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Fellow Creatures by Christine Korsgaard

Chad Trainer asks whether animals should be considered moral ‘ends in themselves’.

Do we have a moral duty to treat non-human animals well? Are they sufficiently like us to be considered ‘moral beings’? According to Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘Speculation on the Beginning of Human History’ (1786), man’s conception of himself as the ‘true end of nature’ prompted us to exalt ourselves “altogether beyond any community with animals”, relegating other animals to the status of mere means and tools for humans. But for moral philosopher Christine Korsgaard, the questions of how we’re related to other animals, and whether it matters how we treat them, take us into the ‘existential heart of philosophy’. It confuses her, therefore, that relatively few philosophers have ventured into this territory. She sets out to redress this balance somewhat with her book Fellow Creatures (2018).

To Korsgaard, Kant’s outlook on animals seems nothing short of “inherently unstable, if not absolutely incoherent.” This is part of the general instability in humanity’s attitudes toward animals. The complaint from people that they’re ‘being treated like animals’ betrays the very real contrast they make between themselves and “beings whom we take to have a lower value.” Kant argued that “The fact that man can have the idea ‘I’ raises him infinitely above all the other beings living on earth… irrational animals… we can dispose of as we please.” The duty Kant imagines we owe to animals amounts to no more than the duty we might consider we owe to great paintings, say, to preserve them in good condition and appreciate their beauty. Our motives to protect them are not on account of any particular obligations Kant thinks we have to the paintings (or animals) themselves, but rather to ourselves as ethical beings.

While Kant may be right that the human sense of self entails a “kind of consciousness that is unified over time”, Korsgaard takes him to task for glossing over the graduated nature of self, and consequently neglecting any possibly equivalent ‘functional unity’ or awareness of selfhood over time in the consciousness of other animals. The prevailing view that things are simply more important to us than they are to other animals may, Korsgaard argues, amount to no more than a callous reluctance to appreciate that “the subjectivity of others is just as real as our own.” She writes, “I think that many people assume that animals are simply less important than people, and therefore that what happens to them matters less.” “It may be true,” she later acknowledges, “that only we human beings think about ourselves, if that means having thoughts in which we identify ourselves as ‘I’. But even if it were [true], the issue is more complicated than that, for self-consciousness is something that comes in degrees and takes many different forms.” (p.30)

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That we humans expect ourselves to live up to various moral standards and ideals does distinguish us from other animals. For Kant, other animals’ inability to participate in reciprocal legislation due to their lack of rationality is what frees us from any obligations to them, as it puts them outside of the ‘moral community’. Although Korsgaard does not reject Kant’s tenet that ‘rational autonomous beings have obligations to each other grounded in relations of reciprocal legislation’, she disagrees that this implies that the non-rational animals’ inability to participate in reciprocal legislation simply relieves humans from obligations towards them. Beneficence, for instance, entails respect for animal and rational nature alike. Korsgaard argues that humans may very well be distinctive in having capacities for empathizing with other creatures’ importance to themselves, and for appreciating this as grounds for treating other animals as ends in themselves. She also argues that although autonomous rational beings (that is, humans) alone establish the moral presupposition that we’re ‘ends in ourselves’, not merely means to ends, it hardly follows that this status applies only to autonomous rational beings, as Kant thought. There are respects in which animals are analogous to us, after all; and it is precisely in these respects that animals ought to be cherished for their own sakes, instead of for the merely salutary effects such nurture might have on our own characters, say. Korsgaard’s claim that other animals have the ethical standing of ‘ends in themselves’ has as its foundation the idea of the ‘essentially self-affirming nature of life itself’.

In theorizing about the moral claims of animals, diametrically opposed views emerge from an identical premise (Kant called this situation an ‘antinomy’). For some proponents of animal rights, due to the evils of nature to which wild animals are vulnerable, it is imperative that we make all animals domestic. For other proponents of animal rights, our inability to sufficiently accommodate domestic animals obliges us to leave them wild.

Korsgaard herself concedes that including animals in Kant’s ‘Kingdom of Ends’ would render the hope of making the world good for every ‘End’ null and void, since animals’ interests are inevitably irreconcilable. Animals aren’t interested in morality anyway, Kantian or otherwise: “Nature is recalcitrant to moral standards. We can impose the form of law on our actions, but we cannot impose the form of the good on nature. This… is the source of some of the knottiest problems of animal ethics” (p.154). And were we to set out to genetically manipulate predators or rid the planet of them altogether we would be ‘playing God’ in an opprobrious sense. For Korsgaard, we are obligated to put an end to predation “ only if we take on the role of the creator with regard to them, and… we have no obligation to do that.” But the fact that nature is rife with conflicts among animals and “we don’t take on the role of the creator” hardly absolves humans from their obligation to treat other animals as ends in themselves, or at least to not ‘undermine existing animal communities’. To be sure, Korsgaard believes we’re basically entitled to preserve our species. That said, according to her own variety of Kantian ethics, this “is the kind of right we can forfeit – we can fail to deserve it – if we continue to abuse the individual animals and the animal communities with whom we share the world” (p.214). At her most arresting, Korsgaard develops the implications of her argument to ponder how “nothing has ever been as bad for the biotic community as unhindered human reproduction. Shouldn’t it follow that it is wrong for humans to reproduce, and right for us to stop reproducing and let ourselves go extinct?” (p.213).

Fellow Creatures is a carefully structured and rigorously reasoned tract. But instead of culminating in a didactic crescendo, Korsgaard has the intellectual integrity to own up to her bewilderment and dissonance. She considers pet-keeping morally problematic, for instance. On one hand, the lives of animals consist, for the most part, in reproduction and obtaining food – the very activities of which pet owners are intent on depriving them. On the other hand, she muses, “I find the idea that we cannot give dogs a good life implausible” (p.235). The case of cats is ‘iffier’. That is, “there is genuine controversy over whether an indoor life is good enough for them, while letting them live outdoors can be dangerous to them in the city, and has a deleterious effect on wildlife. Another problem is that they are obligate carnivores” (p.235). Korsgaard confesses to having kept five fellow creatures as pets – the cats with whom she has “lived a morally compromised life, feeding them the meat that I will not eat myself.”

In one of Plato’s earlier dialogues, the Meno, the eponymous interlocutor complains to Socrates, “Socrates you are exactly like the flat stingray that one meets in the sea. Whenever one comes into contact with it, it numbs him, and that is the sort of thing that you seem to be doing to me now.” Socrates replies: “…if the stingray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself, then the comparison is just, but not otherwise.” To Korsgaard’s credit, one completes her tract similarly affected by her own self-confessed Socratic paralysis.

© Chad Trainer 2020

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of the history of philosophy.

Fellow Creatures, Christine M. Korsgaard, 2018, OUP, £14.99 pb, 272 pages, ISBN: 9780198854876

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