Contractarianism, also referred to as Social Contract theory, is an approach to social and political philosophy that was developed by John Rawls, who argues that the “fair principles of justice” are those principles that free, equal, rational, and mutually disinterested people would agree to under circumstances that are fair. In order to imagine such a fair circumstance, Rawls introduces the “veil of ignorance,” which is a hypothetical-thought experiment where moral agents are encouraged to imagine themselves as basically a blank slate: a person who does not know his/her sex, sexual orientation, religion, intellectual capacities, physical characteristics, race, and so forth. Rawls claims that the principles that the people in the original position/veil of ignorance would assent to are the principles that are FAIR and JUST and the ones that society should embrace and promote. He concludes that the people in the OP would assent to the following two principles: (1) the Principle of Equal Liberty (each individual should have as much liberty as they possibly can, but that liberty cannot infringe on the liberty of other individuals), and (2) the Difference Principle (inequalities can actually be just, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off).
While the veil of ignorance is assumed to combat sexist, racist, and homophobic policies, it is often criticized for not prohibiting speciesist policies and for failing to provide direct moral consideration to nonhuman animals. This is because it is assumed that those in the original position know one thing about themselves: they are rational beings (because in order to engage in this conversation in the original position, they have to at least be rational) and thus they know they are not nonhuman animals who, by definition, are not rational in the strong sense. If this is so, why should they promote policies of nonhuman animal protection if they are mutually disinterested? Why should they promote the rights of nonhuman animals since doing so will actually limit their own liberties?
Mark Rowlands, in his essay Contractarianism and Animal Rights, argues that Rawls’ version of contractarianism, when properly understood, does entail that “non-human animals possess direct moral status, independently of their utility for rational agents, and independently of whatever interests rational agents may have in them.” According to Rowlands, the assumption that “just because only rational agents can set up or be party to the rules, only such agents are protected by the rules” is a logical fallacy. Since all hypothetical persons in the original position are equal, Rowlands argues that they would not know whether or not they are rational nor would they know what species they belong to when under the veil of ignorance. As he puts it, one’s membership in the species Homo sapiens is a morally arbitrary property; “a person plays no role in deciding whether or not she is going to be rational, she either is or she is not. The decision is not hers, but nature’s,” thus he concludes that the decision to restrict justice to ‘moral persons’ is an unreflective judgment which cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the social contract. Key to Rowlands’ argument is the endorsement of the “Kantian Contractarian model,” whereby the Kantian model, unlike the Hobbesian Contractarian model, employs the contract to determine what is morally right or wrong in the first place; it assumes that the binding aspect stems from the moral correctness of these principles: not from the agreement of the contractors.
Rowlands is also the author of Animal Rights (Macmillan, 1998), The Environmental Crisis (Macmillan, 2000), and Animals Like Us (Verso, 2002).