Commentary on A Theory of Justice
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Commentary on A Theory of Justice

John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice has generated much discussion among ethicists, and I think for good reason. A distinctive feature of his theory was his description of a hypothetical “original position.” In attempt to avoid the biases that invariably arise when people have a stake in ethical choices, Rawls envisioned people determining the rules and policies of society behind a “veil of ignorance” in that they did not know who they would be in the society they constructed. People would choose a society in which 1% of the people had 99% of society’s wealth, because there would be a 99% chance that they would be among the impoverished poor and only a 1% chance that they would be rich.
Though I think there is much to commend Rawls’ book, he stumbles badly when it comes to animal issues, leaving this important topic for later consideration. Should the original position include nonhumans? In other words, do nonhumans have moral standing whose interests should be taken into account? I think we should imagine nonhumans at the original position, giving them hypothetical votes in this hypothetical arrangement, because they have a subjective inner life with feelings, emotions, and desires, much as we have. In contrasts, as best we can tell, plants do not have feelings and cannot be wronged in the same way that sentient beings can be wronged. I do not think we need to include individual plants as present in the original position.
Some might argue against including nonhumans in the original position, because nonhumans are unable to understand the social contract that Rawls’ original position demands. However, the same is true of many who are mentally disabled. The point of the original position is to present the interests of anyone who might gain or lose as a consequence of society’s rules, and nonhumans have at least as much to gain or lose as humans. Similar to those who are mentally disabled, many nonhumans are extremely vulnerable, and their only protection against abuse at the hands of humans are rules and regulations that restrain humans.
For many people, including nonhumans in the original position is counter-intuitive. Many people can readily imagine themselves as being a human of a different gender or skin color, but many have difficulty envisioning themselves as nonhumans. For the purposes of applying Rawls’ theory appropriately, I think we should.

Next essay, I will suggest that, given the mystery of our personal existence, we should be open to the possibility that our sense of personal identity (often identified as the “soul”), could exist in a nonhuman being. 

Go on to: Could I Ever Be a Nonhuman?
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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