On Ethical Animals

This gives us Kant’s fundamental principle of morality in two of its familiar formulations: act in such a way that you can will your principle as universal law; and treat all rational beings as ends and never merely as means. To treat others as ends in themselves is to regard the achievement of their goals or ends as good in itself, and not just for them. The practical upshot is that each of us has a strong reason to pursue our own ends in a way that does not interfere with the pursuit by others of their ends, and some reason to help them if they need help. But what does this imply about animals? In Kant’s view, we impose the moral law on ourselves: it applies to us because of our rational nature. The other animals, because they are not rational, cannot engage in this kind of self-legislation. Kant concluded that they are not part of the moral community; they have no duties and we have no duties toward them. It is here that Korsgaard parts company with him... ‘On a Kantian conception, what is special about human beings is not that we are the universe’s darlings, whose fate is absolutely more important than the fates of the other creatures who like us experience their own existence. It is exactly the opposite: What is special about us is the empathy that enables us to grasp that other creatures are important to themselves in just the way we are important to ourselves, and the reason that enables us to draw the conclusion that follows: that every animal must be regarded as an end in herself, whose fate matters, and matters absolutely, if anything matters at all.’

Thomas Nagel, “What We Owe a Rabbit,” - nybooks.com/articles/2019/03/21/christine-korsgaard-what-we-owe-a-rabbit/. Very insightful review of Christine Korsgaard’s latest, Fellow Creatures: What We Owe to Other Animals. Korsgaard rehabilitates key features of Kant’s project with reference to ethical treatment of animals that is grounded in our own rationality and not the reduction of suffering as such, as in utilitarianism. While more individualistic, Korsgaard’s approach circumvents the need to measure suffering or capacity to suffer. Rather, it draws upon our intellectual empathy and the need to reflect upon our own ethical maxims. Persistent acts of cruelty reflect cruelty in us, or as Kant would have it that we have adopted a cruel maxim for ourselves. While utilitarian arguments have taken us a long way towards adopting laws that reduce animal suffering, Korsgaard’s approach puts the burden much more firmly upon us. Key to her argument is the distinction between passive and active membership of an ethical community. It strikes me that active members cannot shirk their responsibility to passive members by debating their levels of suffering or intellectual abilities across species. Rather, Korsgaard gives grounds to return to the ethical basis to say that cruelty is wrong, full stop.