Korsgaard Lecture Two: The Moral Standing of Animals

Kant is usually interpreted as arguing that the duties we take ourselves to have to animals are in fact duties we have to ourselves: if we mistreat animals we brutalise ourselves – we shouldn’t do this so we shouldn’t mistreat animals.

Professor Christine Korsgaard

Professor Christine Korsgaard

But Korsgaard believe it is possible to construct a case for the moral standing of animals from a Kantian perspective. I hope in what follows I have represented her case correctly:

Claim: Animals have moral standing as ends-in-themselves, and should not be treated solely as means to human ends

Q: Why say this?

A: Animals pursue their own good and this is a sufficient condition for thinking that they are ends-in-themselves.

Q: Why think that the capacity to pursue one’s own good is a sufficient condition for being an end-in-oneself?

A: The capacity, on the part of human beings, to pursue their own good is what justifies human beings in thinking that they are ends-in-themselves.

Why should they think this is sufficient justification in their own case but not in the case of animals?

Q: Why say that human beings justify their claim to be ends-in-themselves on the basis of nothing more than the fact they pursue their own good?

Humans are rational as well as intelligent. This means that they can discern their reasons for acting, evaluate them as good or bad and themselves as worthy or unworthy for acting on them. They can also act on these evaluations.

Deer hunting

Deer hunting

(For example, a human might want to hunt and kill animals, but believing that his reasons for hunting and killing animals are not as good as his reasons for not hunting and killing animals, choose not to do so.)

It also means that when humans do act they believe that the good they pursue is not just good-for-them but good absolutely, and that their pursuit of it should not be obstructed, and should indeed be assisted when necessary. In this way they make universal laws: laws binding on everyone.

(For example, if I decide that the reasons for not hunting and killing animals  are better than the reasons for hunting and killing animals I will think that these are (or should be) reasons for you not to hunt and kill animals either)

It is, therefore, a necessary condition of rational choice – of being a law-maker, able to see obligations for oneself and for others – that one see oneself, and others like oneself, as end-in-themselves.

Q: But what do we mean by ‘others like ourselves’?

Owl swooping on mouse

Owl swooping on mouse

Animals are like us in one way (like us they pursue their good), and they aren’t like us in another way (they are not rational – not ‘law-makers’). Should we, therefore, say they are ends-in-themselves, or that they are not?

Korsgaard: we can distinguish two senses in which we might claim something is an End-in-Itself:

  1.  An active sense: something is an end-in-itself only if it is a law-maker (capable of rational, and therefore moral choice)
  1. A passive sense: something is an end-in-itself if it pursues its own good (even if it is not capable of rational or moral choice).

Korsgaard: we should adopt the latter making animals ends-in-themselves, and such that they shouldn’t be used solely as means.

Q: Why should we adopt the passive rather than the active sense?

We should adopt the passive sense because it is nothing more than the fact we do pursue our own good that justifies our claiming that we have a right to pursue our good. It is the mere fact we do pursue our good that grounds our belief that we have the right to do this.

But animals also pursue their good, and they therefore have the right to do this without being made subject to our will.

Commentary: I hope that I have represented Korsgaard’s argument accurately. I believe that the weak spot in it lies in the final part: the idea that we should adopt the passive rather than the active sense of being an end-in-oneself.

If Korsgaard is right her argument entails that to treat animals as nothing more than means to our ends is wrong: they have the right to pursue their good unhindered by us.

Animals should not be made subject to our will

Animals should not be made subject to our will

This has very far-reaching implications: we should not eat animals, use them for science, or do anything that is inconsistent with their pursuit of their own good, that makes them submit to our will.

We may disagree with this. But if we do we must engage with Korsgaard’s argument: explaining why we should adopt the active rather than the passive way of thinking of ends-in-themselves.

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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