Philosophers and other animals

Allowed to Grow Old: Images — Isa Leshko Photography
Bessie. Holstein cow, aged 20, from the Allowed to Grow Old project and book by the photographer Isa Leshko. All photos © Isa Leshko

Christine Korsgaard argues that we can extend a Kantian moral framework to include other animals. But her argument fails

Peter Godfrey-Smith is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016). He lives in Sydney.Listen here

Edited by Nigel Warburton

Some of the most pressing moral issues we face today arise from how humans treat nonhuman animals, especially in farming and scientific experiments. High-intensity or ‘factory’ farming raises the biggest questions because of its sheer scale, and because routine practices there, once we look closely, often appear shocking. Vast numbers of animals spend much or all of their short lives in confined, sunless spaces, their experience a combination of stress, monotony and pain.

Babs. Donkey, aged 24 Image ©Isa Leshko

Is this wrong, and what kind of wrongness is it? These questions are often approached within a utilitarian framework, which holds that the reduction of suffering and promotion of experienced wellbeing comprise our basic goals in moral affairs. That view is readily applied to our treatment of animals, as seen especially in the work of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. A rival tradition in moral philosophy derives from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held that our goal should not be getting better things to happen by any available means – as endorsed in utilitarianism – but acting in ways that respect the preferences and projects of others. A person should try to act, in any situation, in a way that would make sense if everyone followed the same rule that they do.

This emphasis on relationships gives rise to a somewhat different view of what we should do in many contexts, and there’s also a difference in what this philosophical theory attempts to achieve. Kant, and those following him, try to show that if we think hard about what is involved in making ordinary decisions in a rational way, we will realise that we are bound to respect the interests of others, as well as our own. Utilitarian philosophers have occasionally attempted something analogous, but not usually. Many utilitarians have gotten used to the idea that, if someone just isn’t moved by the suffering of others, not much can be said to turn them round.

Christine Korsgaard, professor of philosophy at Harvard, is a leading contemporary figure in the Kantian approach to moral philosophy. She thinks the Kantian view of morality is mostly right – right in outline, though best augmented with ideas from the earlier Greek philosopher Aristotle. In her book Fellow Creatures (2018), Korsgaard also extends the reach of Kant’s approach.

Kant himself did not care much about nonhuman animals and our treatment of them. He was concerned with people, with how people should treat each other. He thought that, insofar as we should care about animal welfare, this is because of the effects that cruel behaviours here have on us, on our characters. Korsgaard argues that, once Kant’s ideas have been reworked, we find that they apply to our treatment of animals more directly, in ways Kant did not see, and should lead us to change our behaviour in very significant ways.

This case is made not by way of a plea, an exhortation to ‘expand the circle’ of concern, a move we might make if we choose. The argument is supposed to have more force than that – it is supposed, roughly speaking, to compel. In a review of Korsgaard’s book, the US philosopher Thomas Nagel says that, if her view prevailed, ‘it would be one of the largest moral transformations in the history of humanity’.

Ash. Domestic white turkey, aged 8 Image ©Isa Leshko

Korsgaard’s book is also much less technical and difficult than most work in this area. It has almost none of the numbing convolution of much writing in Kantian ethics. The book is aimed at an audience like this one, an Aeon audience, not just academic insiders. It is a clear statement by someone who has spent much of her life working on these themes, continually trying to strip away inessential details that might prevent us getting to the heart of the matter. I think that, once we work through it, we see that the main argument she offers does not work. I want to show this, and then turn again to those questions about animals. If Korsgaard’s Kant can’t lead us, are we left back where we were before?

Suppose one suspects that animals deserve better treatment, and should not be kept on those factory farms – or, in the more accurate term often used within the industry, in ‘confined feeding operations’. How can we decide if this is right? One way is to find something in their lives – suffering, stress – that we can recognise as just bad, and try to reduce it. Some goings-on in the world have a bright glow of goodness, it seems, while others are infused with a kind of metaphysical gloom. Korsgaard takes what looks like a harder road. Value does not exist as a sort of aura surrounding things in the world itself; value comes from valuing. It comes from the fact that people, and perhaps agents other than people, seek some things and avoid others. Without valuers, there is no value…


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