Duties to Islands

Duties to Islands
By Mary Midgley
Framing the Question:
Mary Midgley sets up her debate by asking the question if Robinson Crusoe had a duty not to
burn his island behind him once he was able to escape it. Were there any reasons, any moral
obligations, and any duty for him not to do so?
Defining the Key Terms:
Midgley argues that terms like "rights, duties, law, morality, obligation and justice" have been
deliberately narrowed so as to only be relevant in terms of social contracts between rational
human beings. Other non-sentient, non-rational creatures -- or even non-rational, insane, or nonadult humans-- are excluded from the process.
The Theoretical Models:
The social contract model is drawn from the idea of seventeenth century physics which
conceives of society as a spread of standard social atoms which are distinct and separate and only
combine with each other by choice and thoughtful self-interest.
The biological or organic model she juxtaposes to the physical model prefers to see people as
parts within and relating to a larger whole. She says leaves relate to not only leaves, but to fruit,
branches, trees, and the Earth. Likewise people relate to each other, to families, tribes and
societies, species, ecosystems and biospheres. We are parts, but we are also parts of a whole.
The Criticisms:
Midgley repeats her suggestion that one of the problems with the physical model of social
contracts is that it defines too narrowly the terms it will consider. This leaves many matters of
importance excluded from the discourse and left out from moral consideration. This, she says, is
best illustrated by what social contract theorists do not talk about rather than what they do. She
uses the examples of how the rights of animals and historical injustices such as slavery were left
out of many debates on "rights."
She goes on to say that to leave certain categories of thing out of discussion is to say that they are
unimportant. Worse, she argues, is when you say that they do not have rights essentially means
that they do not matter and you are therefore permitted to mistreat them, whoever "them" may
Midgley also says that contractual thinkers like to segregate and isolate groups of non-rational
things as though they were both small in number and inconsequential. She points out the list of
such items is long, ranging from the mentally ill to future generations and argues that the size
and scope of the list make it impossible to ignore them.
Midgley next tries to sever the term "duty" from the term "right" and separate it from its
contractual usage which she dislikes so much. Once you define a duty as something separate
from a right, you can then say you have a duty of care to things which may not be considered to
have rights. This, she says, is not to assign them the status of persons arbitrarily, rather merely
just to recognize that there are suitable and unsuitable ways of treating all things.
The Conclusion:
The answer to the question of whether Crusoe ought not to burn his island is answered by
Midgley by saying that the island did not have a right not to be mistreated, but that Crusoe had a
duty to treat it well. It was both a duty to the island, and a moral duty to him as part of a greater