Contractarianism is a moral theory that alleges only individuals who can understand and choose to take part in an agreement or 'social contract' can have moral rights.
Contractarianism says people have no obligation to treat animals morally or give them rights.
Contractarianism has had strong support over the centuries and is still an influential reason why many people are antithetical to conferring rights on animals. Another term for contractarianism is 'social contract theory'.
According to contractarianism if everyone abides by the same agreement of fairness, then welfare is maximised and discord is minimised. How did this idea of contractarianism arise? To explain and justify absolute government the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679) famously contended that man's life in the 'state of nature' (that is before civilisation) was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short
". Hobbs says that in this state everyone sought to satisfy their own particular needs and inevitably conflict arose as a result. Conflict did not show itself all the time as open hostility, but there was always a possibility that outright violence and fighting would ensue.
Hobbes argued that in such a precarious society the only way to ensure order and security was for people to agree to entrust their well-being to a ruler or king and to ensure a reciprocal arrangement with the ruler. The ruler protected the people who were then free to trade and prosper in exchange for their allegiance to him, especially their complete obedience to his laws and to act as soldiers in time of war. Thus, Hobbes declared, while in the state of nature people entered into a contract in their own self-interests. The ruler governed by the consent of the people based on the mutual agreement or contract of both parties.
No one in the 17th century (Hobbes period) actually knew how people behaved in the state of nature. But the idea of competition and cooperation served as a means to explain how political and moral agreement might arise. Order in society did not come from unilateral political domination by a ruler, or by divine will, or by some ideal of human nature. It arose by mutual agreement among people by adhering to an agreed contract.
An early contract, on a clay tablet detailing a land sale in Sumeria, 4,600 years ago. Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, Richelieu. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.
So where is this social contract? The contract is often said to be hypothetical, but that agreements may become actual (made law) through bargaining between a people and their ruler.
What does contractarianism hold for animals? Contractarianism asserts that only individuals who comprehend and embrace a contract can have moral rights. Thus a social contract excludes people like children and the severely mentally disturbed. Animals, like children, cannot understand the rules of a contract and they too are excluded from protection. However, whereas sympathetic parents and others who participate in a social contract can protect non-participant people, most animals do not have protectors. Only animals who have a special place with humans, like pets, enjoy a measure of protection. Thus under contractarianism people have no obligations to treat animals morally or give them rights.
So what can one make of this philosophy? Contractarianism suffers from a number of criticisms. Contractarianism can go wrong in practice. A powerful minority could distort a contract to favour their own group and by repressing everyone else. Contractarianism can be used to enforce totalitarianism, male domination, white supremacy - or speciesism.
Another criticism is that morality under contractarianism is like a club you can join only if you are capable of knowing the rules and can comply. Contractarianism has no place for children, mentally retarded people and animals; any care for them is reduced to just an afterthought.
A further criticism is that contractarianism relies on the idea of reciprocity. If someone looks after you by giving you rights, then you must do the same in return and anyone who cannot reciprocate cannot have rights. But you can justifiably hold the view that moral behaviour does not rely on reciprocity. Conferring rights can be unidirectional, in our case from humans to animals (who cannot reciprocate to humanity), without loss of moral authenticity.
Yet another criticism of contractarianism is that animals are able to enter into contracts, at least within their own species. All the animals in the same group live peacefully together because they follow the same rules. But contractarianism ignores this ability to enter into a contract. Contractarianism applied only to humans is speciesist.
A final criticism of contractarianism is that a few animals (like pets and occasionally a farm animal) can pick up indirect protection from the sentimental interest some people attach to them. But contractarianism offers no moral care for the overwhelming majority of animals. Therefore contractarianism, at least from the animal rightist's viewpoint, is an unconvincing moral guide about how we should treat other beings.
›› To Entries & Home