Animals, Human Beings and Other Persons – Professor Christine Korsgaard

Professor Christine Korsgaard

Professor Christine Korsgaard

I was privileged this week to go to a series of lectures by the renowned Kantian philosopher, Christine Korsgaard. This was hosted brilliantly by the Oxford Martin School.

Professor Korsgaard gave three lectures. Today I will give a synopsis of lecture one, tomorrow lecture two and the day after lecture three. Please come and comment.

Lecture one: Animals, Human Beings and Persons

In this lecture Korsgaard argued that human beings are different from, but no more important than, other animals.

(a) Humans are different from other animals

We seem to be different from animals in virtue of our rationality, our capacity to evaluate the grounds of our own desires and beliefs, to pass judgements on ourselves, and to act in the light of such judgements.

Lion eating meat

Lion eating meat

Example: no animal can think its desire to eat meat is unworthy. But human beings can make such judgements, and they can act on them by, for example, refusing to eat meat, despite their desire to eat meat.

If it is only humans that have this capacity this makes human beings, and only human beings, normatively self-governing beings, moral animals with obligations.

It is an empirical question whether it is indeed only humans that have this capacity. But even if it is only humans that have this capacity it does not make them superior to animals.

(b) Humans are no more important than other animals

If there was nothing to whom anything was important nothing would be important.

This means all importance is relative (nothing is absolutely important) and tethered (such that it is important to something).

This means the claim that humans are more important than animals makes no sense because there is no standpoint from which to make such a claim.

Human beings are more important than other animals to themselves certainly. But this doesn’t entail that they are more important absolutely.

Can we say human lives are more important to humans than animal lives are to animals?

How would we justify such a claim? We do not, and cannot, know how important animals’ lives are to animals.

Aron Ralston

Aron Ralston

We know animals’ lives are important to animals. Animals will, for example, chew off their own limbs if caught in a trap. We are amazed and impressed when a human does this (as with Aron Ralston, the hiker who cut off his own arm to escape).

There are even reasons for thinking that animal lives are more important to animals than human lives are to humans. For example humans sometimes commit suicide in the belief their life has no value, no animal does this. Humans also die for causes, demonstrating that some things are more important to them than life. Animals don’t do this.

The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức

The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức

Q: From which viewpoint can we justify the claim that human life is more important than animal life?

A: There is no such viewpoint, therefore it is incoherent to claim that human life is more important than animal life.

Korsgaard’s Conclusion

So Korsgaard is not arguing, as many do, that humans are no different from animals and therefore no more important. She is arguing they are different, but even so not more important. Her argument turns on her conception of what it is for one thing to be ‘more important’ than another thing.

In lecture two, which I shall summarise tomorrow, Korsgaard argues that, just like humans, animals have moral standing.

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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3 Responses to Animals, Human Beings and Other Persons – Professor Christine Korsgaard

  1. Jane Billinghurst says:

    Thank you for summarizing this, Marianne. Some people believe orcas in captivity do commit suicide. “Lolita is the only orca housed at the Miami Seaquarium. Her former tank-mate Hugo died on March 4, 1980 after repeatedly smashing his head into the walls of the tank in what is described as an act of suicide.” Source:

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Jane,

      If this Orca really did commit suicide of course this might undermine Korsgaard’s argument for the claim that animals differ from us, but that might be thought to support her claim that animals have moral standing and are not inferior to us.


  2. This is an interesting and rational argument; that human lives are only more important to humans, and therefore this does not really “count”. Unfortunately it is only humans who ponder such questions, so humans are the only ones whose opinions do count (many would argue). I like the argument, and the conclusion that it is irrational to claim that human lives are more important. Unfortunately I do not think it will change many minds!

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