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November 06, 2008


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Isn't it simpler to introduce the survival of the species into the conversation? Humans eat cows and tigers eat humans because humans are driven to see that humans survive and tigers are driven to see that tigers survive. Humans have learned to treat dogs with kindness because domesticated animals promote human survival. As an extreme example, a well treated dog will come to view its human master as an Alpha Dog and will give up its life to protect the leader of its pack. Conversely we've all known pet owners who would return the favor and risk their life to protect their "children."


How could anyone conclude that a certain set of interactions with animals is mutually beneficial and fair? If we ceased predation as humans against other predators, are we being fair to the predators' prey? The only "balance" of nature the world has ever known is for all species to be as speciesist as possible towards each other.

Alex Kolod

If you do not believe in human rights then Korsgaard's account is not going to convince you that a lot of the line drawing between humans and other animals is illegitimate. I am somewhat of a Kantian so this speaks to me. I agree that people have intrinsic worth and are ends in and of themselves. Anyone who disagrees, for example those above who are arguing that every animal (humans included) only cares about others to the extent that they aid in that animal's survival (this can be described both on an individual level or on a species level), is having a different conversation. I personally think that those accounts are flawed because they fail to capture what if feels like to interact with other living things. Recognizing that you are interacting with a fellow creature is more than recognizing that you are interacting with something that can help you live, at least for me (it may be different for others).


Were that true, we would never have needed to invent the word "symbiosis." Many species have found that it is in their best interest as a species to choose to be beneficent to another species. My suggestion was not that it was never fair to treat another species well, but that the proper measure of whether a treatment was fair was its effect upon our own species survival.

Alex Kolod

I might go so far as to to concede that the evolutionary basis for morality is something like what you describe, but I do not think that means that we cannot take it further or transform it entirely. I think that love could be described in a similar way, but, for me, that would leave out everything that is interesting about it.

Uzair Kayani

The Kolod speaks the truth. If we understood fairness in terms of symbiosis then we would never have needed to invent the word "fairness" either, because we would be speaking of a "necessity" or a "useful relationship."

I think fairness is somewhat irrational, precisely in the sense that it does not use objects instrumentally. I suspect fairness means "complete recognition" or "philosophical recognition" rather than some moral precept. It is unfair to treat a human or an animal as a resource in the same way that it is unfair to treat a sculpture as a paperweight, a book as a fly swatter, or a guitar as a weapon. In all of these cases (as in all social sciences) we abstract from what something is to an impoverished and tractable idea, so that it fits in our discipline. In this sense, "sciences" (in the colloquial sense) are unfair but philosophy is fair, or rather trying to be fair. This is because philosophy is usually concerned with what things are "in themselves."

Of course, it would be impossible to live without instrumental theories that do abstract from real things. We cannot pause to think what a tree really is when we must climb it to save ourselves. Similarly, we do not think what a cow really is when we realize that we must eat it. Life isn't fair.

Frank M. Cook

Thinking about this over the weekend, I regret that I stopped too soon in my last post. I should have gone farther and explicitly stated that doing something to another species that we wouldn't want another species to do to us is unethical unless it promotes survival. That provides a Kantian argument against cruelty while preserving predation.

Speaking of which, I think it is correct to observe that the amount of cattle in the world is much greater than would have been had humans not wanted to eat them. What does a Utilitarian cow think about that?

Zev Berger

This was a very lucid account of Korsgaard, so thank you for that.

How would Korsgaard account for a notion of mutuality, though? Respect is deserved by people for Kant because, in part, we can demand it of others and it can thereby become a universal law. Every person can always demand of every other person that they be treated as an ends and not a means. That reciprocity does not exist with animals, however. Whether for pragmatic reasons (the vast majority of us do not know how to communicate with apes) or cognitive ones (one could never explain the concept of respect to an ant) we can never demand of other animals what we demand of other humans. How might she respond?

Assuming for the moment Korsgaard is correct, do we possess a moral obligation to police other animals as we do people? Is the harm they do to one another as bad as (from our perspective as moral agents) the harm we do to them or other humans?


I hate to try to inject this philosophical discussion with pragmatism, but I think its practically impossible for Korsgaard or Nussbaum to design a system of interactions with animals that incorporates their ideals without leading to all sorts of injustices to humans. And how do you make value judgments at that point? If being nicer to chickens kills a million people a year, how do you evaluate that?

And perhaps these authors should address the possibility that anthropomorphizing animals is doing them a disservice by obfuscating their fundamental nature.

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