It is philosophically unattractive to regard nature as possessing inherent animal ethics. It is certainly more plausible to observe that the present moral and existential status of animals has been shaped by historical interpretations of nature by the human subject. But for all potential discussions on the development of human values, nature would quickly resolve the debate in a jungle when faced with a hungry leopard or two. Why, then, should the human being respect animals, and is it legitimate to appropriate animals for specifically human purposes such as testing? In order to examine this problem, this paper will engage with the positions of Singer and Korsgaard, with the former being a prominent utilitarian advocate of animal rights, and the latter a contemporary Kantian. It will engage particularly with questions of utility, rationality and hierarchy.
Peter Singer is a famous proponent of animal rights He considers the distinction between animals and humans for the purpose of rights to be an expression of “speciesism” . Speciesism is a form of discrimination against particular species based upon anthropocentric distinctions that have been shaped by culture and by historical evaluations. Historical conceptions of the human being as the “rational animal” –especially by the rationalists and the British Empiricists—have attributed to humanity a special status that raises it above brute animal life. Capacities for emotion, morality, a future, and self-conscious reflection have all served as factors that attribute this special status to humans, and it is certainly plausible to observe that conceptions of human divinity have also served to color and reinforce this anthropocentrism. But, according to Singer, this does not necessarily mean that this distinction is legitimate .

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Singer refers to animals with an additional degree of political correctness, as “non-human animals” – in that we are all animal, to a degree, and to harm non-human animals is to inflict harm on one’s own kind (1-10). And, to engage in speciesism, one is committing a similar ethical transgression to an individual discriminating on the grounds of race. This is a plausible comment, but it is one that directly attacks the principle of hierarchy and raises a problem in relation to the is-ought distinction. It is arguable that nature displays hierarchical behavior, and so Singer thinks that the principle of equality ought to be enforced onto nature. Regan observes this point and quotes Singer in the latter’s declaration that “the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being” (as a point of interest, Singer is also a proponent of the principle of equality in relation to other global matters, but from the paradoxical perspective of a Princeton salary) (Regan 305; Singer 229).

On this point, while the manifestation of a dominance hierarchy in culture operates within the context of gradations of degrees of ‘human being’, it is also colored by the naturalistic fallacy: that is, given that it is natural for humans, and indeed nature as such, to be organized into a hierarchy, the ill-treatment of animals is indicative of the right and good. In light of this, it is certainly possible to charge everyday assumptions on the animal testing to be colored by the naturalistic fallacy. Where it may no longer be considered that it is ‘good’ to engage in colonialism, why is it legitimate to exploit animals for human purposes? Simple arguments from the principle of hierarchy would thus fall short in this regard. This then leads to the establishing of reasons to treat animals humanely.

Arguments from utility present a case for not unnecessarily inflicting pain and suffering on animals – Singer advocates animal rights “because he is a utilitarian” . He invokes past utilitarians on the grounds of the existent capacity for animal suffering: this capacity does not, in his view, outweigh the human desire for (say) cosmetics. Regardless of whether the animal is not rational and not self-conscious, and governed purely by brute instinct, from a place of utility this does not extend the right to unnecessarily inflict pain on them. But Regan objects: while he also claims the role of vegetarian, he rejects utilitarian premises for upholding his conviction. For instance, he takes issue with Singer’s diminution of human taste to the status of ‘trivial interest’: the latest mascara may indeed be justified by the death of a rabbit or six (Regan 305-308). If anything is justified on the grounds of human pleasure, is the animal testing of cosmetics justified because humans have an aesthetic need to preen themselves before their mates? This then leads to the issue of what is meant by “necessity”. If a degree of hierarchy between humans and animals is to be preserved at all, this would result in all sorts of complicated cases in which humans decide on what constitutes a legitimate cause for intervention at the level of the treatment of animals. In such cases, a felicific calculus could plausibly be invoked to measure necessity: this is within the bounds of the view that an undue affliction of cruelty on any living thing is to be avoided.

On this note, there also exists the issue of whether humans should be moral at all – debates on this issue vary among thinkers. In order to justify the good treatment of animals, Korsgaard adopts the Kantian position that animals should be treated as ends-in-themselves (Korsgaard 79-80; Kant 1). In so doing, she also appeals to Kant’s categorical imperative, which places an a priori moral impulse firmly in the subject (on this note, Kant’s recourse to a static, universal, normative impulse could be challenged, but it is not feasible to do so here). Kant’s position serves as a criticism of utilitarianism as grounds for the good treatment of humans or non-human animals, arguing, instead, from a deontological place. This appeals to standards that are either absolutely right or wrong, leaving no space for utilitarian clauses, and a part of Kant’s criteria for the categorical impulse is human compassion. Any visit to (say) the laboratories of MAC cosmetics would certainly serve as support for Kant’s claim, in that there must surely occur a suppression of some human emotive capacity, as with the case of war, to witness such brutality.

But as with Singer, there is a tension between theory and praxis: making such theoretical claims is a simple matter for Korsgaard, whereas, far-removed from the comforts of the West, whole nations in the East depend upon the appropriation of animals for human purposes, for survival. But the crux of Korsgaard’s appropriation of Kant is to claim that yes, human beings are distinct from non-human animals on the grounds of their being rational, and it is on the grounds of this rationality itself that humans engage in free, autonomous and deliberative choice and choose to not inflict harm on animals. This then introduces particular values into the simple space of brute causality and any dominance hierarchies that exist in nature. In light of this, human wants can be set aside, and human needs accommodated within the bounds of due respect for non-human animals.

  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. London: Penguin, 2008.
  • Korsgaard, Christine M. “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004. 79-110.
  • Regan, Tom. “Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9.4 (1980): 305-324.
  • Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.1 (1972): 229-243.
  • —. “Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9.4 (325-337): 325-337.