Christine Korsgaard: Fellow Creatures (Lecture 1)

We are delighted that Christine Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, has accepted our invitation to deliver the Uehiro Lectures in Oxford. The title of the series is Fellow Creatures, and this first fascinating and suggestive lecture – delivered on 1 December 2014 — is called ‘Animals, Human Beings, and Persons’. One primary purpose of this lecture is to clarify the similarities and differences between those three kinds of creature, and to clear the ground of some misunderstandings.

Korsgaard begins with the question of whether people are more important than other animals. She notes the common claim that we can, for example, test medicines on non-human animals because they are ‘less important’ than people, in the sense that they have less ‘moral standing’. But this claim, she plausibly suggests, is mistaken. Imagine (to adapt an example of Peter Singer’s) I have one dose of pain-killer, and have to choose between giving it to either a person in severe pain, or a person in moderate pain. If I choose to give it to the person in severe pain, that doesn’t mean that their moral standing is lower. I am treating these people as equals, and that involves, in this case, treating them equally. (Of course, as Korsgaard allows, one can avoid this error and still claim that even our trivial interests override the important interests of animals. Further, as she goes on to note, we may be permitted to be partial to our own species in certain cases, without denying that humans and animals possess moral standing to the same degree. This raises the question of the importance of moral standing itself, on Korsgaard’s conception of importance.)

Korsgaard then makes a claim that will be significant in her second lecture: that everything that is important must be important to some creature. Here issues arise about ‘impersonal’ goods and bads, which emerged in the question period in Korsgaard’s discussion with Ingmar Persson. It might be said, for example, that one outcome is better than another in so far as it is more equal, even though the goodness of such equality is important to no creatures (they might not even know about it). Or consider Derek Parfit’s ‘non-identity problem’. It might be claimed that one reason we should not deplete resources  is that our doing so will cause future quality of life for human beings to be much lower than it might have been. This, however, may be important to no one, because the identity of those people who will exist will depend on our choice whether or not to deplete.

Korsgaard expresses her view about importance in terms of ‘tethering’: all importance is tethered, and what’s important to some creature ceases to be important once the connection between it and the item in question is severed. She allows that we can still talk of ‘absolute goodness’ if something of tethered importance is important to every creature, but insists that this is the only kind of sense we can give to ‘absolute goodness’. Here one is reminded of the semantic arguments against absolute goodness offered by Judith Thomson and others, and might wonder whether the thought that, say, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef would be a bad is at least coherent (though it may of course be mistaken).

Korsgaard then discusses the view that it is acceptable to kill animals because their lives are not as important to them as ours are to us. She suggests that this view may result from lack of empathy, and that even if we are more important to ourselves this doesn’t make us more important absolutely. In fact, she doubts the very possibility of comparing degrees of ‘importance to’. In the discussion period, imaginary cases were described in which an agent has to choose between, say, a young child and a dog. Korsgaard accepted that in such cases it might be right to choose the child, but suggested that we should be wary of drawing general conclusions about importance from these unusual, ‘emergency’ cases.

The second part of the lecture goes on to consider the questions: ‘What is an animal?’, or ‘Why does anything matter?’. These might seem rather different questions, but for Korsgaard they aren’t: importance is tethered to animals, because they are the things for whom things can matter, that is, can be good or bad.

What is it for something to be ‘good’? In one sense, Korsgaard explains, goodness is functional: oil, say, is good for my car. In another sense, goodness is final. Here the good thing is worth bringing about and appropriate as a practical end. How can something be finally good? It must be good from the point of view of the creature that possesses that good.

All creatures are organisms, but not all organisms are creatures. The function of an organism is to maintain its functional goodness (i.e. to survive and to reproduce – as Korsgaard later nicely pointed out, these aims are in some tension with one another). Animals have this function, but also the function of maintaining their own ‘form’ through action. Animals perceive, and so can represent what is good for them in the functional sense as attractive and hence finally good. Animals, that is to say, enjoy (and of course suffer during) their own existence. (One interesting question here is whether Korsgaard is combining a broadly Aristotelian account of animal nature with a non-Aristotelian, ‘mental state’, account of well-being.) The upshot of this is that, if you are assessing something as a potential final good for some creature, you need empathy: you have to consider whether the item is being seen as a final good by the creature herself.

The final section of the lecture concerns the distinction between human beings and personhood. Creatures all perceive, but there are two kinds of cognition: ‘instinctive’, in which the world is seen ‘teleologically’, as a world of things-to-be-sought, – avoided, and so on; and ‘rational’, in which the subject is aware of the possible grounds for her beliefs and actions, and can decide whether to act on the attitudes that would otherwise motivate her to act if she was not so aware.

Our cognition, of course, is rational, while that of animals is instinctive. And our capacity for such cogntion makes us persons – normatively self-governing beings – with obligations. And this is not itself to be seen as a form of superiority: our capacity is to be morally good or bad, not itself good. Moral standards just don’t apply to animals (in discussion, you will hear Korsgaard make it clear that she is allowing for the possibility that some non-humans are persons).

A substantial and wide-ranging discussion follows the lecture, covering, among other topics, the argument from marginal cases, the functions of slaves (including slave animals and slave robots), the possibility of aggregation, animal theories of mind, empathy, importance, human-animal chimeras, and human evolution.



Please follow these PDF links to the handouts provided by Korsgaard to accompany the lecture series:

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