Christine Korsgaard on our Moral Obligations to Animals [Uehiro Lecture 2]

by Karamvir Chadha @karamvirchadha

 What are our moral obligations to animals? This was the subject of Christine Korsgaard’s Uehiro lecture on 2 December 2014, the second of a three-lecture series on the moral and legal standing of animals. (To listen to the lecture follow this link)

Korsgaard argued for the conclusion that animals have moral standing. Her argument for this conclusion was characteristically Korsgaardian: it was both extremely ambitious and grounded in a distinctive interpretation of Kant.

Korsgaard began by explaining why there’s such a thing as value in the world at all. Value, she argued, is explained in terms of the existence of valuing, which occurs necessarily in valuing beings like us.

 

So why is there value in the world at all? According to Korsgaard, humans have a special form of self-consciousness – rationality – that makes us aware of the motives on which we act, and capable of evaluating those motives as good or bad reasons. As rational beings we need to justify our actions. To do this, we must suppose that some ends are really worth pursuing – that they are absolutely good. Without metaphysical insight into the realm of intrinsic values, all we have to go on is that some things are good or bad for us. We take our ends to matter absolutely because we take ourselves to matter absolutely. ‘Ourselves’ here cannot just mean ourselves qua rational beings. For many of the things we take to be valuable – our love of sex, food, and freedom from terror – we value not in virtue of our rationality, but rather our animality.

 

Korsgaard went on to argue that we value ourselves as ‘ends in ourselves’ not just as rational beings, but as beings for whom things can be good or bad. Nonhuman animals, she continued, are also things for whom things can be good or bad. Consequently, we must also treat nonhuman animals as ends in themselves. Since they are ends in themselves, Korsgaard argued, we cannot treat nonhuman animals as mere means. That requires, among other things, the abolition of all factory farming.

 

Korsgaard also argued that since the notion of ends in themselves – things for whom things can be good or bad – is prior to the notions of good or bad, nothing can be good or bad unless there is someone for whom it is good or bad.

 

But consider the possibility of genetically engineering the gametes of farm animals to ‘knock out’ the affective dimension of pain. Since they’re just gametes, there is no one – no ‘functional unity’, in Korsgaard’s terms – for whom that is bad. But the animals that such gametes would produce would, by lacking the affective dimension of pain, be in many ways suited to lives in factory farms (see Adam Shriver, ‘Knocking Out the Pain in Livestock’). Factory farming an animal of that kind might not be bad from what Korsgaard calls that animal’s ‘point of view’. Korsgaard seems committed to saying that such genetic manipulation is not bad, since there is no one for whom it is bad. Is that really plausible?

 

Relatedly, it seems possible to drive a wedge between what is good for an animal and what is good or bad from that animal’s point of view. A dog may recoil and the prospect of been taken to the vet, but it may nevertheless be in good for the dog that he be to be taken to the vet.

 

Finally, responding to questions, Korsgaard was prepared to concede that perception – the form of self-consciousness characteristic of animals – might admit of degrees. There is a sense in which plants exhibit perception by, for example, growing towards sunlight. But this means that some biological plants are Korsgaardian animals to a greater degree than are some biological animals. The Korsgaardian category of ‘animal’ doesn’t map neatly onto our biological category of the same name. Consequently, even if Korsgaard’s argument is sound, we would need to consider the mapping relation between Korsgaardian animals and biological animals before Korsgaard’s argument would give us reason to – say – eat biological plants instead of biological animals.

 

Please follow these pdf links to the handouts provided by Korgaard to accompany the lecture series:

http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/35821/CMK.FC1.Handout1.A4.pdf

http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/35822/CMK.FC2.Handout2.A4.pdf

http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/35823/CMK.FC3.Handout3.A4.pdf

 

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2 Responses to Christine Korsgaard on our Moral Obligations to Animals [Uehiro Lecture 2]

  • Cody Fenwick says:

    Thanks for the summary. A few thoughts in response:

    “Since they are ends in themselves, Korsgaard argued, we cannot treat nonhuman animals as mere means. That requires, among other things, the abolition of all factory farming.”

    This conclusion, which many who wouldn’t even consider themselves animal advocates would agree with, is surely far too weak. We would obviously see the rearing of humans for food and resource purposes as using them as mere means, and thus prohibitions against using animals as mere means should rule out all animal use (thus advocating moral veganism.)

    “[I]t seems possible to drive a wedge between what is good for an animal and what is good or bad from that animal’s point of view. A dog may recoil and the prospect of been taken to the vet, but it may nevertheless be in good for the dog that he be to be taken to the vet.”

    I don’t think Korsgaard’s focus on goodness from the “point of view” of an animal rules out that an animal (human or non-human) might not fully understand what is in their own interest. Since a dog’s own health is, from their own point of view, good, and going to the vet promotes this good, Korsgaard could coherently accommodate this challenge.

    “There is a sense in which plants exhibit perception by, for example, growing towards sunlight. But this means that some biological plants are Korsgaardian animals to a greater degree than are some biological animals. The Korsgaardian category of ‘animal’ doesn’t map neatly onto our biological category of the same name.”

    Perception admitting of degrees is certainly plausible, but these most likely degrees occur within the animal kingdom. That is, it’s more plausible that some animals do not perceive at all, rather than that some plants do. This is because perception, based on all the science we have, appears dependent on a nervous system, which no plants have and some animals lack (e.g., sponges). A plant turning toward the sun (and a heat-seeking missile turning toward it’s target) is best thought of as reaction, rather than perception.

    • Karamvir Chadha says:

      Hi Cody,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Here are a few thoughts by way of reply:

      First, I agree that accepting Korsgaard’s argument would require much more than the abolition of all factory farming. That’s why I said it requires ‘among other things’ the abolition of factory farming. But I don’t think Korsgaard would want to say – as you put it – that ‘prohibitions against using animals as mere means should rule our all animal use (thus advocating moral veganism.)’ (emphasis added). For example, in ‘Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account’, she says:

      We may interact with the other animals as long as we do so in ways to which we think it is plausible to think they would consent if they could— that is, in ways that are mutually beneficial and fair, and allow them to live some- thing reasonably like their own sort of life. If we provide them with proper living conditions, I believe, their use as companion animals, aides to the handicapped and to the police, search-and-rescue workers, guards, and perhaps even as providers of wool, dairy products, or eggs, might possibly be made consistent with this standard. (p 110)

      Immediately after this, however, she goes on to say something which is very similar (albeit not identical) to the position you think she would advocate:

      But it is not plausible to suppose a nonhuman animal would consent to being killed before the term of her natural life is over in order to be eaten or because someone else wants the use of her pelt, and it is not plausible to think she would consent to be tortured for scientific information.

      Second, I’m particularly grateful for your thought about my taking-the-dog-to-the-vet challenge. I agree that there’s a sense in which the dog’s health is good from the dog’s point of view. This raises a question: what the difference is between saying, on one hand, that something is good ‘from the dog’s point of view’, and on the other hand – what seems to me the more straightforward claim – that that thing is in the dog’s interests ?

      Third, I agree with your claim that different kinds of biological animals will exhibit varying degrees of perception. I don’t, however, think that plants’ lack of a nervous system will rule out the possibility of them having ‘perception’ in the Korsgaardian-Aristotelian sense (which I think is different from the sense in which the word is used in the sciences). For example, in her 2004 Tanner Lectures entitled ‘Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals’, Korsgaard says:

      We do not think of plants as perceiving and pursuing their good, and yet like animals they are essentially self-maintaining beings and in that sense are oriented toward their own good. And they exhibit a certain responsiveness to the environment, to light and moisture. Probably there is no distinct line in nature between such responsiveness, primitive patterns of perception and response, and full-blown patterns of consciousness and action. Certainly there is no distinct line in nature between plants and animals. Nature is a realm of gradual shade-offs, not of hard lines. (pp 107-07)

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