demand that might not be so innocently satisfied. --DG
This can be viewed as a question of respect for the dead. We feel innate revulsion at the idea of grave desecration for this reason. Naturally killed animals should, at the very least, be left alone rather than recycled as part of an industrial process. This was commonly practiced in the past, e.g., Egyptians used to mummify their cats. --AECW
"You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity." --Ralph Waldo Emerson (author)
AR philosophy asserts that rights are to be accorded to creatures that have the capacity to experience pain, to suffer, and to be a "subject of a life". Such a capacity is definitely not found in bacteria. It is definitely found in mammals. There is debate about such animals as molluscs and arthropods (including insects). One should decide, based upon available evidence and one's own conscience, where the line should be drawn to adhere to the principle of AR described in the first sentence.
This is one of the more interesting arguments against animal rights. We prevent human moral patients from harming others, e.g., we prevent children from hitting each other, so why shouldn't we do the same for nonhuman moral patients (refer to question #17 for a definition of moral patienthood)? If anything, the duty to do so might be considered more serious because predation results in a serious harm--death.
A first answer entails pointing out that predators must kill to survive;
to stop them from killing is, in effect, to kill them.
Suppose we accept that we should stop a cat from killing a bird. Then we realize that the bird is the killer of many snakes. Should we now reason that, in fact, we shouldn't stop the cat? The point is that humans lack the broad vision to make all these calculations and determinations.
The real answer is that intervening to stop predation would destroy the ecosystems upon which the biosphere depends, harming all of life on earth. Over millions of years, the biosphere has evolved complex ecosystems that depend upon predation for their continued functioning and stability. Massive intervention by humans to stop predation would inflict serious and incalculable harm on these ecosystems, with devastating results for all life.
Even if we accept that we should prevent predation (and we don't accept that), it does not follow that, because we do not, we are therefore justified in exploiting moral patients ourselves. When we fail to stop widespread slaughter of human beings in foreign countries, it does not follow that we, ourselves, believe it appropriate to participate in such slaughter. Similarly, our failure to prevent predation cannot be taken as justification of our exploitation of animals. --DG
Attempts are frequently made to tie Animal Rights exponents to one side or the other of the abortion debate. Such attempts are misguided. Claims that adherence to the ethics of AR determine one's position on embryo rights are plainly counter-intuitive, unless one is also prepared to argue that being a defender of human rights compels one to a particular position on abortion. Is it the case that one cannot consistently despise torture, serfdom, and other barbaric practices without coming to a particular conclusion on abortion?
AR defenders demand that the rights currently held by humans be extended to all creatures similar in morally relevant ways. For example, since society does not accept that mature, sentient human moral patients (refer to question #17 for a brief description of the distinction between patients and agents) may be routinely annihilated in the name of science, it logically follows that comparable nonhuman animals should be given the same protection. On the other hand, abortion is still a moot point. It is plainly illogical to expect the AR movement to reflect anything other than the full spectrum of opinion found in society at large on the abortion issue.
Fundamentally, AR philosophers are content with submitting sufficient conditions for the attribution of rights to individuals, conditions that explain the noncontroversial protections afforded today to humans. They neither encourage nor discourage attempts to widen the circle of protection to fetuses. --AECW
There is a range of views among AR supporters on the issue of abortion versus animal rights. Many people believe, as does AECW, that the issues of abortion and AR are unrelated, and that the question is irrelevant to the validity of AR. Others, such as myself, feel that abortion certainly is relevant to AR. After all, the granting of rights to animals (and humans) is based on their capacity to suffer and to be a subject-of-a-life. It seems clear that late-term fetuses can suffer from the abortion procedure. Certain physiological responses, such as elevated heart rates, and the existence of a functioning nervous system support this view.
It also can be argued that the fetus is on a course to become a subject-of-a-life, and that by aborting the fetus we therefore harm it. Some counter this latter argument by claiming that the "potential" to become subject-of-a-life is an invalid grounds for assigning rights, but this is a fine philosophical point that is itself subject to attack. For example, suppose a person is in a coma that, given enough time, will dissipate--the person has the potential to be sentient again. Does the person lose his rights while in the coma?
While the arguments adduced may show that abortion is not irrelevant to AR, they do not show that abortion is necessarily wrong. The reason is that it is possible to argue that the rights of the fetus are in conflict with the rights of the woman, and that the rights of the woman dominate. All may not agree with this trade-off, but it is a consistent, non-hypocritical stance that is not in conflict with AR philosophy.
If any being hasn't attained sentience (or has lost it permanently), then it is ours to do with as we please, be it vegetable, mineral or animal (even human). Since sentience is a difficult quality to measure, some prefer to err on the side of caution, and refrain from permitting abortion once the fetus's nervous system has reached a stage of development where sentience might exist. Nonetheless it is clear that a human blastocyst has about as much sentience as a slime mould, and may be disposed of with an equal number of moral qualms.
Some think sentience shouldn't be the basis for the distinction, but rather
the presence of certain brainwaves. The following articles give some
explanations that could be used in support of a position that restricts
abortions only during the third trimester:
See question #4 for an analysis of hypocrisy arguments in general. --DG
Contractarianism is an ethical theory that attempts to account for our morality by appealing to implicit mutually beneficial agreements, or contracts. For example, it would explain our refusal to strike each other by asserting that we have an implied contract: "You don't hit me and I won't hit you." The relevance of contractarianism to AR stems from the supposition that nonhuman animals are incapable of entering into such contracts, coupled with the assertion that rights can be attributed only to those individuals that can enter into such contracts. Roughly, animals can't have rights because they lack the rational capacity to assent to a contract requiring them to respect our rights.
Contractarianism is perhaps the most impressive attempt to refute the AR position; therefore, it is important to consider it in some detail. It is easily possible to write a large volume on the subject. We must limit ourselves to considering the basic arguments and problems with them. Those readers finding this incomplete or nonrigorous are advised to consult the primary literature.
We begin by observing that contractarianism fails to offer a compelling account of our moral behavior and motives. If the average person is asked why they think it wrong to steal from their neighbor, they do not answer that by refraining from it they ensure that their neighbor will not steal from them. Nor do they answer that they have an implicit mutual contract with their neighbor. Instead of invoking contracts, people typically assert some variant of the harm principle; e.g., they don't steal because it would harm the neighbor. Similarly, we do not teach children that the reason why they should not steal is because then people will not steal from them.
Another way to point up the mismatch between the theory of contractarianism and our actual moral behavior is to ask if, upon risking your own life to save my child from drowning, you have done this as a result of a contractual obligation. Certainly, one performs such acts as a response to the distress of another being, not as a result of contractual obligations.
Contractarianism can thus be seen as a theory that fails to account for our moral behavior. At best, it is a theory that its proponents would recommend to us as preferable. (Is it seen as preferable because it denies rights to animals, and because it seems to justify continued exploitation of animals?)
Arguably the most serious objection to contractarianism is that it can be used to sanction arrangements that would be almost universally condemned. Consider a group of very rich people that assemble and create a contract among themselves the effect of which is to ensure that wealth remains in their control. They agree by contract that even repressive tactics can be used to ensure that the masses remain in poverty. They argue that, by virtue of the existence of their contract, that they do no wrong. Similar contracts could be drawn up to exclude other races, sexes, etc.
John Rawls attempts to overcome this problem by supposing that the contractors must begin from an "initial position" in which they are not yet incarnated as beings and must form the contract in ignorance of their final incarnation. Thus, it is argued, since a given individual in the starting position does not know whether, for example, she will be incarnated as a rich woman or a poor woman, that individual will not form contracts that are based on such criteria. In response, one can begin to wonder at the lengths to which some will go in creating ad hoc adjustments to a deficient theory. But more to the point, one can turn around this ad hoc defense to support the AR position. For surely, if individuals in the initial position are to be truly ignorant of their destiny, they must assume that they may be incarnated as animals. Given that, the contract that is reached is likely to include strong protections for animals!
Another problem with Rawls' device is that probabilities can be such that, even given ignorance, contracts can result that most people would see as unjust. If the chance of being incarnated as a slave holder is 90 percent, a contract allowing slavery could well result because most individuals would feel they had a better chance of being incarnated as a slave holder. Thus, Rawls' device fails even to achieve its purpose.
It is hard to see how contractarianism can permit movement from the status quo. How did alleged contracts that denied liberty to slaves and excluded women from voting come to be renegotiated?
Contractarianism also is unable to adequately account for the rights we give to those unable to form contracts, i.e., infants, children, senile people, mental deficients, and even animals to some extent. Various means have been advanced to try to account for the attribution of rights to such individuals. We have no space to deal with all of them. Instead, we briefly address a few.
One attempt involves appealing to the interests of true rights holders. For example, I don't eat your baby because you have an interest in it and I wouldn't want you violating such an interest of mine. But what if no-one cared about a given infant? Would that make it fair game for any use or abuse? Certainly not. Another problem here is that many people express an interest in the protection of all animals. That would seem to require others to refrain from using or abusing animals. While this result is attractive to the AR community, it certainly weakens the argument that contractarianism justifies our use of animals.
Others want to let individuals "ride" until they are capable of respecting the contract. But what of those that will never be capable of doing so, e.g., senile people? And why can we not let animals ride?
Some argue a "reduced-rights" case. Children get a reduced rights set designed to protect them from themselves, etc. The problem here is that with animals the rights reduction is way out of proportion. We accept that we cannot experiment on infants or kill and eat them due to their reduced rights set. Why then are such extreme uses acceptable for nonhumans?
Some argue that it is irrelevant whether a given individual can enter into a contract; what is important is their theoretical capacity to do so. But, future generations have the capacity but clearly cannot interact reciprocally with us, so the basis of contractarianism is gutted (unless we assert that we have no moral obligations to leave a habitable world for future generations). Peter Singer asks "Why limit morality to those who have the capacity to enter into agreements, if in fact there is no possibility of their ever doing so?"
There are practical problems with contractarianism as well. For example,
what can be our response if an individual renounces participation in any
implied moral contracts, and states that he is therefore justified in
engaging in what others would call immoral acts? Is there any way for
us to reproach him? And what are we to do about violations of the contract?
If an individual steals from us, he has broken the contract and we should
therefore be released from it. Are we then morally justified in stealing
from him? Or worse?