An ingenious philosopher has lately denied, that animals can enter into contracts, and thinks this an essential difference between them and the human creature:—but does not daily observation convince us, that they form contracts of friendship with each other, and with mankind? When puppies and kittens play together, is there not a tacit contract, that they will not hurt each other? And does not your favorite dog expect you should give him his daily food, for his services and attention to you? And thus barters his love for your protection? In the same manner that all contracts are made amongst men, that do not understand each others arbitrary language. -- Erasmus Darwin, Zoönomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, Vol. 1.
Can we include other animals into a social contract model of justice and fairness? The historic answer to this question is somewhere between no and hell no. Rawls famously cannot include animals as subjects of justice, only of compassion (which is doing slightly better than Kant). And while there have been some gestures to refute Rawls from within something like his system (for example see Mark Rowlands' discussion of the Original Position in Animals Like Us, or Paola Cavalieri and Will Kymlicka's "Expanding the Social Contract") most have taken the social contract position as impossible for including animals. As Martha Nussbaum explains in Frontiers of Justice, "the asymmetry of power between humans and nonhuman animals is too great to imagine any contract we might make with them as a real contract. Certainly, we cannot imagine that the contract would actually be for mutual advantage" (334). But this isn't the end of the story. The move to exclude animals from the social contract by Rawls, which Nussbaum sees as obviously necessary (and therefore a problem with contract theory), is not shared by all, who have long advocated human domination of other animals based upon contract theory.
This view of contract theory sees domestication as a contract between other animals and humans, in which humans and animals enter into a relationship of mutual advantage. This has been termed the "Ancient Contract" by the popular history and science writer Stephen Budiansky in a magazine article, and later developed in his book the The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. This idea has had a wide influence on other popular writers justifying our rearing and eating animals. Temple Grandin cites Budiansky specifically in Thinking in Pictures:
Recently I read an article that had a profound effect on my thinking. It was entitled "The Ancient Contract" by S. Budiasky, and it was published in the March 20. 1989, issue of U.S. News & World Report. It presented a natural historical view of our evolving relationship with animals. This view presents a middle ground between the supporters of animal rights, who believe that animals are equal to humans, and the Cartesian view, which treats animals as machines with no feelings. I added the biological concept of symbiosis to Budiasky's view. A symbiotic relationship is a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. For example, biologists have learned that ants tend aphids and use them as "dairy cows." The ants feed the aphids. and in return the aphids give a sugar substance to the ants. People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break the ancient contract. We owe it to the animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death. (235)
We can continue this understanding with Michael Pollan's telling a very similar story from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans -- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago. Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and -- yes -- their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.) From the animals' point of view, the bargain with humanity has been a great success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000 wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) (p. 320)What both Grandin and Pollan make clear is what is usually so hidden in contract theory. My title the species contract should be an obvious reference to Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract, Charles Mills' The Racial Contract, and their joint work Contract and Domination. A shared insight of these works pointed out early in Pateman's The Sexual Contract is:
The genius of contract theorists has been to present both the original and actual contracts as exemplifying and securing original freedom. On the contrary, in contract theory universal freedom is always an hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the form of relations of domination and subordination. (8)Grandin and Pollan seem to not mind at all that the Species Contract does guarantee freedom at all, but domination and subordination justify only upon a story of mutual benefit. And we can spend the time explaining how their view of contract theory either cannot fit into a model of justice as fairness (à la Nussbuam), or we can spend the time laying out that domination is built into the contract model (à la Pateman and Mills). Both would be good benefits of our time, but I want to point out something else.
There is something about the model of the ancient contract that could be attractive to us. It gives agency to the animals rather than keeping them as mere objects, and it puts them within a political relationship. Except, weirdly, it doesn't do this at the same time it does this! Let's look at the rather incredible passage by Pollan in a bit more detail. Pollan posits that domestication is "natural" and "evolutionary" and as such it is "rather than political." So on the one hand Pollan is telling the oldest state of nature story ever, something that could come out of Hobbes or Locke. And while he does not use the language of an ancient contract, there is a reason his story looks so much like hers. The animals surrender some of their rights in exchange for the protections from the humans. It is a moment of declared 'mutualism,' of the creation of an 'alliance.' So this moment which is naturalized and depoliticized is also at the same time the most classical formulation of the political story. We are left then, with a very weird maneuver. An apolitical political story. A contract that is never a contract but merely nature. The state of nature never really disappears, the moment of artifice (and again, what else is domestication?) that defines the change from state of nature to civil society is repressed by Pollan. This is probably one of the scariest things about his pseudo-evolutionary metaphysics, the utter suppression of any political or ethical moment. Thus we have something that looks like a really bad joke. When is a contract not a contract? When it is a species contract!
This ability to both advance a theory of artifice with one hand while naturalizing it all with the second is something I want to call, following the work of Karen and Barbara Fields, speciescraft. In the Fields' book, Racecraft, they articulate how their concept of racecraft works in relationship to race and racism. Race is the social construction that tries to tie together morphology, ancestry, cultural, and pigmentation into something real and coherent. Racism is the creation of social, legal, economic, and political double standards based upon race. Racecraft is the what allows the obvious artificial reality of race and racism seem natural. Racecraft is what turns the political and historical categories of race and structures of racism into something normal, natural, inevitable, and therefore ahistorical, apolitical, and amoral. While not a perfect theoretical port, and a longer argument would need to attend to the tensions and differences, speciescraft is the name we can give to the movement to turn speciesism into a natural and inevitable state of affairs. It is because of the magic of speciescraft that Pollan and Grandin can retail stories of foundational political moments into natural relationships and still seem to be making coherent arguments. If we can combat speciescraft when examining the species contract, we can take at least one form of hope. The species contract tells a story of political artifice, and that means our relationship to other animals is not destiny, and we can do the work to build different relationships, and different models of justice. The inevitability of human domination of other animals is contestable and changeable.
As a sort of ps, here are few things that you might want to read that I couldn't figure out how to work into this version, but would work into a longer form. First, Pateman is critical of the idea of what I am calling a species contract, and she called a beastial contract. See Pateman, "The Sexual Contract and the Animals" (which sent me down the citational hole to the Erasmus Darwin quotation at the top). I am not the only who has noticed that some people use the language of contracts to justify their domination of nonhuman animals. Make sure to check out my brother's discussion of contracts in his dissertation, "Happy Meals." Also, see Clare Palmer's "The Idea of the Domesticated Animal Contract," Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden," and for a popular version this James McWilliams post. And yeah, a totally just stole stuff I wrote on this blog six years ago, but that is what blogging is for, right?