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Expanding the Original Position to Animals

Matthew Chalmers applies the political philosophy of John Rawls to creatures great and small.

John Rawls was, according to Bill Clinton, “perhaps the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century.” For students of political philosophy Rawls does remain a towering figure, and it would be untrue to say that his ideas have been overlooked. However, to the general reader, his name may well be unfamiliar. To most people Rawls remains a far more obscure figure than nineteenth century giants of political philosophy such as Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill. His contributions, however, are no less significant.

John Rawls
John Rawls by Woodrow Cowher
John Rawls © Woodrow Cowher 2021 Please visit woodrawspictures.com

Rawls (1921-2002) is primarily remembered for his thought experiment of the ‘Original Position’. Here he invites us to imagine that we possess our current faculties of reason but are trapped behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. Like a baby in a womb, we’re unaware of the type of person we’ll be or the life we’re going to be born into. Rawls then asks us to design the type of society we would like to be placed in, given that we have no idea what our race, class, gender, or intellectual and moral preferences will be.

An analogy using a birthday cake may be helpful in illustrating the concept. A child whose birthday it is is asked to share her cake between herself and her friends. She can cut slices of whatever size or shape she likes. However, her mother informs her that although she is free to cut the slices as unevenly as she chooses, she will have no say which slice she herself receives. The implication is that a rational child will likely cut equal pieces. In the case of designing a society from the original position, Rawls argues that since you don’t know who you will become, you would rationally opt for a society in which the basic needs of all citizens are met, and where no factors of class, race, sexual preference, gender, or religion, etc, would hamper anyone’s opportunity to thrive. Rawls further suggests that we would design societies with the poorest in mind, such that its economics gives the maximum possible opportunity for the worst-off in society. A life of poverty or other disadvantage is the life you least want to be born into, and you would rationally opt to make that possibility as least bad as you can.

The original position invites us to consider what is truly, objectively fair; it divorces us from our own interests and requires us to consider society from the perspective of a neutral arbitrator. It also exposes the inherent unfairness of a society in which you can suffer acutely simply because you were born to a poor family rather than a rich one – a fact you had no choice over. This implies that addressing poverty is essential for societies concerned with fairness and justice. Rawls’ experiment forces us to conclude that only a society in which everyone’s basic interests are met, in which nobody needlessly suffers simply because they were born in a certain place or looking a certain way, can truly call itself just. Inequality is justified only to the extent that it benefits everyone.

This philosophy is as relevant now as it’s ever been – perhaps more so. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate economies across the globe and raising the ghastly spectre of a worldwide economic depression, our minds should turn to the most vulnerable. Everyone may suffer, but (as is always the case), the poor and powerless will suffer more. Indeed, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on poor and minority communities is already clear. Rawls insists that we put ourselves in the shoes of the most deprived people, and doing just that may be more important than ever in the coming years.

Veganism & Moral Reciprocity

Veganism is another philosophy which remains deeply relevant. Its stance against unnecessary suffering is what gives it its moral force, but other advantages to embracing vegan philosophy are becoming increasingly pertinent. Studies, including from Oxford University in 2018 and Imperial College, London, in 2019, confirm that adopting a vegan lifestyle is the single biggest change one can usually make as an individual to combat global warming and climate disaster. Indeed, it has been reported that the world’s thirteen biggest industrial dairy companies produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of the entire UK (The Guardian, June 15th 2020). Furthermore, the current pandemic is only one example of the disease risks associated with the mass containment of animals. Other recent outbreaks stemming from animals include swine flu, bird flu, SARS, and mad cow disease.

Where do these two seemingly disparate topics intersect?

When he wrote about the Original Position in A Theory of Justice in 1971, Rawls was not discussing animals. Barely anybody was: this was still four years before Peter Singer’s seminal work Animal Liberation provided the animal rights movement with a strong philosophical basis. However, it seems to me that there is no good reason to only consider human lives when constructing society from behind the veil of ignorance. (This point is not entirely original: see for instance, ‘Rawlsian Justice and non-human animals’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 1 (1), R. Elliot 1984; ‘Rawls and Animals’, International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 12 (1), D.A. Dombrowski 1998; ‘Rowlands, Rawlsian justice and animal experimentation’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 14 (5), J.Tanner 2011.) However, there are potential philosophical problems.

Rawls’ morality is based on reciprocity. He contends that ‘moral powers’ form the “basis of equality, [they are] the features of human beings in virtue of which they are to be treated in accordance with the principles of justice” (A Theory of Justice, p.441). The moral powers, in his view, are twofold. First is the ability to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even if they rule against one’s own self-interest, provided that others cooperate too. The second moral power is the capacity for rationality, which enables people “to pursue and revise their own view of what is valuable in human life.” For Rawls these powers of cooperation and rationality are “all that is morally relevant… to a decision on principles of justice.” This is a reciprocal conception of morality because it implies that morality (and so, justice) is reserved only for those who can be rational and cooperate, since only they can use these moral powers to the benefit of one and other.

However, to my mind, using ‘reciprocity’ as the basis for a system of morality or to evaluate who should be considered moral stakeholders, is deeply flawed. More specifically, although an appreciation of moral values and a desire to reciprocate them may make one a moral agent, I do not believe that moral agents are the only beings worthy of moral consideration. Indeed, if the ability to morally reciprocate were what gives somebody moral worth then some disturbing conclusions would follow. For instance, there are many examples of human beings who cannot reciprocate morality. New-born infants, for example: in what way could they have any of the ‘moral powers’? Of course, they may grow up into beings who do; but as they exist in the present moment they don’t. Should they therefore not be taken into moral consideration? Or how about the senile elderly; perhaps an old lady with no living friends o relatives? Formerly a scientist known for her incisive wit, she now has severe dementia, cannot reason or convey coherent thoughts, cannot cooperate or reciprocate favours in any meaningful sense. Does this put her beyond moral consideration?

These examples seem to fall outside of Rawls’ space of moral inclusion, yet we are hesitant to leave them out of the moral picture. If we did – if we claim that because they cannot consciously engage in moral decision-making and acting they are therefore morally worthless – then there is nothing to justify treating them with due moral consideration.

The point is worryingly lost on some people. The website for Speaking of Research, a pro-animal-testing organisation, argues that animals are morally invisible. However, they also consider this to be true of some humans: “Animals are amoral beings, meaning they stand outside the concept of morality, right and wrong, and thus, rights. Much the same applies to humans. A person who, due to severely diminished mental capacity, does not know right from wrong, and who commits a crime… will not be guilty of the crime.” The dissonance here might be amusing if it weren’t so macabre, as it seems to follow that if some humans stand outside of moral concepts, then we should be allowed to perform excruciating and often unnecessary medical experiments on them, too.

Moreover, even if one were to take a reciprocal approach to morality, I cannot see how one could leave out animals altogether. Animals may not be able to understand the moral implications of their actions, but they can still perform actions with morally good or bad consequences. Let us consider two creatures: an average human being, who can consciously engage in the reciprocation of morals, and a dog with no concept of morality whatsoever. Let’s also say I’m deeply upset, perhaps due to a tragedy in my life. A friend could come round, he could tell me jokes, make idle chit-chat, keep me company, and make me laugh, all with the tacit understanding that I would hopefully do the same for him if he found himself in a similar situation (I don’t believe most people think like this, but let’s presume they do for argument’s sake). He makes me feel good – he increases my pleasure – and then he leaves. Now let us consider my dog, who, either noticing I am sad or oblivious to that fact, hops up on the sofa and licks my face. I laugh, pet the dog and I embrace the animal for a sense of comfort. The dog’s actions make me feel better. He has also given me pleasure; why do I not now have a responsibility to try to provide him with the same? It seems to me to be somewhat irrelevant that my friend is deliberately being moral with me and the dog is only showing dumb, ‘amoral’ affection, if the outcome is the same.

Objections to Considering Other Species

How should we determine who or what deserves moral consideration, then?

This question was presciently and, in my view, definitively answered by Jeremy Bentham over two centuries ago, when he wrote: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789). Just because an animal – or a severely disabled person – cannot understand morality and so cannot possess moral duties towards other beings, it does not follow that their suffering is therefore morally irrelevant. We consider suffering to be bad (by definition) when we feel it in us, and we know that animals feel pain, and that mammals and birds can experience as much (or perhaps even more) physical pain than humans, and that with our complex psychology we can develop coping or dissociative reactions to suffering which they cannot. Why, if inflicting unnecessary suffering on us is morally bad, would we consider it to be neutral when inflicted on animals, even at agonising levels?

The fact that we as rational beings are moral agents does not mean that non-rational creatures require no moral consideration from us. The fact that we alone can articulate the concept of rights doesn’t mean that we alone should be entitled to them. Because people generally have a desire to live, we say people have a right to life. But animals have that same desire, and the fact they cannot tell you that they do is no good reason to pretend that they don’t. All in all, I would say that when designing a society from behind the veil of ignorance, it must be remembered that animals, like babies and the mentally impaired, have a huge moral stake in the project, because human society affects animals’ pleasure and pain to a humongous extent. Therefore, when one considers the original position, I cannot see many sensible objections to adding that the veil of ignorance should preclude you from knowing your class, gender, race, sexuality, interests, mental ability, and species.

Somebody might object that it is impossible that you could be an animal-to-be behind the veil of ignorance, because to rationally consider how to structure society necessitates that you’re human. But this is a frail criticism: the thought experiment already relies upon the absurd contradiction that you could discuss a society before you’re even born! It asks you use your faculties of reason before you even exist. With this in mind, I can see no good reason against the idea that one might transform into an animal once the veil of ignorance is pulled down, losing your previously-held faculties of rationality and moral intelligence in the process.

It seems to me that to imagine being some thing else is no more absurd than imagining being some one else. Indeed, both are equally impossible. Someone might object that it is easier to imagine being another human, as we (mostly) share certain faculties of higher reasoning, language, and abstract thought. However, that should not dissuade us from trying to empathise with animals. They also share fundamental interests with humans, such as the desire to avoid entrapment, torture, pain, and being killed – interests we can all relate to.

So Now What?

Hopefully, the objections to including species ignorance in the Original Position are quashed, and we may now think about the results of including other animals in the thought experiment. Once we do so, it seems abundantly clear that we would want to construct a society in which animals would endure no unnecessary suffering at the hands of humans – that is to say, a vegan society. Indeed, from behind the veil of ignorance, making society vegan may even become your top priority: with seventy billion animals farmed worldwide, fifty billion of whom are in factory farms, your chance of being a cooped-up death-row chicken or pig would be much greater than that of being a human.

By extension, we would also have to condemn any society which participated in the mass incarceration, torture, and slaughter of animals. I believe that if people in the original position understood the conditions and practices considered standard in the contemporary meat and dairy industry, they would design society so that it would become impossible to be subjected to such torture. Rawls’ experiment is powerful because it invites the participant, in an entirely unsentimental way, to ‘imagine if it was you’. An insightful proverb, associated with the Yoruba people of Nigeria, comes to mind: “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

A common response to vegan philosophy – seemingly considered as something of a zinger – is that to go vegan would mean extinction of the vast majority of farm animals alive today. The only response to this is that it is far better to never exist than to live a life of abject horror and pain of the sort that factory-farmed animals endure. Would you like to live in constant darkness, growing up in a cage in which you cannot move, be mutilated, branded, and brutalised, no parents to guide you, no space to socialise, all to the constant screaming and braying of your kinsmen, whose bloodcurdling cries instinctively warn you of your inevitable slaughter? I would rather be dead.

You would never construct a society which treated animals the way ours does if there was even the slenderest chance that you could be born such an animal yourself. This is the conclusion we come to if we include animals in the Original Position. I think that is uncontroversial. So the question becomes: Why do we allow this treatment? Why should we treat sentient creatures, which share our own desires to avoid capture, torture, and abuse, in such an abominable and unjust way? The answer, I hope, is easy. We shouldn’t.

© Matthew Chalmers 2021

Matthew Chalmers is a journalist and animal rights activist who has contributed to Sentient Media, Current Affairs, The Ecologist and History Today, amongst other publications.

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