Contractarianism

Why should we act morally? This is a central question in moral philosophy, and one to which the contractarian gives a straightforward answer: one should act morally because it is in one's self-interest. The outlook underlying contractarianism is egoism. According to the egoist, when one is obliged to show consideration for other people, this is really for one's own sake. In general, by respecting the rules of morality, one contributes to the maintenance of a society that is essential to one's own welfare. The moral rules are thus those that best serve the self-interest of all members of the society. Contractarian morality is confined to those individuals who can "contract in" to the moral community, so it is important to define who these members are:

On the contract view of morality, morality is a sort of agreement among rational, independent, self-interested persons, persons who have something to gain from entering into such an agreement...

A major feature of this view of morality is that it explains why we have it and who is party to it. We have it for reasons of long-term self-interest, and parties to it include all and only those who have both of the following characteristics: 1. They stand to gain by subscribing to it, at least in the long run, compared with not doing so. 2. They are capable of entering into (and keeping) an agreement... Given these requirements, it will be clear why animals do not have rights. For there are evident shortcomings on both scores. On the one hand, humans have nothing generally to gain by voluntarily refraining from (for instance) killing animals or "treating them as mere means." And on the other, animals cannot generally make agreements with us anyway, even if we wanted to have them do so..

Narveson (1983) Animal Rights Revisited, in Ethics and Animals

On this view, there is clearly a morally relevant difference between my relationship to other human beings and my relation to animals. I am dependent on the respect and cooperation of other people. If I treat my fellow humans badly, they will respond by treating me badly. By contrast, the animal community will not strike back if, let us say, I use some of its members in painful experiments. From an egoistic point of view, I need only treat the animals well enough for them to be fit for my own purposes. And in any case, as Narveson points out, nonhuman animals cannot enter into a contract, or agreement, governing future conduct, so they cannot join the moral community.

For the contractarian, since neither animal suffering nor the killing of animals is an ethical problem per se, animal experimentation is in itself ethically acceptable. It may even be ethically desirable, since, as long as the experiments are effective, it is certainly in the interest of the moral community to run animal experiments to find treatments for diseases that cause human suffering. The lack of standing of animals in the moral community does not necessarily mean that the way animals are treated is irrelevant from the contractarian point of view: if people like animals, for example, and dislike the practice of their being used in this or that way, animal use can become an ethical issue, because it is in a person's interests to get what he or she likes. Nevertheless, the contractarian view of animals is highly anthro-pocentric, since any rights to protection animals have will always be dependent on human concern. Inevitably, we tend to like some types of animals more than others. We are more troubled by the suffering of our favorite sorts of animals. Hence, levels of protection will differ across different species of animal. For example, because most people like cats and dogs more than rats and mice, causing distress to cats and dogs is likely to turn out to be a more serious ethical problem than causing the same amount of distress to rats and mice. Likewise, nonhuman primates will probably receive more protection than other animals, because (perhaps because they are perceived as closer to humans) their plight is of considerable concern to people.

Since it is egoistic human concern that determines how animals should be treated on the contractarian approach, this approach requires an open dialogue between those who use animals and those who are concerned about their welfare. Both activists in animal protection organizations and the general public as taxpayers and consumers of animal-tested products should be permitted free access to information about the ways in which animals are used in research and other activities.

The contractarian view agrees with certain attitudes towards animal treatment that are prevalent in our society. Thus, it serves to explain why legislation, allegedly for the protection of animals, usually protects the animals that matter most to humans, such as cats and dogs. Contractarianism can, however, seem inadequate. Can it really be correct to hold that causing animals to suffer, even for a trivial reason, or for no particular reason, is morally unproblematic as long as no human being is bothered by the relevant conduct? Many would want to insist that it is immoral as such to cause another to suffer for little or no reason, whether one's victim is a human being or an animal. An ethical theory that captures this insistence is utilitarianism.

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