Beyond the Social Contract: On Mary Midgley’s “Duties Concerning Islands”

Rory Ewins

This is the first in a series of essays I wrote as an undergraduate, honours, and then masters student in political theory, most of them exploring the concepts of rights and autonomy. I’ve edited it heavily to remove youthful hyperbole and imperfections of style, but essentially it’s the work of a third-year political science student, written in 1989 in response to Midgley’s article and the set text of the unit concerned, Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government.

Mary Midgley, in “Duties Concerning Islands” (1983/1995), argues that the language and logic of social contract theories overlook many of our rights and obligations as human beings. She prompts us to consider our rights and duties in relation to parts of the physical world other than simply each other, arguing that theories of a “social contract” between individuals overlook a vast number of possible interactions involving human beings: with animals, the environment, the biosphere, inanimate objects, children, the insane, and even oneself.

John Locke (1690) postulated that societies arose when individuals in a state of nature came together and agreed to form a government and live by its rules. Models of this kind, Midgley says, are drawn from seventeenth century physics notions of “ultimate, solitary, independent individuals” (1995:91); but while physics has moved on from such notions, social contract theory has not. In the social contract model, “all significant moral relations between individuals are the symmetrical ones expressed by contract” (1995:92).

The pervasive influence of the social contract model has narrowed the meaning of terms that express a binding claim, such as right, duty and morality (Midgley 1995:89-90). “Rights” and “duties” are seen as arising from the contract formed between rational human beings. From this come claims that animals, lunatics and young children cannot have natural rights, which G.R. Grice (for example) says we “should be willing to accept” (cited by Midgley 1995:90). If only those who partake in the social contract have rights, and only have duties to other partakers, it follows that we cannot have duties to ourselves (having not formed a contract with oneself).

Such conclusions seem false to most of us, says Midgley; yet if we confine ourselves to the language of the social contract, we are compelled to agree with them. Part of the problem is that:

Words like rights and duties are awkward because they indeed have narrow senses approximating to the legal, but they also have much wider ones in which they cover the whole moral sphere (Midgley 1995:92).

The social contract model uses these words in relation to human beings’ obligations to each other. When used in this sense only, to talk of “rights” of animals and the environment is meaningless. Yet when one says that an animal has no rights, people will read into the word its wider meaning, and object.

Some theorists recognise these difficulties. Midgley cites John Rawls’s concession that the question of animal rights is important and needs investigation (ibid.), but points out that such remarks (“this should be investigated some day”), when following an intense discussion on contractual justice, tend to suggest that “the excluded problems are relatively unimportant” (1995:94).

Locke made a clear distinction between human beings and everything else in creation. His first passage on the state of nature (chapter 2, paragraph 4) refers to a state of equality only between creatures of the same species and rank. Locke believed that man had been made paramount by God, citing the Book of Psalms, which says that God has given the Earth to the children of men (in ch. 5, para. 24). When Locke says “the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men” (ch. 5, para. 26) he is speaking with these biblical pronouncements in mind.

Rights and duties of and to animals and the environment would have been of little concern at a time when the finite, interconnected nature of the Earth’s resources was of less concern. But even then, Locke did not approve of arbitrary destruction:

[Man] has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it (ch. 2, para. 6).

Even children are supposed unequal to adults; yet Locke does say that parents have duties to them, namely to take care of them until they reach adulthood (ch. 6, para. 58). A duty on the one side implies a right on the other.

In these cases, though, rights are limited; and Locke is in any case talking about the situation in the state of nature, not of any rights and duties arising from the social contract. These are more examples of “intuitions”—the deep-seated morality which is unstatable in social contract terms. Locke explained many such duties (such as caring for children) as God’s directives. Nowadays, many would consider such explanations insufficient, and Midgley identifies the clear need for alternatives. She addresses some of the questions of these “non-contractual duties”, such as the duties one has to oneself. For example, a non-contractual duty such as self-respect is of great importance, because without it “all outward duties would become meaningless” (Midgley 1995:99); her comment on the “paralyzing effect of depression” is a clear illustration of the point.

Then there are duties other than those one has to oneself. Today, humanity’s most pressing concern is increasingly the environment, which can include animals and even man-made objects and structures, and where we stand in relation to it.

Why do so many today see appeals by conservationists to “wilderness for its own sake” or the “innate value” of forests as emotional and irrational? Midgley notes our tendency to distrust appeals to the “innate value” of the environment as superstitious. But as she says,

Scruples about rapine have been continually dismissed as irrational, but it is not always clear what the rational principles are supposed to be with which they conflict (1995:98).

Why, too, must conservationists provide some reason for preserving the environment which translates it into human terms—for example, as a tourism resource? Part of the reason is that we still see humanity as paramount. An outside observer of the Earth would see humanity as only one strand of the web of life, no more important than other strands. But when we look at the Earth, we see ourselves as the most important things on it. This is surely a consequence of our species’ urge to perpetuate itself, whether it comes from God or from a Darwinian struggle to survive. No doubt gorillas also see themselves as the most important creatures on Earth; as would sheep, chickens, or insects. They would all, in their own way, be correct: from their perspective, they are the most important creatures on Earth.

If we see humans as paramount, does that give us the right to do what we like with everything else? Here the word “right” complicates matters, for it is meaningless when we talk about the natural world. An earthquake doesn’t demolish a city because it has a right to do so; it just does. If a plague of locusts devours a crop, we don’t ask what right they had to do so. Pain, agony and devastation are part of the natural world.

To talk of a forest’s “innate value” or “right to life” is as absurd as talking of a human’s “right to life” if we do so without taking (other) human beings into account. A forest may be destroyed by a bushfire or flattened by elephants, and a human may be struck by lightning and killed, without contravening any “rights”. When we say “a human has a right to life”, we mean that no other human has the arbitrary right to kill him or her. When we say a forest has innate value, we suggest that humans have no right to destroy it. We may even mean that we have a duty to protect it, if it’s important enough to us.

When we talk about rights and duties, we are actually relating our actions and their consequences back to ourselves, and the effect they will have on ourselves—no matter what part of the physical world we are referring to, human or otherwise. If we neglect to care for our children, they may die, and we are the ultimate losers (ours genes are not perpetuated; in biblical terms, we haven’t “multiplied”).

Whatever other reasons we might have, ultimately we refrain from indiscriminate destruction because it carries the risk of destroying ourselves. For the first time in history, we realise what a profound affect our actions can have, not just on our immediate surroundings, but on the whole world. Cutting down the Amazon will worsen the greenhouse effect, and using CFCs will damage the ozone layer. We ask what right we have to do these things, and consider it our duty to stop the damage, because in environmental cataclysms we can see our own doom. When we say that a forest has innate value, part of our concern is surely that without forests (or, more broadly, a biosphere hospitable to humans) our own survival is called into question.

Similarly, a species of animal has a right to survive (without attempts from us to eradicate it), because every species removed from the Earth reduces the diversity of the whole system of life. The less diverse a biological system, the greater its susceptibility to collapse, which would not benefit us. Furthermore, other species have the potential to be of direct benefit to humans (for example, plants can be a source of medicine), a benefit we deny ourselves if we destroy them.

There are, of course, other reasons why we value forests and animals. We place a value on happiness and pleasure; and a more diverse world, in which forests and exotic species of animals continue to exist, has far greater potential for giving us pleasure than a less diverse one.

Locke said that in the state of nature no-one has liberty to destroy “any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it” (ch. 2, para. 6). We could extend this limitation to the acts of society under the social contract. If we assign forests and rare species their real value in the overall scheme of things, this “bare preservation” becomes so valuable that a “nobler use” is hard to find. The destruction of the thylacine to protect flocks of common sheep was a highly questionable act in these terms, as was the destruction of the North American passenger pigeon simply for sport.

Even common animals deserve a measure of preservation in Locke’s view. In his account of property in the state of nature, he states that “nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy” (ch. 5, para. 30). To kill an animal just for the sake of killing, with no intent to use it and no nobler purpose, is to invoke Locke’s spoilage clause. The same could be said of chopping down a tree in a forest for no good reason, or of Robinson Crusoe burning his island.

Even our disgust at cruelty to animals relates to our own human perspectives. Kant spoke of our “indirect duty” to our own humanity; by consciously inflicting harm on creatures we know can feel pain, we demonstrate our own inhumanity. Midgley argues that this explanation is insufficient:

Anyone who refrained from cruelty merely from a wish not to sully his own character, without any direct consideration for the possible victims, would be frivolous and narcissistic (1995:95).

But “consideration for the possible victims” only arises from our own character. The answer must be narcissistic. If we were to grant animals absolute rights of freedom from cruelty, then we would have to protect every animal on Earth from unnecessary pain—right down to male insects being devoured by their female partners. The duty not to be cruel to animals arises because we (humans, collectively) don’t want to cause such pain.

The same framework suggests rights and duties in regard to inanimate objects—specifically, man-made objects. If the Mona Lisa was common property belonging to nobody, would anyone have the right to set a match to it? Obviously that would cause outrage; the Mona Lisa is part of our common heritage. Yet if someone set fire to one of its millions of reproductions, no-one would notice.

The response must be similar to that concerning a rare species or forest: to consciously reduce the diversity of the world would be to diminish its value to ourselves. Where the reproduction is concerned, finding “some nobler use than its bare preservation” would be relatively easy (reducing clutter in the home, maybe). For the Mona Lisa itself, it would be impossible.

I don’t want to suggest that the world revolves around humans; perhaps it would be better off, in the eyes of most other creatures on the globe, were we not around, given that we are a threat to the continued survival of so many. But when we consider the rights of and our duties towards animals and the environment, like all creatures, we look out first for ourselves.

Fortunately, we are beginning to realise that our effect on the environment affects ourselves. Knowing that our future is inextricably tied up with that of the whole world, we can see that unless we are careful managers—unless we take the rights of the environment and animals into account—the world may change so dramatically that we cannot survive in it. A “social contract” model can tell us our rights and duties in relation to other human beings, but the wider world requires a wider approach.

To end with an example, imagine an island like Robinson Crusoe’s, covered in vegetation, with two goats living on it, who prefer grass to bushes but can survive on both. They have three options: they can multiply to fill the island, devour all the vegetation, and then die for lack of food; they can multiply and fill the island, devour all the grass, and be left with a boring diet of bushes; or they could say (if only they were as rational and vocal as humans), “We have a duty to ourselves and our kind to maintain enough food to survive, and to maintain enough grass to keep our lives interesting. That grass and those bushes have a right to survive.”

The grass and bushes have no absolute right to survive. But if the goats are to survive, they must imbue the plants on their island with “rights”, just as we must the world around us.

May 1989/May 2004


Locke, John. An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. 1690.

Midgley, Mary. “Duties Concerning Islands: Of Rights & Obligations.” Encounter 60, no. 2 (February 1983): 36-43.

_____. “Duties Concerning Islands.” In Environmental Ethics, ed. Robert Elliot, 89-104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.