Skip to content

Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard on Animal Ethics by Emilian Mihailov

  • by

By Emilian Mihailov

Cross posted on the CCEA blog


Why should animals have the same moral standing as humans?

Ask yourself on what basis human beings claim to have moral standing.  I think the best way to understand this is in terms of the relation between something’s being good-for-someone and something’s being just plain good.  When we say that something is just plain good (not in the evaluative sense of a good this-or-that, like a good teacher, a good knife, or a good person, but in the sense in which an end or a life or a state of affairs is good) we mean that it is worth pursuing or realizing: that there is reason to bring it about.  Now, most of us believe that various things are good-for ourselves or for our loved ones, and we suppose there is reason to bring those things about, to make them happen, unless we see that they are bad for others.  That means that we claim that the things that are good-for us (and those whom we care about) are just plain good, as long as they are compatible with the things that are good-for others.  But why?  Why should I think that the fact that something is good-for-me (or for anyone) is a reason to bring it about?  I think there is no further reason: I treat it as something that is just plain good simply because it’s good-forme.  In treating what is good-for-me in that way, I am claiming to be what Kant called an “end-in-itself,” or rather this is one aspect of making that claim.  But of course I don’t claim to be an end-in-itself because I’m me in particular: rather, it’s simply because I am the sort of being for whom things can be good or bad. That means that when I pursue my own ends, I in effect commit myself to a principle we might formulate this way:  “The things that are good-for-anyone for whom things can be good or bad are good, unless they are bad-for-others.”   Animals fall under that principle:  things can be good-or-bad-for-them in the same sense that they can be good or bad for us.  Their good matters in the same way that ours does.


What ideas or prejudices hold us back from making progress in treating animals justly?

This isn’t exactly a philosophical question, so my answer will be somewhat speculative.  I think that there’s a link between treating animals rightly and admitting that we ourselves are animals.  Although at some level everyone knows that human beings are a kind of animal, I think there are still aspects of that thought that are hard for people to face. Immanuel Kant, my otherwise great philosophical hero, once wrote that if we did not have religious faith, we would have to believe that we share the fate of “all the other animals of the world,” namely death with no compensation for our sufferings. People distance themselves from their animal nature because they fear that fate.  Even people who are not religious cling to the thought that in some way we are the universe’s darlings.

That said, I think it’s not just ideas that hold us back. The hardest changes for many people to make are the ones that cause everyday discomforts and deprivations.  For many people, it’s probably easier to decide to fight a revolution now and then than it is to decide to give up some favorite food or comfort forever. And there’s a social analog to that, which is that the use (or abuse) of animals is so deeply built into the infrastructure of our lives and institutions that it’s hard to change.


Suppose you are Socrates and you’re talking with ordinary people in the agora. How would you question the claim that the life of a human being is more valuable than the life of a dog in order to puzzle them?

First, I’d try to get them to see that something can only have value if it is (or can be) good for someone.  Then I’d ask them for whom a human life is more valuable than the life of an animal.  We may value ourselves more highly than we value the other animals, but that sort of partiality doesn’t seem relevant.  After all, I value my friends and family (and probably myself) more highly than I value strangers, but I don’t conclude from that my friends and family are actually more important than anyone else, or that I may – for example – do invasive experiments on strangers in order to benefit my family.  His or her own life and its quality is important to every animal, but the different kinds of animals themselves aren’t ranked in value or importance.

If we were in a situation in which we had choose between the life of a human being and the life of a dog – a standard example is where you can only save one of them in a fire, and there are no other relevant factors in the case – we might decide to save the human being with the thought that the human being has more to lose by dying than the dog does. (I’m not saying that this is the only possible reason.) The human being might have projects to carry out, responsibilities he’d be sorry not to fulfill, pleasures he has always been looking forward to which he’d be sorry to miss. But notice that this is not a matter of deciding that the human being is more important than the dog.  It’s a matter of deciding that the opportunity to complete a planned and anticipated life is important to the person in a way that it couldn’t be to the dog.  When we think this way, we are taking what is important to both the person and the dog into account.


 What are the most important practical implications of the claim that animals have dignity and therefore should never be treated only as means to humans’ ends?

The most important practical implications are the obvious ones.  In factory farming, enormous suffering and constraint are imposed upon animals just so that human beings may eat meat more cheaply. That should be brought to an end: there’s no excuse for it.  So should experiments on animals that are invasive and painful, or lead to their deaths, even if we learn useful things from them.  These are fairly obvious cases of using the animals as mere means to human ends, something that Kant argued we should never do to an end-in-itself. It is treating them as if we just mattered more than they do, and as I’ve already said, I don’t think that makes any sense.


To what degree do poverty or underdevelopment matter when we decide which practices to change?

I’m not sure that I’m well equipped to answer this question.  I’m a philosopher from a developed country, and I know that I lead a pretty sheltered life.  I probably don’t know enough about conditions on the ground in poorer or less developed places to know exactly in what ways trying to change our practices with respect to animals would affect people.  Many studies show that we could feed more people more cheaply on a vegetarian diet than on a meat-based one, so I believe that a switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet would ultimately be in the interests of people in less developed nations, as well as being a way to end extensive animal suffering.  But of course, even if the whole world decided all at once to go vegan, there would be transition costs that would fall more heavily on some people than others. The important thing is that is that for the poor it is more urgent that we find alternatives to the abuse of animals:  we can’t just tell them to cut it out.


 What would be in your view a realist approach in changing our current practices of treating animals?

I’m not sure that I know much about what is realistic.  I don’t suppose a lot of people are going to give up eating animals very soon, but I think that at least in the developed world, there are many people who would prefer to eat animals that have been raised “humanely” rather than on factory farms.  I think people might even be prepared to spend more money or eat less meat, as long as it is not a huge inconvenience to obtain it.  So that’s a place where headway could be made.

It’s not very high-minded to say so, but as I said above, the trick is to find alternatives.  People are not going to stop abusing animals until there are other ways to do the various things we do with them.  I’d like to see it become part of the culture of those who do scientific experiments on animals, or those who use them as part of military planning and training, for example, to think of using animals in these ways as something to which they should be seeking alternatives, something they should be phasing out. It would be especially good if finding viable alternatives to these practices were incentivized in some way.  Perhaps some of the organizations that seek to protect animal rights or animal welfare could do something along those lines. While of course I think it is essential to get people to see that the way we treat animals is seriously wrong, I think the development of alternatives would be a more effective way to make progress than making people feel guilty or blamed.

For further reading please see Christine Korsgaard’s guest post on this blog, read a summary of her Uehiro Lectures 1 and 2  or listen to the podcasts of her Uehiro Lectures 

Share on