Essay: Contractarianism, or the indirect duties view?

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  • Contractarianism, or the indirect duties view?
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The ‘indirect duties’ view is we have no duties directly to animals, we owe them nothing and we can do nothing that wrongs them.  Instead, we can do wrong acts involving animals and so we have duties regarding them rather than to them (Regan, p.224).
An example of this view is, if you were to injure a friend‘s pet animal, you would have done something wrong – not to the animal, but to your friend, because you have upset your friend and damaged their property (the animal).  In this view, the animal is seen as no different to any other property belonging to your friend – their house or car for example.  Your duties involving the animal are indirect duties to your friend.  The view holds that all of our duties regarding animals are indirect duties to humanity (Regan, p.224, Hursthouse p.94).
Regan explains that in order to justify the indirect duty view, that we have no direct duties to animals, it is necessary to believe that animals don’t feel pain, and/or if they do, only human pain can be morally relevant.  The perspective that animals feel no pain was held by Descartes and he was almost alone in this view (Hursthouse, p.88).  The second premise opens up a huge argument as to why only human suffering is relevant – beyond the scope of this essay – but is what Regan argues is, blatant speciesism (Regan, p.230).  The fact that they are not members of our species does not entitle us to exploit them in a similar way to racism (Singer, p.212).
The indirect duty view does not offer a complete safeguard for animals against cruelty.  It rules out some cruelty, where we have an indirect duty where others are involved – e.g. the friend because it is their pet/property, but the view does not cover the scenario where nobody is involved.  I might for example choose to torture a stray dog in my own home – and I have no indirect duties to the animal as it is nobody’s property.  Further, nobody can see my actions so I do not upset anybody. By the indirect duty view, horrific treatment of animals is justifiable on any scale, provided that the animals are nobody else’s property, and no person is upset by it.
Hursthouse does not accept that all of our duties regarding animals are indirect duties to each other because she believes that we can do wrong acts involving animals where the only issue is the suffering of the animal (Hursthouse, p.91).  Effectively she is saying animal suffering matters – she cannot accept that only human pain can be morally relevant, so she cannot find justification for the view.  Logically, she does accept that some of our duties regarding animals are also indirect duties to each other – to not accept this would be to discount the suffering caused to the human if I tortured their pet (Hursthouse, p.91).
Kant’s indirect duties account is slightly different.  He firstly attempts to support the view that we have no direct duties to animals by stating that since animals are not self-conscious – and therefore a means to an end – the end is man (Kant, p.92 – note that Hursthouse misses the first part of this argument when discrediting Kant on pg. 96, and therefore she states that his assumption that animals are a means to an end is unsupported.  It is not; he argues that they are not self-conscious and therefore at our disposal).  Secondly, he argues that we have a duty regarding animals because our treatment of them affects how we treat other humans (Kant, p.93).  Therefore, he believes all of our duties regarding animals are indirect duties to humanity, in this case meaning humanity in general, not just those who are involved.
If it is true that ill treatment of animals affects our dealings with humans, then we should not treat any animal with any less respect than we would treat a human – whether others are affected or not – because we ‘owe it to mankind’, to humanity.  This view therefore, if sound, rules out all possibilities of cruelty to animals.
Kant’s argument is however based on the sweeping assumption that how we treat animals affects/determines how we treat humans.  Hursthouse argues that this assumption is unsupported, offering the counter example that Spaniards involved in or as spectators of bullfighting are not more prone to murder than the rest of us.  In fact, this is a subject which has been researched, and the results are varied.  A report made by the Humane Society of the US claimed that people who are cruel to animals are more likely than others to be cruel to humans too.  It found that among abusers of animals, 28% were also charged with domestic violence, 27% percent with child abuse, 10% with assault and 6% percent with murder.  More recently, Piper & Miles cast doubt on this type of research, showing that ‘animal cruelty’ was not properly defined (for example, should we count fox hunting?) and concluding that although there may be some disturbed individuals who are cruel towards both animals and people, extreme cases do not provide the basis for generalized conclusions (Piper & Miles, 2002).  Therefore, it would seem that Kant’s view is based on a false premise and cannot be accepted as an adequate account of what is so ‘wrong’ with cruelty to animals (Hursthouse, p.95).
An alternative perspective is found in contractarianism, a theory that attempts to account for our morality as a set of rules which we implicitly agree to abide by, as if we had signed a contract.  For example, I might refrain from setting fire to a person’s car, because I have an implied contract that they won’t set fire to my car.  Individuals who can enter into such theoretical contracts have rights, “created and recognized by, and protected in” the contract  (Regan, pp.224-225). The relevance of this to animal welfare is found in the belief that animals are incapable of entering into contracts – they cannot sign, or comprehend such rights, nor can they offer the same reciprocal rights to us – for example, a wolf cannot ‘agree’ that he will not kill, on the understanding that he will not be killed.  His instincts and nature govern whether or not he kills, not rational thought or reasoning (Wiggans, & Hursthouse p.125).  Since an animal cannot enter into the contract, they have no rights from a contractarian point of view.  Scruton believes that if this were not true, the outcome would be absurd – the animal would have to participate in concepts of accusation, punishment and judicial prosecution (Scruton, p.124).  Clearly animals do not have the intellect to deal with or understand justice and punishment. Wiggans’ view supports this line of reasoning, claiming that recognition of owing to one another is unique to a community of persons, not animals (Wiggans, pg. 125).
However, the contractarianism view is not that we should treat animals cruelly – it does not amount to absolute dismissal.  Contractarianists Hume, Rawls, Scruton and Wiggins, whilst saying that animals do not have rights, believe that it is the laws of humanity that bind us to give “gentle usage” to animals (Hume, p.98).  Rawls argues that it is “wrong” to be cruel to animals, and that the destruction of a species is “evil” (Rawls, p.98).  Whilst Kant argued that our duties regarding animals really amount to duties to other humans, Rawls argues that, as the animals can feel pleasure and pain, it is to them we owe a duty of compassion and humanity  (Rawls, pg 98).  However, both Kant and Hume/Rawls agree that our duties to or regarding animals are different to our duties to or regarding humans.
In terms of killing animals for food, contractarianism would seem to allow this provided the animals were treated well.  It would also seem that if an animal could be bred in such a way as to not experience pleasure/pain, then animal experimentation and wanton cruelty would also be fully acceptable.  The view simply focuses on showing compassion to creatures who can feel pleasure/pain, which therefore begs the question, should we also show compassion to slugs, snails and flies for example, as these creatures also too feel pain?  (Telegraph 2000)  Which creatures are deserving of our compassion?
Animals are not the “kind of thing“, according to the contractarianist, capable of recognizing rights or having them (Scuton, cited on p.126).  But these arguments depend heavily on the answer to the question, why do we have rights? Regan argues that both animals and humans have rights because we are “experiencing subjects of life”.  However, Scruton argues that for an animal to have rights, it would be to view it as a member of a moral community, having – and understanding – duties and responsibilities.  The absurd consequence of this is that the mentally incapacitated, infants and the senile have no rights because they have no such comprehension.  One response to this would be to accept the absurd consequence and say that this group does not have the same rights as rational adults.  Hursthouse argues that the laws we have do not confer a right to life or a right not to be used on such groups.  This is a rather weak argument since we do have laws, at least in the UK, which confer the right to life on all humans (Humans Rights Act).  So as this group, although incapable of recognizing rights or entering into contracts, have been recognized as having the right to life conferred on them by such laws, it is not logical to say an animal is given no such right purely because he is incapable of entering into a contract (Hursthouse, p.128).  It would be necessary to find some other reason why we are special and distinct from animals, in order to take the argument further.
Further more, to say that only beings which can (or can potentially) enter into contracts can have rights is unsupported.  It is a standard set by humans.  We are assuming in some way that entering into contracts is a demonstration of intelligence or self-conscious. Yet, studies have shown that even animals like sheep are doing things as far as the brain is concerned that are so similar to us, at least some level of consciousness is implied (Telegraph, 2000). Just because we don’t know their level of consciousness, does not give us the right to exploit them – and in contrast, we can never really know the level of consciousness of a severely disabled person.
Obviously language is the greatest barrier between us and them when it comes to entering into contracts and making agreements.   We also know from studies that animals are capable of learning our language, but in any case, because an animal doesn’t know our language doesn’t make it stupid (after all, we don’t know theirs).
In conclusion, we have seen that Regan’s account of the indirect duties view allows for some suffering whereas Kant’s account does not.  Regan’s account also allows for killing animals for food – Kant’s account seems to contradict itself here though because although he believes animals are at our disposal, he cannot argue it is justifiable to kill animals for food if it hardens us/affects our treatment of other humans.
Kant’s account is conclusively less convincing because it is based on a false premise.  Both accounts focus on animal cruelty in terms of the effect it has on humans – i.e. in upsetting them (as in Regan’s account) or our behavior towards them (as in Kant’s account).  Neither focus on whether or not the actual act of cruelty itself is right or wrong morally – they are not a “moral claim on behalf of animals” (Hursthouse p.96).  She concludes therefore that these views are inadequate because we have duties to humans and to animals (Hursthouse, p.97).
Contractarianism in contrast does offer a better and more complete safeguard in terms of animal welfare than the indirect duties view as, whilst denying that animals have rights, it admits they feel pleasure/pain, requires us to show compassion to them, and therefore covers all cases of cruelty.  Unlike the indirect duties views, this focuses on the effect animal cruelty has on animals rather than on humans.  There are however various problems with this view.  If feelings of pleasure/pain mean we should show compassion, then this should be to all creatures (including vermin and insects for example, against which there are no laws relating to cruelty).  Also, it argues that only those who can enter into a contract have rights, and I have argued that this is not necessarily the correct measure for who or what should/shouldn’t have rights.
Bibliography:-
Highfield, R. Cockroach capable of feeling pain, says study – The Telegraph, ISSUE  1812 Thursday 11 May 2000
Hume, D. An Enquiry concerning the principles of Morals (1902, 2nd edn) p.190 L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed), Oxford University Press, cited in Hursthouse, R. Humans &             Other Animals (1999) p.98 – The Open University, Milton Keyne
Hursthouse, R. Humans & Other Animals (1999) p.222 onwards – The Open University, Milton Keynes
Kant, I. Lectures on Ethics (1780-1, 1963 edn) H. Louis Infield (trans) pp.239-240, Harper & Row – in Hursthouse, R. Humans & Other Animals (1999) pp.92-93 – The Open University, Milton Keynes
Missing Link. Heather Piper and Steve Myers, Community Care, October 3, 2002, p.38. Wednesday, October 16, 2002 (Re: whether there is a link between animal cruelty       and human cruelty)
Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice (1972) p.512, Oxford University Press, in Hursthouse, R.  Humans & Other Animals (1999) p.222 onwards – The Open University, Milton           Keynes – the citation says 1971 but the bibliography says 1972, same book.
Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights (Reading 2) in Hursthouse, R. Humans & Other  Animals (1999) p.222 onwards – The Open University, Milton Keynes
Scruton, R. Beastley Burdens (1996c) Times Higher, 30th August, p.17 in Hursthouse, R.   Humans & Other Animals (1999) p.124 – The Open University, Milton Keynes
Singer, P. Equality for Animals (Reading 1) in Hursthouse, R. Humans & Other     Animals (1999) p.211 onwards – The Open University, Milton Keynes
Wiggins, D. From Piety to Cosmic Order, (1996) Times Higher, 4th October p.22in  Hursthouse, R. Humans & Other Animals (1999) p.125 onwards – The Open      University, Milton Keynes

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