Social contract views

Social contract views

According to social contract views in ethics and political theory, we should consider how we should act by asking this question: How could we come to agree about the rules that should govern society? In contemporary social contract views, moral norms derive from the idea of a contract or mutual agreement. The purpose is for the parties to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all.

It’s sometimes claimed that contract theory doesn’t support the moral consideration of animals. But there are reasons to conclude that it does, and that it can prescribe antispeciesism, veganism, and helping wild animals.

Old social contract theory

Social contract views have their origins in the contract theories about the legitimacy of political authority that were prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries. These theories were developed during the Enlightenment period, when traditional values were being questioned. Particularly relevant to the development of social contract theory was the rejection of the divine right of kings. If God didn’t appoint monarchs, then why should people obey them? This question led to society asking why anyone would agree to be ruled by anyone else. Social contract theory was designed to answer this question.1

One of the most famous such theories is that of Thomas Hobbes.2 He argued that humanity’s natural state was pre-political; no one had authority over another, nor did anyone have any duty to help protect the interests of others. Hobbes characterized this state of nature as one of war, in which life was typically “nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape this dangerous situation, Hobbes argued that people voluntarily came together to adopt a political system. Each would recognize that life in its natural state is dangerous, since each person is capable of harming others and vulnerable to being harmed themselves. For Hobbes, the starting point is life in its natural state and our social contracts are motivated by our natural inclination to live. For purely self-interested reasons everyone would give up their natural right to harm others, but only if others did the same. Unlike most modern contractarians, Hobbes didn’t idealize his starting position to ensure impartiality or fairness. As we will see below, this allows a Hobbesian contractarian to endorse moral principles that promote inequality.

Older forms of contractarianism like Hobbes’s hold that individuals are primarily self-interested, and that a rational individual will try to minimize their vulnerability and maximize their own benefit. This results in inequality due to natural power imbalances. For example, according to those old views, weaker parties might agree to a principle of “might makes right” because they would be in an even worse situation without such an agreement. However, not all social contract theories imply such extreme inequality. Most forms of contemporary contract theories conclude that we should respect others.3

Contemporary social contract theory

Contemporary social contract views differ from traditional social contract theory in several ways. First, while the early social contract theorists used the contract device solely to justify political authority, contemporary views typically use it to ground morality as a whole. Without the contract there would be no valid moral principles. Second, Hobbes accepted the fact that different people have different degrees of power in the state of nature, so some have greater bargaining power in forming the rules that would govern society, which results in political inequality. Hobbesian contractarianism can therefore endorse highly unequal outcomes, or even the enslavement and domination of one group by another.4 Most modern contractarians, however, argue that the circumstances in which the moral and political principles are chosen should be constrained in certain ways to ensure a fair outcome. John Rawls’ contractarian theory has been the most influential of these.

Rawls argued that those in the “original position” (Rawls’ term for the starting point) should be placed behind a “veil of ignorance” which denies them any knowledge of what their own position in society will be. This means that they could be born into a poor family or a rich family, for example, and not knowing would ensure impartiality.5 Rawls invites us to imagine a situation in which we have to choose the norms of a hypothetical new society we will live in, while being completely ignorant of all facts regarding what our place will be in that society, as well as our physical constitution, our ethnicity, and so on. Since people won’t know their position in society beforehand, they have self-interested reasons to choose moral principles that will benefit everyone.

Thomas Scanlon, another influential thinker in the contractarian tradition, argues that the moral principles we should accept are those which no one could reasonably reject (see below for an example of what is “reasonable”).6 Though he doesn’t make use of a veil of ignorance, Scanlon ensures fairness by (1) assuming that all individuals want to reach an agreement that will be acceptable to all and (2) stipulating what counts as reasonable grounds for rejecting a principle. In Scanlon’s theory, individuals are motivated both by their own self-interest and by basic respect for other persons. So, for example, person X can reject a principle on the grounds that it would impose some burden on him unless every alternative principle would impose a greater burden on someone else – to do otherwise would be unreasonable.7

Does contract theories exclude nonhuman animals?

It is sometimes thought that social contract theories can’t justify recognizing the full moral consideration of nonhuman animals. Rawls and Scanlon both state that their theories of social contract don’t apply to animals. Which features of the theory make some people think that it isn’t compatible with giving full moral consideration to nonhuman animals? There are several, some of which only apply to specific forms of contractarianism, but the most important feature, common to all forms, is the necessity that the parties to the contract must have certain cognitive capacities. That is, they must be able to understand the terms of the contract, argue about moral and political principles, and adequately understand their own interests and how to promote them. But do the moral principles adopted by those agents only apply to other agents who also have those capacities?

Some contractarians think so. Peter Carruthers says that moral principles are “by rational agents, for rational agents.”9 Like most contractarians, Carruthers characterizes the framers of the social contract as both rational and self-interested. The argument is that if they are working out a social contract, then they must be human because animals would be unable to do this, and that’s why, even behind the veil of ignorance, the negotiating parties can assume they will be human. Carruthers argues that nonhuman animals should not be morally considerable because only rational parties can negotiate the contract, and only humans are rational. So if the negotiating parties know that they will be human beings in this new hypothetical society, then they have no self-interested reason to agree to any moral principles restricting their own behavior to protect the interests of animals.10

There are several problems with this line of argument, some specific to Carruthers’ argument and some that apply to contractarian theory more broadly. The biggest problem is the contractarian assumption that the framers of the contract (those who decide on the moral principles that will govern their future interactions) and the beneficiaries of the contract (those who will enjoy the moral protections it offers) must be the same.11 However, there is nothing about the structure of contractarianism per se that requires this. The framers of the contract can decide to extend its terms to protect others who weren’t parties to the negotiation, including those who were not capable of participating. But why would the framers extend this protection to others who were not part of the negotiations? Would they do so given that they are stipulated to be purely self-interested?

Donald VanDeVeer has argued that the rational framers of the social contract would choose to extend moral protection to nonhuman animals, but on purely self-interested grounds.12 He bases his argument on an interpretation of the veil of ignorance that denies knowledge not only of one’s natural endowments and socioeconomic position, but also of one’s species (a view that Richard Ryder — who coined the term “speciesism” — has also endorsed).13 As he points out, the reason for using the veil of ignorance is to ensure that the framers of the social contract are impartial, that is, that they don’t choose moral principles that favor themselves over others. This is why all particular knowledge of their own circumstances are to be withheld from them in the original position. VanDeVeer points out that the agents in the original position have high cognitive capacities, since they are capable of understanding and arguing about very complex moral and political principles, and they are generally thought of as having substantial general knowledge of psychology, economics, and other fields relevant to designing the basic structure of society. If they knew that they would retain this very high level of rationality in the society they are designing, they would be tempted to adopt moral principles that disproportionately favor the most rational members of that society, so they would no longer be impartial. If they cannot assume that they will be highly rational in the new society, this opens the possibility that they will be a sentient nonhuman animal. Given this possibility,14 they have reasons to reject moral principles that allow discrimination against nonhuman animals.

Mark Rowlands also argues for the “thickening” of the veil of ignorance which would exclude the knowledge of one’s species.15 Rowlands points out that Rawls’ veil of ignorance is based on a moral principle of fairness. Rawls’ understanding of fairness emphasizes the moral equality of all persons, and the denial that “morally arbitrary” differences between persons should result in better or worse life prospects. For Rawls, the category of “morally arbitrary” differences includes not only one’s socioeconomic position, but also the natural characteristics with which one is born, such as intelligence or beauty. These natural properties are morally arbitrary in the sense that one does nothing to deserve them – they are simply the outcome of luck in the natural lottery. No one deserves their good or bad luck in this lottery, and neither, according to Rawls, do they deserve the benefits that these undeserved properties bring, e.g., a high salary, and this is why the veil of ignorance excludes knowledge of one’s own natural properties.

Once one understands why knowledge of one’s natural properties such as intelligence, strength, etc. should be withheld behind the veil of ignorance, it becomes clear that knowledge of one’s species must also be excluded. Species membership, like all other natural properties, is an undeserved outcome of the natural lottery. As such, species must be understood as a morally arbitrary property, and the benefits that result from it are also undeserved. To avoid inconsistency, a Rawlsian contractarian must exclude knowledge of one’s species in the original position. We have strong self-interested reasons not to accept a moral principle that will discriminate against individuals of a group if we are not sure whether we will belong to that group. This means the parties to the contract won’t want to accept moral principles that discriminate against sentient beings who don’t belong to the human species. The only other option would be to give up impartiality altogether, and adopt a pure Hobbesian form of contractarianism, a position that most of us would reject.

Implications of social contract views

Contemporary social contract views, like other ethical theories, is incompatible with the moral exclusion of nonhuman animals and speciesism. However, as we have seen in the case of Peter Carruthers, there are speciesist positions that are defended by an appeal to contractarianism. But social contract theories need not imply such views, which entail assuming an old version of contractarianism (such as that of Hobbes) that most people find unacceptable nowadays.

This implies that we should not accept practices that are harmful to animals but benefit humans. We wouldn’t accept them if we were deciding the principles of justice that should govern our society and we didn’t know whether we were going to be in our situation or that of animals. So contemporary social contract views should lead us to reject such speciesist practices. Contemporary contract theories can thus give us reasons to advocate for veganism.

In addition, this view would also lead to a position towards helping animals similar to our position towards human beings. We would want to be helped if we were in a situation like that of animals in need such as animals suffering in the wild, who can be helped in many cases but often are not. Contemporary social contract views would lead us to help them for the reasons presented above.

Further readings

Abbey, R. (2007) “Rawlsian resources for animal ethics”, Ethics and the Environment, 12, pp. 1-22.

Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 26 July 2021].

Arneson, R. (2002) “The end of welfare as we know it? Scanlon versus welfarist consequentialism”, Social Theory and Practice, 28, pp. 315-336.

Barry, B. (1989) Theories of justice, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Berkey, B. (2017) “Prospects for an inclusive theory of justice: The case of non‐human animals”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34, pp. 679-695.

Cochrane, A.; Garner, R. & O’Sullivan, S. (2018) “Animal ethics and the political”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 21, pp. 261-277.

Cooke, S. (2019) “Betraying animals”, The Journal of Ethics, 23, pp. 183-200.

Cooke, S. (2020) “Justice beyond humanity”, in Coolsaet, B. (ed.) Environmental Justice: Key issues, London: Routledge, pp. 279-290.

Dworkin, G. (2002) “Contractualism and the normativity of principles”, Ethics, 112, pp. 471-482.

Garner, R. (2011) “Rawls, animals, and justice: New literature, same response”, Res Publica, 18, pp. 159-172.

Garner, R. (2013) A theory of justice for animals: Animal rights in a nonideal world, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gauthier, D. (1986) Morals by agreement, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gauthier, D. (1990) Moral dealing: Contract, ethics, and reason, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Norcross, A. (2002) “Contractualism and aggregation”, Social Theory and Practice, 28, pp. 303-314.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pateman, C. (1989) The sexual contract, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Pettit, P. (2000) “A consequentialist perspective on contractualism”, Theoria, 66, pp. 228-236.

Reibetanz, S. (1998) “Contractualism and aggregation”, Ethics, 108, pp. 296-311.

Sachs, B. (2015) “Non-consequentialist theories of animal ethics”, Analysis, 75, pp. 638-654.

Sachs, B. (2019) “Teleological Contractarianism”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 50, pp. 91-112.

Taylor, M. (2014) “Grounding animal rights in mutual advantage contractarianism”,  Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, 9, pp. 184-207.

Vallentyne, P. (ed.) (1991) Contractarianism and rational choice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenar, L. (2003) “What we owe to distant others”, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 2, pp. 283-304.


1 Kymlicka, W. (1993) “The social contract theory”, in Singer, P. (ed.) A companion to ethics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 186-196.

2 Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan, or the matter, forme & power of a common-wealth ecclesiasticall and civill, London: Andrew Crooke [accessed on 10 December 2013].

3 Cudd, A. & Eftekhari, S. (2017 [2000]) “Contractarianism”, in Zalta, E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Summer 2018 ed., Stanford: The Metaphysics Research Lab, Mar 15 [accessed on 14 January 2021].

4 Kymlicka, W. (1993) “The social contract theory”, op. cit., p. 114-115.

5 Rawls, J. (1999 [1971]) A theory of justice, rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

6 Scanlon, T. (1998) What we owe to each other, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

7 Ashford, E. and Mulgan, T. (2018 [2007]) “Contractarianism”, in Zalta, E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Summer 2018 ed., op. cit., Apr 20 [accessed on 14 January 2021].

8 See Rowlands, M. (1997) “Contractarianism and animal rights”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 14, p. 235.

9 Carruthers, P. (2011) “Against the moral standing of animals”, University of Maryland [accessed on 15 January 2021].

10 Carruthers does argue that contractarianism might provide grounds for a minimal level of indirect moral standing for animals, however he thinks that this would only prohibit cruelty to animals that serves no purpose whatsoever. Factory farming, testing of cosmetics etc. would still be endorsed.

11 See Rowlands, M. (1997) “Contractarianism and animal rights”, op. cit., p. 236; Nussbaum, M. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 16.

12 VanDeVeer, D. (1979) “Of beasts, persons, and the original position”, The Monist, 62, pp. 368-377.

13 Ryder, R. D. (2000) Animal revolution: Changing attitudes towards speciesism, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 217.

14 In fact, it’s more than a possibility – human beings make up only a tiny proportion of the total global population of sentient beings. If an agent in the original position has an equal chance of becoming any of these sentient beings, then the chances of being human are extremely thin.

15 Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral theory and practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.