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.
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.
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.
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.
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.