Balancing Human and Non-Human Interests: The Contractual Model
The concept of a social contract, pioneered during the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, has guided the organization of most Western societies ever since. The idea is based upon the sacrifice of some freedom and independence on the part of the individual in order to work in partnership with others for survival. The social contract model has traditionally been applied only to humans, to the exclusion of all other forms of life. But might this concept pro-vide an effective framework in which to recast the human relationship with non-human beings? With all forms of animal abuse, environmental degradation, and the wanton exploitation of sen-tient life for our own purposes becoming more pervasive, it is time for a new way of looking at our essential connection with non-human beings and of conceptualizing their interests and our duties towards them. This paper explores various ideas about the extension of contracts beyond the human realm and argues that some form of the contractual model can be effectively applied to the human-animal relationship a way that benefits humans and non-humans alike in the long term.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau published the definitive work on the concept of a social contract in 1762.* He argues that the contract, by which individuals agree to work together for the benefit of the whole, is the ideal method of organization for human society. A contract is necessitated by the need of people to combine forces in order to survive and counteract natural self-interest. While it may not allow individuals the freedom they would have had in a “state of nature,”* it ensures that the sum total of freedom is protected. "In entering into civil society, people sacrifice the physical freedom of being able to do whatever they please, but they gain the civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally and morally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into the social contract can we become fully human."* Rousseau refers to the combined entity formed by individuals in a contract as a “sovereign,” but is not meant to be confused with a governing body.* In modern terms, it can be more accurately called a “body politic.”
The sovereign has no duties towards its members, like a person has no duties to his or her fingers and toes, but since its very existence depends upon their agreement, hurting its subjects hurts it as well. The contract gives each subject duties towards his or her fellows and to the sovereign, but does not necessarily confer duties upon its subjects with regards to those who have not agreed to the contract and, in the case of non-human animals and small children, those unable to do so. Rousseau, quoted indirectly, uses animals as an analogy to refer to show the “civilizing” effects of the social contract. "The freedom we have in the state of nature is the freedom of animals: unconstrained and irrational. By entering into civil society we learn to re-strain our instincts and to act rationally."*
Given that the effectiveness of Rousseau’s idea of the social contract in regulating one’s behavior towards others seems contingent on concerned parties being able to agree to the con-tract, is it absurd to think in terms of a contractual framework for our relationship with other ani-mals? Philosophers and political scientists have argued both sides of this question vociferously. One philosopher, Mary Midgley, submits that social contract theory overlooks a wide variety of entities with which people interact, such as “animals, the environment, the biosphere, inanimate objects, children, the insane, and even oneself."* In her view, the contract model is outdated, based on seventeenth-century notions of “ultimate, solitary, independent individuals,” and is in need of reworking. Her interpretation suggests that Rousseau’s model cannot afford rights to non-humans, lunatics and young children, but can only suggest duties to them to the extent that a superior being has duties to an inferior one. John Locke, who shared some of Rousseau’s politi-cal ideas, cited the book of Psalms in arguing that “the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men.”* She did, however, acknowledge non-contractual duties towards “inferior” beings: “[Man] has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”* Midgley’s argument for the redefinition of the contractual model hinges on self-interest. “When we talk about rights and duties, we are actually relating our actions and their consequences back to ourselves, and the effect they will have on ourselves—no matter what part of the physical world we are referring to, human or otherwise. If we neglect to care for our children, they may die, and we are the ultimate losers [in terms of not being able to perpetuate our species].”* Thus, are we, as humans, con-cerned about the rights of natural entities merely because our survival is contingent on theirs? In other words, do non-human entities, or even children and the mentally ill, have any inherent worth?
Ben Mepham answers that non-human animals, farmed animals in particular, are owed respect both because of their intrinsic value and because of their utility and meaning to us. He sees the need for a paradigm shift based on “changes in our objective understanding” that estab-lish “beyond any reasonable doubt, the genetic continuity of human and non-human species.”* While Mepham leaves open the question of whether this begs a redefinition of the term “animal” or the term “person,” he points out that humans and other sentient beings are not substantially different “in ethically relevant respects.” He disputes the claim that we have a duty to use animals, but justifies the continued use of animals in agriculture because they provide “nutri-tious, appetizing food,” because they are vital to “sustainable farming systems,” and because they are significant to many economies and cultures.* For Mepham, domestication is mutually beneficial for human and non-human, and farmed animals are too important to human culture for our symbiotic relationship with them to come to the abrupt end envisioned by some animal rights activists. Although the current factory farm system may be efficient in theory and practice, Mepham argues that it must be abolished because it is unjust, and that we rework our “partner-ship” with farmed animals on a contractual basis. This new contract would be notional, rather than a physical document or universal pledge, and would establish “an arrangement by which animals continue to provide benefits to humans and the environment, but themselves live out better lives than they would in the wild.”*
According to Mepham, in exchange for providing us with their flesh, milk and eggs (and for having to be killed prematurely), we agree to provide farmed animals with "better" lives than they would have undomesticated. The only issue is by whose definition are their domesticated lives better? If non-human animals could choose whether to live in the wild, having to provide for themselves and fend off predators, or to live under the care and protection of human beings, which would they prefer? We can never know with certainty the animal’s point of view. However, farmed animals and pets have been living under human auspices for so long that most of them would be incapable of surviving in an unprotected environment. Thus, in the short term, it is up to us to continue to provide for these animals, and it makes sense that we use the idea of a contract as a way of conceptualizing our responsibility to give back to them what they have (willfully or unwillfully) given to us. Although it may not be “agreed to” by one party, a notional contract gives us the sense of the animal’s interests and how they are to be balanced with human interests involving the use and enjoyment of the food, clothing, companionship and social significance they provide.
In a pertinent essay for the journal Parabola, Barry Lopez points to the need for continued attention to the philosophy behind our relationship with other animals in Western industrialized societies.* He states, “our relationships with animals were once contractual--prin-cipled agreements, founded in a spirit of reciprocity, mythic in their pervasiveness.” In other words, the concept of a contract with non-human animals was something well-known to earlier societies but lost in the process of industrialization and the scientific revolution. Lopez’s wording, “spirit of reciprocity,” also seems to indicate that the animals were thought of as willing partners in the agreement. This point may be elaborated to postulate that non-industrialized cultures did (and do) have a better sense of non-human interests, by virtue of having greater daily contact with other creatures and an appreciation of a “coherent and shared landscape.”* This entails a deep sense of mystery, awe, and wonder. Lopez points specifically to these practical and spiritual ties to animals as the ways in which Western culture has failed, letting the contract with non-humans lapse beyond repair. Lopez describes the point at which the original contract failed to serve Westerners:
Lopez suggests that by “tearing up” the age-old contracts because the other party seemed to get in the way of the inevitable march of progress, we have falsified our existence, making it shallow and hollow, divesting it of the significance of acting within a wider context. The path to the end of the abusive treatment of animals that horrifies us, says Lopez, is the re-establisment of an atmosphere of mutual respect between human and non-human animals, and of a sense of awe and wonder at the complexities of animals’ lives.*
Randy Malamud’s essay focusing on the animal poetry of indigenous Mesoamerican people touches also on a central concept that shapes Western perceptions of the human-animal relationship.* He draws on Laurie A. Frost’s view of the social contract to explain why widen-ing our social framework beyond the human community is essential to the full realization of our own humanity:
By noting that, in Genesis, Adam’s naming of the animals was an expression of his dominion over them, Malamud connects the way each culture talks about non-human animals to the way they are treated and regarded by those people. Which raises the question: does the widening of our social contract to include non-humans require a sea change in the way we talk to and about them? Malamud furthers this position to say that forming a relationship with another, even another human being, requires imagination in order “to extend [one’s] sense of self by grant-ing, creating, or recognizing the selfhood of another.”* Thus, since the formation of a contract requires recognizing the non-human animal’s interests, which in turn means acknowledging the animal’s “selfhood,” the contractual model, by nature, requires an extension of the human imagi-nation. As Malamud clearly illustrates, one way this is done is through poetry. “[A]nimal poe-try may embody a displaced realm of contemporary Western intellectual/aesthetic spirituality -- one that, like Mesoamerican spirituality, emanates from the natural world that exceeds the merely human realm.”*
In many Mesoamerican cultures, a deep spiritual respect for the natural world and a belief in animal souls are instilled in children even before birth. For these people, the human communi-ty exists, and is given significance, only within the context of the greater-than-human world. In this respect, humans are parties to a sort of a contract defined by the powers of nature that existed before us and would exist without us. Western societies, however, tend to diminish the importance of other beings, according them with only shallow significance, considering deeper understandings of other animals to be childish. “Politically, aesthetically, and sociologically, animals are perpetually subaltern. For [Mesoamericans], animal souls are real, immediate. They live out, at the core of their belief system, a valorization of animal life.”*
Given a wider
cosmological lens through which to assess the matter of contracts with
non-human entities, could the question be better framed not in terms of
us making a new con-tract with other animals, but in terms of us recommitting
ourselves to nature’s contract, so to speak? Some would argue that, since
we are physically part of nature, all our endeavors and crea-tions are
“natural.” Although this may describe a certain physical reality, there
can be no question that industrialization has compromised the Earth and
separated Western humans from the rest of the living community. A new
paradigm is called for, but accomplishing such a drama-tic reorientation
is, I believe, a very long-term project that our species should begin
to undertake. The gradual process by which such a shift is to be affected,
however, does not address the immediate problems of animal and environmental
exploitation that are slowly but surely contributing to the downfall of
our species. Thus it is helpful, in the short term, to think in terms
of a contract negotiated between us and them, in which their interests
are represented to the best of our ability. This mode of conceptualization
frames the necessary change in attitudes in a Western sociopolitical context,
making it more accessible and understandable to more people in the predominant
societies of the world. Even if it does not constitute a firm set of actions
to be taken to ease the suffering of our fellow beings, it would serve
its purpose simply as a guide towards rethinking our obligations to the
creatures with whom we share this world.
Ewins, Rory. "Beyond
the Social Contract: On Mary Midgley's 'Duties Concerning Islands'.
" May 1989. Accessed at http://speedysnail.com/theory
Lopez, Barry. "Renegotiating the Contracts." Parabola, Vol. 8, No. 2: 14-19.
Malamud, Randy. "Poetic Animals and Animal Souls" Society and Animals, vol. 6, no. 3 (1998).
Mepham, Ben. "A Notional Ethical Contract with Farm Animals in a Sustainable Global Food System." Royal Geographical Society. London. 18 January 2005.
"The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Study Guide."
2005. Accessed at http://www.sparknotes.com