Korsgaard on animals and ethics

(Northern Virginia) I made some comments about animal rights and welfare at one of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities last week. I have contributed no original scholarship on this topic, nor even followed the vast literature closely. But in the course of a quick lit. review, I came across the line of argument that Christine Korsgaard has developed, and it struck me as persuasive. I’d put a central point like this:

  1. There are two kinds of beings, those that have wants and those that don’t.
  2. There are two kinds of beings, those that can “reason” and those that cannot (where to reason is to have reflexive thoughts, or the ability to assess wants, desires, etc. critically).

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Inert objects like rocks and stars neither have wants nor can they reason. It follows that nothing is good or bad for them. All members of the animal kingdom, including human beings, have wants. That implies that some things are good and bad for each of them. Perhaps we alone are rational, in the Kantian sense. In that case, we and not animals have moral duties. But our moral duties are not only to those who are rational, but to those who have wants, which includes animals.

(I put God in the space for “can reason,” but “has [no] wants,” because I’ve been reading Spinoza this winter, and that’s his view. It’s theologically plausible that if there’s a God, God has wants. In that case, God would be in the same zone with us.)

Kant wrote:

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.

Korsgaard is a major Kantian, but in her Tanner Lectures on “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals” (2004) and subsequent work, she disagrees with Kant’s reasoning here. What is wrong with shooting the dog is not that the man somehow neglects his duties to other humans. He has done wrong by mistreating the dog. Just like the man, the dog has desires, and there are things that are good for the dog. The man has negated the dog’s good in his own interest.

It is likely that dogs do not have the capacity to reflect on or change what they want. Therefore a dog does not have the right or obligation to participate in creating moral norms that are binding on itself or the man. It “cannot judge” in the way that a person can. We don’t blame it (or genuinely esteem it) for acting like a dog; that is simply its nature. But the man’s duty to reflect on his own desires is precisely the duty to take others’ desires into account. It doesn’t matter whether the others can judge; it matters whether they have desires and goods. Likewise, our duties to other human beings are not contingent on their acting like Kantian rational subjects.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare and my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfare.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.