I’m a contractualist. There – I’ve said it. My supervisor Brad Hooker is the rule-consequentialist. You might think that we have endless debates about which of the closely resembling views is right. Unfortunately we have better things to do. But, I do want to explain why his main argument based on the moral status of animals against contractualism fails to convert me into a rule-consequentialist.
Hooker’s argument is that rule-consequentialism can make sense of the idea that morality imposes constraints on how we should treat animals whereas contractualism cannot do so. I want to claim that if rule-consequentialism can make sense of these constraints, then so can contractualism, whereas if contractualism cannot make sense of these constraints, then rule-consequentialism cannot either. When it comes to animals, we are on the same boat.
To see this, I think it is worth distinguishing between two questions:
1. What constraints does theory X place on how we should treat animals?
2. What does theory X tells us about why we should respect those constraints?
I accept that if a moral theory gives an answer to either 1 or 2 that conflicts with our moral convictions, then this is a serious fault in the theory. However, I want to suggest that rule-consequentialists and contractualists will have to give the same answers to these questions and so these questions cannot be decisive between the views.
Start from 1. According to rule-consequentialism, an act is wrong if it is forbidden by the set of principles which, if adopted by almost everyone, would have the best consequences in terms of over-all well-being. It’s important to note that the well-being of every sentient being whose life can go better or worse counts. This implies that presumably a rule that forbids torturing animals for mild amusement of humans has better overall consequences than the allowing rule. Thus, we seem to get the right sort of constraints. There may be a problem that the ideal rule becomes to demanding if it requires maximizing the well-being of all animals. But, leave that aside. Let us accept that rule-consequentialism gives a right answer to 1.
What about contractualism? Well, it says that an action is wrong if it is forbidden by a set of principles that no-one could reasonably reject. Reasonable rejection, furthermore, is a function of the strongest objections individuals could make to alternative sets of principles. The set to which the strongest objection is weakest is the non-rejectable one.
The question then is, could the sets of principles that do not place constraints on the treatment of animals be reasonably rejected? I think they could be. First, I think they could be rejected by many humans. Animals and their well-being is an important part of the personal life, essential concerns and projects of many humans and so for them living in a world were animals are mistreated would constitute a personal burden. Now, you might complain that this route to rejection is too indirect.
In that case, I propose that the animals could reasonably reject the allowing principles too. There is a clear sense in which their lives would go worse and be burdened due to the considered principles. They would have reason to reject these principles as a result. These reasons would also be of the very same sort for which humans can reject principles. To deny these as reasons for rejection would be a clear instance of speciesism. Of course, the animals are not able to present their objections in the imagined hypothetical negotiations, but I don’t see how this is here or there. Many humans couldn’t or wouldn’t either. If it helps, you can imagine trustees that do it for the animals. If these reasons for rejection are allowed, then it seems to me that contractualism can give an intuitive answer to 1 – a similar answer as rule-consequentialism. So, 1 cannot be the decider.
Many people, including Brad, think that 2 is the crucial question. Contractualists want to say that the reason why we should follow the non-rejectable principles is that we have reason to be able to justify our actions impartially to others. So, why not mistreat the bunny you see in the garden? Leaving neighbours aside, presumably the idea is that you could not justify the mistreatment to the bunny. That sounds fine to me. But, Brad says that ‘justification to a rabbit, or a dog, or even a whale, manifestly does not make sense’. Brad doesn’t really explain why he thinks this – we seem to just have a clash of intuitions. What do others think? Anyway, let’s accept the view that giving justification to animals does not make sense. Then contractualism would fail with respect to the question 2.
How do rule-consequentialists cope with the question 2? You might think that they do well. They could be thought to be able to say that the reason to follow the constraints created in question 1 is to bring about more general well-being. In that case, the rule-consequentialist might be better off. Unfortunately, the rule-consequentialist cannot say this. This is because of the classic problem of rule-consequentialism. There will be cases in which one can either bring about the maximum amount of well-being or follow the ideal code but not both.
For instance, one could bring about very small benefits to a large enough number of humans or avoid harming one bunny seriously. Assume that avoiding harming the one bunny seriously is what the ideal code requires whereas the other option maximizes well-being. Now, why does rule-consequentialist say we need to follow the ideal code? It cannot say that because this maximizes well-being. Brad’s solution to avoid this problem is to say that acting on the ideal rules is ‘impartially defensible’. To me, this strikes as another way of saying that it is ‘impartially justifiable’. But, to whom do we need to be able to impartially justify our actions in the case under consideration?
Well, presumably to the bunny (or her trustee or the people who care about her) who would be mistreated for the sake of the small benefits to many. But, rule-consequentialists have already said that justifying actions to a bunny (i.e., being able to defend them) does not make sense. So, rule-consequentialism seems to fail with the question 2 too. A rule-consequentialist could say that it does make sense to want to act in a defensible way when the defence is given to a bunny (or the trustee or the people who care about bunnies), but then so could a contractualist. So, I still fail to see the difference.