2.99 Contractualism's plausibility

Contractualism rules out direct obligations to individuals who lack the capacity to make contracts. This is a very large group, including all young children, many severely mentally impaired, everyone with advanced dementia, all nonhuman animals. Is this a consequence we should accept, or a mere prejudice that should lead us to suspect the adequacy of contractualism?

The contractualist might respond by arguing that we have indirect duties to non-contractors even if we are not obligated directly to them. That is, we have obligations to a dog, for example, in virtue of the fact that we are its owner. Animals and non-contracting humans can be included in the moral circle insofar as actual parties to agreements care about them, represent them, and include them in contracts.

One might try to address this issue as a contractualist. But why should the capacity to contract be the foundation of ethics? Why not care about all sentient beings? Or all future generations of humans? Utilitarians hold that the moral circle includes all beings, present and future, who can feel pain and pleasure. Here is a circle that includes beings outside the current generation of homo sapiens able-to-contract-with-each-other.

Author: Gary Comstock
Maintained By: Gary Comstock
Last Updated: 2008-08-14