What could justify humanity’s cruel treatment of other creatures? Absolutely nothingby Christine Korsgaard / July 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Immanuel Kant’s argument that no human being should be used as a mere means to the ends of others has become a part of our moral culture. Speaking informally, you are using a person as a mere means when you are using that person in a way that is contrary to his/her own good and to which he/she could not possibly consent. But every human being, as a rational being, is an “end-in-itself,” as Kant put it, and so has an inherent value that forbids such treatment.
But we human beings have not been willing to exercise this kind of restraint or grant this kind of value to the other animals who share the planet with us. Instead, we have eaten them, experimented on them, tested medications on them, kept ourselves warm with their fur and skin and feathers, used them for transport and for heavy work like pulling plows, enlisted them in our wars, employed them to sniff out bombs and drugs and to track the missing, made them fight and race for our amusement, and found joy and comfort in their companionship.
These uses have to a large extent been at the expense of the interests of the animals themselves, whom we have genetically altered by selective breeding to suit our own purposes, made to work beyond their capacity, subjected to torments in laboratories, and confined to factory farms where they lead short lives in deplorable conditions. Even when we do not use the other animals, we have been heedless of their welfare, freely killing them whenever they are a nuisance to us, and depriving them of the habitat on which they and their communities depend for leading their own lives.
What could justify this difference in the way we treat other human beings, or anyway in the way we think we ought to treat them, and the way we treat the other animals?
Immanuel Kant argued that only rational beings have moral value and that we are free to use the other animals however we please. Most people are uncomfortable with that conclusion, because most agree that it is morally wrong to subject an animal to wanton or unnecessary cruelty. Animals, at least many of them, are sentient beings, capable of suffering and joy, with lives and interests of their own, and that should surely give them some standing not to be harmed “unnecessarily.” But if that is so, why don’t we treat them as ends in themselves?
“Animals are sentient beings, capable of suffering and joy”
Some people think that animals have some value but people just have more. Some people point to the higher capacities of human beings and argue that our lives have more value than the lives of animals. In Fellow Creatures, I argue that none of these arguments work. People are not more important than the other animals, are not superior to the other animals, are not even better off than the other animals. This is not exactly because people and animals are “equal” but because there are no grounds for making these comparisons at all. Comparisons of this sort require that the two things being compared are subject to a common standard, which one of them meets to a higher extent than the other. There are no shared standards that ground the comparisons I just mentioned.
Let’s go back to Kant for a moment. His argument was something like this. I am a rational being. When I judge that something is good for me and my loved ones, I treat it as something that is good absolutely. That is, I decide that I have a good reason to pursue it, as long as I am neither harming nor wronging anyone else. Furthermore, I feel that I may demand that others must respect my pursuit of it, by not interfering with my actions or attempting to manipulate my choices, and possibly even by helping me to achieve my ends when I am in need.
In this way, when we choose to pursue our ends, we make a set of demands on ourselves and others—a set of laws by which we mutually obligate one another to respect and assistance. The interlocking set of laws that rational beings make for one another constitutes us as a moral community, pursuing common ends under common moral laws. Kant called it the “Kingdom of Ends.” We accord one another the standing of “ends-in-ourselves,” as fellow authors of the moral law.
Kant thought that animals should not be treated as ends in themselves, because they cannot be part of this community. Not being autonomous rational beings, they cannot make and respond to laws.
But Kant’s story was incomplete. When I make a choice, I make it a law for myself that I should try to realise a certain end, and a law for others that they should not interfere with me, and possibly even that they should help me. But prior to that decision is another: the decision that something should be treated as good absolutely, by myself and others, simply because it is good for me or for someone I care about. This is a prior way in which I claim the standing of an “end-in-itself.”
Simply because I am a creature for whom things can be good or bad, I claim that my good should be treated as good absolutely. But human beings are not the only creatures for whom things can be good or bad: that is true of all of the animals. There is no reason why what is good for rational beings should be treated as good absolutely while what is good for the other animals may be ignored or discounted. Animals are ends-in-themselves in this sense too.
Kant was right that animals cannot join with us in making laws for one another in the Kingdom of Ends. Our moral relations to people are different from our moral relations to the other animals. But we have reason for treating what is good for an animal as good absolutely. That reason is simply that it is somebody’s good, the good of a creature for whom things can be good or bad.
Some of the ways we treat animals differently can be justified on the basis of differences between people and the other animals—differences in what is good or bad for them, and in some cases, differences in how good or bad it can be. But the terrible ways we have in fact treated the other is a moral atrocity of epic and growing proportions, and it is time for a radical shift in the ways we think about and interact with them.
Christine Korsgaard is Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. Her new book is Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals