Fellow Creatures: Lecture Two The Moral Standing of Animals

Fellow Creatures: Lecture Two
The Moral Standing of Animals
Christine M. Korsgaard
Abstract: In this lecture I present an account of why animals have moral standing, based in
Kant’s moral philosophy. I also comment on some important similarities and differences
between utilitarian and Kantian accounts of why animals have moral standing.
I. Kantian Ethics
The Formula of Humanity: “So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or
the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”
merely as a means = in a way to which she could not consent
Treating others as ends = no use of force, coercion, or deception; respect for their rights,
help to promote their ends when they are in need.
The Kingdom of Ends = a community where moral laws are legislated in common by all
rational beings.
II. A Problem with Kantian Ethics?
What about non-rational beings? What about infants, the demented elderly, the cognitively
impaired, the incurably insane, non-human animals. Aren’t they ends in themselves? May
they be used as mere means?
A common argument in the animal rights literature: it is inconsistent to refuse moral
standing to animals while granting it to these various kinds of non-rational humans.
The problem with this argument: bad metaphysics. Infancy is a life-stage; moral standing
applies to the agents and subjects of lives, not to life-stages. More generally: a creature is a
functional unity, whose parts and capacities work together, not just a heap of properties or
capacities. If you could subtract a well-functioning reason from a person, you wouldn’t be
left with a non-human animal; you’d be left with something that cannot function, and
requires care. Development, disability, and difference in kind are entirely different moral
III. Kant: W hy Persons are Ends in Themselves
Beings the existence of which rests not on our will but on nature, if they are
beings without reason, have only a relative worth, as means, and are
therefore called things, whereas rational beings are called persons because
their nature already marks them out as an end in itself, that is, as something
that may not be used merely as a means…(G 4:428)
Wrong Way to read this: Rationality gives persons intrinsic value, therefore persons, and
persons alone, are ends in themselves.
First problem: Doesn’t explain the kind of “intrinsic value” persons have. Why respect
rational being’s choices and promote their ends rather than (say) treat them like precious
Fellow Creatures, Lecture Two: The Moral Standing of Animals
Christine M. Korsgaard
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Second problem: Claims about intrinsic value are inconsistent with Kant’s philosophy. Such
claims would have to represent the kind of metaphysical knowledge that Kant argues we
lack. Claims that are not empirical must be established as presuppositions of rational
Another way to put this: in terms of the order between value and valuing. On the
intrinsic value theory, values come first, and we are valuing correctly when we value
things that (in fact) have value. On the Kantian theory, valuing comes first, and the
things that have value are those that are (or can be) correctly valued. Where do we
get the standard of correctness? There are things we must value if we are to value
anything at all, and our values must be consistent with those.
Why must we value our own humanity or personhood if we are to value anything at all?
1. Goodness, like importance, is tethered. Everything that is good must be good for
someone, some person or animal.
2. Rational beings only pursue ends that are good absolutely, in the sense that tethered
goodness can be good absolutely: good in the eyes of everyone:
What we are to call good must be an object of the faculty of desire in the
judgment of every reasonable human being, and evil an object of aversion
in the eyes of everyone … (C2 5:61)
3. So when we choose an end, we see ourselves as making a law for everyone; something
like: “Everyone must treat my action and its end as good”
4. Normally, the ends that we choose are things that are good-for us:
The ends that a rational being proposes at his discretion as effects of his
actions … are all only relative; for only their … relation to a specially
constituted faculty of desire gives them their worth… (G 4:428)
5. Yet we do choose them, and expect others not to obstruct our pursuit of them
and even to help us in need.
6. This shows that the view of ourselves as ends in themselves is a presupposition of
rational choice:
…rational nature exists as an end in itself. The human being necessarily
represents his own existence this way; so far it is thus a subjective principle
of human actions. (G 4:429)
That is, we take our ends to matter absolutely, because they matter to us, or to be
good absolutely because they are good for us.
7. This means we must choose our ends in such a way that they are consistent with
the value of rational nature in others as well as ourselves, that is, morally:
But every other rational being also represents his existence in this way
consequent on just the same rational ground that also holds for me; thus it
is at the same time an objective principle … (G 4:429)
Fellow Creatures, Lecture Two: The Moral Standing of Animals
Christine M. Korsgaard
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8. Therefore (according to Kant) it is moral choice that marks us out as ends in ourselves,
and so only persons who are ends in themselves.
Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an
end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawmaking member
in the kingdom of ends. (G 4:435)
IV. Why Animals are Ends in Themselves
Active Sense of EIS = you can legitimately place me under an obligation to respect your
choices and help promote your ends, you can make laws for me.
Passive Sense of EIS = the things that are good for you should be treated as good
One way we make laws for ourselves when we make choices: we make categorical
imperatives for ourselves in the sense of committing ourselves to doing what is necessary to
carrying out those choices even if we don’t happen to want to.
But when we originally we choose to act on an inclination, we are not respecting our own
autonomy, or a choice or law we have already made, in that sense. Instead we are taking
something to be good absolutely simply because it is good for us. So the description under
which we presuppose our value as an end in itself is: as someone for whom things can be
good or bad: that is, as an animal.
Therefore the presupposition of rational choice is that animals are ends in themselves.
Objection: maybe the presupposition is that only things that are good for
autonomous rational beings are good absolutely?
Reply: Many of the things we take to be good or bad absolutely are in our capacity
as animate rather than as rational beings: food, sex, comfort, freedom from
pain and terror. The restriction is artificial.
V. Kant and Bentham
Both arguments say that animals have moral standing because they have valenced
experiences: desire and aversion, pleasure and pain. What’s the difference?
1. According to my argument, pleasure is not the good. Conscious well-functioning, healthy
life lived in good conditions, a condition which is necessarily pleasant, is the good.
To have a final good, a being must be conscious.
Two ways we might think consciousness might be related to the good:
1. Agreeable consciousness (pleasure) is the good.
2. The good is something independent of consciousness, of which consciousness
makes us aware.
Fellow Creatures, Lecture Two: The Moral Standing of Animals
Christine M. Korsgaard
p. 4
Why neither of these is correct:
for an animal, pleasurable consciousness is not
independent of well-functioning but (partly) constitutive of it, painful consciousness is not
independent of bad functioning but (partly) constitutive of it. But in neither case is the
pleasant or painful consciousness all there is to well-functioning.
Two views about pleasure:
1. Pleasure and pains are good and bad sensations caused by other things.
2. Pleasure and pain are ways of experiencing other things, welcomingly or
They are forms of primitive self-consciousness, an animal’s awareness of his own
responses to things – responses to things not just as good or bad, but as good
or bad for him.
Goodness as a tethered concept: everything good must be good for someone; what is
absolutely good must be good (or at least not bad) for everyone for whom things can be
good or bad.
Tethering blocks aggregation, or at least it blocks subtraction. We cannot weigh the
interests of creatures against each other. We seek solutions to problems that are good for
all animals.
Because they accept aggregation, utilitarians do not think it is essential to the goodness or
badness of pleasure and pain that they are good or bad for creatures. They think that
creatures matter because they are the locations of joy and suffering, rather than thinking
that joy and suffering matter because they matter to the creatures who experience them.
But it is creatures, not their states, that are ends in themselves.
VI. Kantian Naturalism
The world of value can be explained in terms of (but not reduced to) natural facts. Values
arise from the nature of people and animals, from the forms of consciousness characteristic
of the special ways in which animals and people function.
What’s special about people is not that we are more important than or superior to the other
animals. What’s special about people is that we have the empathy to recognize that other
animals are important to themselves just as we are important to ourselves, and the reason
that enables us to draw the conclusion that the fate of every animal matters.