Do We Have a Contract With the Animals We Eat?

Yes, but not one that allows us to eat them.
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Yes, but not one that allows us to eat them.
(Photo: rtem/Shutterstock)

(Photo: rtem/Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on the philosophical defenses of eating animals. Read the first, “Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?” here, and the second, “Can an Animal Have Rights and Still Be Dinner?” here.

You believe in fairness—nothing fancy, just basic fairness—and you also believe that fairness should apply to farmed animals. You’re not alone, according to polls. This characterization includes the vast majority of meat eaters, with over 90 percent of us declaring that the welfare of farm animals matters, a characterization that could reasonably be interpreted to mean that we want them to be treated with fairness.

Further include the fact that meat eaters often justify eating animals as part of a “contract”—often expressed as an “ancient contract”—and it seems safe to assume that this desire to treat animals with fairness is a genuine social impulse, one that meaningfully underscores our decision to eat meat.

“Contract” is a popular word with conscientious carnivores—and it sounds like a nice justification for eating meat. Until you explore the nature of that contract. As it’s typically expressed, the contract we often discuss goes something like this: Humans have an obligation to treat animals with all due respect while animals have an obligation to enjoy the life we give them and, with minimal protest, become our food.

This version of the ancient contract underscores such commonplace explanations for eating animals as “if we did not eat them they would not exist,” “death is just one day,” “we are the predator that eats them,” and “these animals exist to be food.”

Nobody in their right mind would want to exist as a member of any species that could be killed and eaten for dinner without ethical consequence—even if that creature was raised with dignity.

But is this contract a real contract? More to the point: Is it fair? My skepticism begins with the fact that, as humans, we have no skin in the deal as it’s currently framed. Sure, it costs more to raise animals well, but that financial inconvenience is irrelevant compared to the ultimate upshot: the death of a being we consider sentient enough to engage in a contractual relationship in the first place. So, if the word contract as we use it with regard to animals is going to truly mean something, it should be an authentic contract—that is, a fair one.

To understand why it’s not, it’s best to consult the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, who died in 2002, explored the notion of a fair contract more thoroughly than any other modern thinker. To discover the principles of justice behind fair contracts, Rawls asked us to make a move that’s as revealing as it is honest: place ourselves in “an original position” behind “a veil of ignorance.”

Which is to say, we must engage in a thought experiment that begins with erasing from our minds defining details of our identity—including race, gender, and social standing—while remaining cognizant about the general aspects of human society. Next, under the assumption that you have no idea what race, gender, or social standing you will become when you re-emerge from the veil, you must then design the laws and contracts that will govern human relations in the world you will later enter.

Bottom line: You know you will enter a world governed by contracts that you devise, but you have no idea in what position or status you will enter that world.

Interesting, right? The fact that your own skin is now in the game creates a greater sensitivity to injustice. Chances are good, for one, that you envisioned a world governed by agreements that reinforced basic gender, racial, and social equity. Chances are good that, behind that veil, you refused to condone social contracts that tolerated racism, sexism, and other forms of arbitrary discrimination, if for no other reason than the hard fact that you could, once you left the original position, be the victim of such practices. In such a manner, Rawls argued, we are able to arrive at a social system governed by the kind of honest contracts that insure basic justice.

Rawls developed this (frankly, brilliant) approach to morality before the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. As such, he limited the process of contract formation to humans. Since then, though, philosophers such as Mark Rowlands have made a convincing case that Rawls’ contractualism must accommodate sentient animals as well—not accommodate them as in placing the pig behind the veil, but accommodate them as in including the pig (and the cow and the chicken) within the possibility of where we—as sentient beings in a future contractual system—might end up when we leave the original position.

Perhaps, at this point, you are thinking that the capacity to understand moral justice must be a prerequisite for participating in the social contract. That is to say, because a pig is useless behind the veil—because the pig cannot play the game—the pig should have no consideration on the other side of the veil either.

But not so fast.

The problem with this exclusion is that it also requires us to omit marginal cases such as even the mildly mentally infirm, whom we could, of course, end up becoming after we leave the original position and enter the contractual world we’ve created. We’d be foolish to create a contract whereby a person with Down Syndrome could be experimented on at will, or exploited to harvest healthy organs, provided that we could wind up in such a defenseless position ourselves.

By now you probably see where this is going regarding animals. So, to the big question: What about the pig, the chicken, the goat, the cow—what about those sentient animals we farm and eat for food? If, as we contemplate the social contract behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that it is possible that we could end up becoming one of these subject-of-a-life creatures, how does our understanding of the contract we currently have with them change?

I would think radically. Nobody in their right mind would want to exist as a member of any species that could be killed and eaten for dinner without ethical consequence—even if that creature was raised with dignity. Unless you are able to convince yourself that farm animals lack the ability to experience pleasure and pain, and that they do not value life, the “ancient contract” must yield to a more honest contract, one in which the only honest response to be made from behind the veil is to establish a set of contractual rules and regulations that include speciesism alongside the other “isms” that a fair society should never, ever tolerate.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.