Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals, by Christine Korsgaard (Oxford University Press) £19.99/$24.95
Immanuel Kant is one of history’s greatest philosophers. His moral philosophy is especially influential: many contemporary ethicists and theorists of justice take their inspiration from Kant’s “Categorical Imperatives”, the moral rules (or imperatives) that everyone must (that is, categorically) follow.
Kant had three such imperatives, but one rule is usually taken to be the core of his ethical thinking:“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always as an end.”
This principle can be seen as a foundation of the modern idea of human rights. To respect someone’s rights is to treat someone as an “end” in themselves; that is, as a rational being. When someone’s rights are violated, that victim is regrettably used as a “mere means” towards someone else’sends: they are treated in ways that they do not rationally agree to.
It is not surprising, then, that Kant made these infamous and often-quoted remarks about the moral status of animals:“so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man …Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity.”
“Self-consciousness” seems to require a kind of rationality that animals lack: it’s doubtful that animals think any “I think, therefore I am”-type thoughts or the like. Kant’s remarks, therefore, seem to suggest an argument like this: Animals aren’t rational; therefore, they lack rights.
Heard that one before?Everyone has! Some of the most prominent critics of animal rights argue like this, even to this day!
End of backstory.
Christine Korsgaard is a professor of philosophy, and former department chair, at Harvard University. She is one of the world’s most esteemed scholars of Kant’s ethics. And in her book, she argues that Kant’s ethics actually supports animal rights! She argues that, despite what Kant himself said about the matter, many animals are, like us, “ends in themselves” and due respect: they are not mere means to our ends.
The core argument is that the typical interpretation of Kant on animals, like that above, is mistaken: despite appearances, we shouldn’t see Kant as obsessed with rationality in a way that excludes animals, since we don’t understand why Kant was so concerned about our rationality. (Is this argument from incomprehension sound? I’m not sure, and I’m especially unsure how Kant would have responded: that he has “negative” views about animals seems pretty clear).
Korsgaard argues that, despite what is often thought about the role of rationality in Kant’s philosophy, he didn’t think that our rationality is what ultimately gives us rights, so to speak. What gives us rights is that we have a good – roughly, that things can go well and badly for us, from our own point of view. Since we are, in essence, rational beings, to respect our good requires respecting our rationality: that is why rationality is important, for us. But for beings with different goods, they too are ends in themselves, and we must respect them in whatever way their good dictates.
Since many animals, as conscious and feeling beings, have a good, they too are ends in themselves: pace Kant, they are not mere means to our ends. She summarises: “What is special about us is the empathy that enables us to grasp that other creatures are important to themselves in just the way that we are important to ourselves, and the reason that enables us to draw the conclusion that follows: that every animal must be regarded as an end in herself, whose fate matters, and matters absolutely, if anything matters at all”. Most of the book develops and defends this interpretive development of Kant’s ethics.
The final three chapters address practical issues. Korsgaard argues that factory farming and mistakenly called “humane” farming are morally wrong: eating meat involves treating animals as mere means to our ends. She argues that animal research doesn’t “save” human lives – at best, it extends them – and that, as a practice, it is wrong; she highlights the epistemic difficulties in arguing that humans benefit more than animals are harmed in experimentation. She addresses other practical issues, with clever insight and wisdom. Everyone should read these chapters.
In the book’s first paragraph, Korsgaard writes that how other animals are treated is a “moral atrocity of enormous proportions”. Why this is, she states, seems almost simple and obvious: we need a good reason to harm animals, and we often don’t have that. This book, again, shows that these important moral claims are reasonable and, surprisingly, defensible from a foundation that is often mistakenly appealed to in denying them.
So the headline is this: Harvard Kant scholar argues that Kant’s ethics – often used to argue “against” animal rights – better supports animal rights. This is news! Good news!