|Meriting Concern and Meriting Respect
2009 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress
Recently there has been a somewhat surprising spate of interest, among Kantian moral theorists, in the moral standing of sentient animals.1 No less surprising than this Kantian interest in the moral standing of animals is the optimism these theorists exhibit for the prospect of incorporating animal moral standing into Kantian moral theory without contorting the approach’s other features. They contend, in particular, that animal moral standing can be incorporated into Kantianism without abandoning the approach’s logocentrism: its claim that everything that is valuable depends for its value on its relation to rationality.2 In this essay I raise doubts about the prospect of incorporating animal standing within an orthodox, and hence logocentric, Kantianism. I argue instead that the best way to incorporate animal standing into Kantian moral theory is to qualify its logocentrism and maintain that sentience, understood as a non-rational capacity, is a locus of moral standing independent from rationality.
In a longer version of this essay, I consider and reject the approaches of two orthodox Kantians, Allen Wood and Christine Korsgaard. In order to conserve space I omit that discussion from this conference presentation, and begin instead by arguing directly that sentience is a locus of moral standing. I would note, however, that I share with theorists like Wood and Korsgaard both the conviction that many animals have moral standing and the conviction that Kantianism is the most promising approach to moral theory. A broader aim of this essay is thus to vindicate animal moral standing in a way that preserves the distinctive status of rational individuals, even though strictly speaking I dissent from logocentrism.
My reasons for dissenting from logocentrism are, moreover, strikingly analogous to the reasons that persuade me to endorse the distinctive value of rationality. More specifically, I believe there is an argument, which is similar to a Kantian argument for the formula of humanity, but which establishes a distinct moral principle. Kant’s formula of humanity states:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.3
We might call the conclusion of the analogous argument the “formula of animality”:
Act so that you treat sentience, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.
If the formula of animality is a valid moral principle, then sentience is a locus of moral standing, and so sentience does not depend for its value on its relationship to rationality.
2. The Criterion of Moral Standing
Below I investigate the content of the formula of animality in greater detail, attempting to show both what it has in common with the formula of humanity and how it differs from that more familiar imperative. But first I present my argument for it:
(1*) Every person has reasons to promote her own well-being.
(2*) If a person has reasons to promote her own well-being, then her capacity for sentience generates these reasons, since a complete explanation of why she has these reasons must invoke this explanatory hypothesis.
(3*) If a complete explanation of why a person has reasons to promote her own well-being must invoke the explanatory hypothesis that her capacity for sentience generates these reasons, then a complete explanation of why a person has reasons to promote her own well-being entails that she is entitled to be treated only in ways that are consonant with recognition of the fact that her capacity for sentience generates these reasons; let us say that anything entitled to this sort of treatment merits concern.
(4*) If a complete explanation of why a person has reasons to promote her own well-being entails that she merits concern by virtue of her possession of the capacity of sentience, then a complete explanation of why a person has reasons to promote her own well-being entails that any other individual with the capacity of sentience also merits concern.
(5*) If a complete explanation of why a person has reasons to promote her own well-being entails that any individual with the capacity of sentience merits concern, then any person who has reasons to promote her own well-being is required not to violate the formula of animality.
(6*) Every person is required not to violate the formula of animality.
Claim (1*) is not intended to be controversial, and so to conserve space I pass over it without further development;4 the focus of my discussion is claim (2*). It will help, as a way to introduce my motivation for asserting this claim, to follow a recent discussion by Richard Kraut:5
For an immense variety of living things – trees and shrubs, no less than every member of the animal kingdom – certain things are good and others bad. … It is good for them to be healthy, bad to be diseased, to be stunted, to die.6
Kraut continues by observing that we deploy value terminology not only with respect to living things, but also with respect to things that are not alive:
Dry air is bad for pianos. Sugar is bad for gas tanks. Sand is bad for watches. Whatever enhances the performance of an artifact or its ability to play its role is good for it; whatever damages it or detracts from its suitability to achieve its purpose is bad for it.7
We can speak of conditions being good or bad for anything that is functionally organized, since conditions may conduce to or inhibit the thing’s functioning. But it would be absurd to attribute moral standing to artifacts simply by virtue of the fact that we can speak of what is good or bad for them. Similarly, it would be absurd to attribute moral standing to functionally organized meteorological or geological entities; warm currents are good for hurricanes, and carbon-trapping is good for glaciers, but this does not entail that hurricanes and glaciers merit concern.
We thus need a criterion for when the fact that conditions can be good or bad for a thing entails that the thing merits our concern, and when this fact fails to generate such an entailment.8 In other words, we need a criterion of moral standing, and the formula of animality suggests sentience as the relevant criterion. Kraut dissents from this criterion, however, maintaining instead that the criterion of moral standing is being alive; and he suggests that this is evidenced by our application of the term “flourishing” to all and only living things.9 Kraut writes:
To see this, consider a child who plans on lighting a fire and destroying a forest, simply for the sake of such destruction. Should we stop him? Certainly. But why so? – is it only because he may endanger human lives, kill the animals who live in the forest, and prevent it from serving human purposes? Why should not the fact that his act is bad for trees and a great many other living things – in fact, all the things in the forest that are flourishing – also be counted as a reason for interfering with him? … [T]he child is not innocently rearranging the world; he is deliberately inflicting harm on all those forms of life for its own sake. That state of mind should disturb us, and so there must be something objectionable in what he is trying to do. That we do not normally speak of the welfare of trees should not diminish our concern about what the child does. We should say that since his act is bad for a great many beings (including those that are not classified as members of the animal kingdom), and good for none, that settles the matter: he should not light the fire.10
It is certainly true that there is something objectionable about the state of mind of this child. But in my view, we cannot infer from this that trees have moral standing. One reason why we should not make this inference is that the child’s destructiveness may evidence disregard for sentient individuals even if none of the individuals he destroys are sentient: we should also be concerned about a child who wantonly destroys an abandoned beaver dam, a beautiful rock formation, a photograph, or a doll.
The view that plants have moral standing, even if only the sense that we have reason not to wantonly destroy them, may be thought to entail absurd conclusions, such as that we are not entitled to raise crops for food or use timber for construction. But as Kraut observes, this is not the case. On Kraut’s view, in fact, the reasons that are generated by plant moral standing are exceedingly weak. He writes:
Plants should not be wantonly destroyed, but there is no reason to make a special effort simply for the sake of their good. We should benefit them only if that in turn helps someone else who should be helped; they fall below the threshold of merited direct concern. … There are much better things for us to do.11
Kraut’s view appears to be that we have reasons to promote the good of plants, but that these reasons are so vanishingly weak that they are always defeated by the opportunity cost of using time and resources to respond to them.12 We can therefore, without rational error, deploy a heuristic of ignoring the flourishing of plants. The only time the rational relevance of plant flourishing is exposed is when, like the child lighting the forest on fire, a person destroys the plant without achieving any good whatsoever.
This is a plausible position. I concur that being alive is the most plausible competitor to sentience for the criterion of moral standing, and in particular that it is more plausible than Kant’s candidate of rationality. But there are considerations that should give us pause about accepting this criterion. There is some tension, I believe, in the passages from Kraut that I have reproduced here. There is tension, that is, between the view that an individual could have moral standing in that its well-being generates reasons not to destroy it wantonly and the view that its well-being fails to generate significant reasons to promote its good.
To see what I have in mind, consider the conclusion Kraut reaches in the last quotation: we may as well not have reasons to promote the good of plants, since the opportunity cost of doing so always defeats the weak force of these reasons. Now let us apply this insight back into the case of the child who starts a fire in an uninhabited and non-useful forest for the sake of destroying the trees. On Kraut’s view, the fact that the child destroys living (though non-sentient) things figures importantly in our explanation of why his behavior is objectionable. One could wonder why this is so, however, in light of his claim that the flourishing of plants generates only exceedingly weak reasons. If we stipulate that the child does no good in burning the forest, then even an exceedingly weak reason suffices to establish that he should not do it. The last quotation, however, entails that there is a yet more important reason why the child should not burn the forest: the opportunity cost of time and energy. As Kraut says in this quotation, there are much better things for us to do. If this opportunity cost always defeats the flourishing of plants in ordinary deliberation about what to do, then this opportunity cost is a reason not to burn the forest that is much stronger than any reason not to destroy plants as such. This putative latter reason, whether or not it exists, therefore fails to inform the child’s deliberation about whether to burn the forest. The fact that we concur with the judgment that the child should not burn the forest thus fails to establish that the plants in the forest have moral standing, for there is a more powerful reason – the opportunity cost of engaging in pointless activity – that already suffices to vindicate this conclusion. It is difficult to sustain the significance of distinguishing between meriting direct concern and meriting concern more generally.
One might reply that there are stronger reasons not to destroy living things than there are to promote their flourishing. But in advancing this reply there is danger of recovering the absurd putative entailments of attributing plant moral standing – that in at least some circumstances, it is impermissible for their sake to destroy them for food and shelter – that Kraut avoids by claiming that our reasons to promote plant flourishing are exceedingly weak.
Or one might reply that destruction is an especially important category because it is strong evidence of bad character. Eliminating or mastering destructive inclinations not only keeps people from doing bad things, it also constitutes moral education and self-improvement. This route to the significance of destruction deemphasizes, however, the standing of plants themselves: it is the character of the child who destroys plants, and not the fact that living things are being destroyed, that dominates our concern. Even if correct, this claim fails to motivate plant moral standing.
Kraut’s position is not refuted by this argument, even if it is successful; he could concede its force, yet still maintain that the fact that trees are living things is a distinct cause for concern that is absent when the child destroys stuffed animals. This strategy would concede, however, that the good of the plants themselves never enters significantly into practical deliberation. Such an attribution of standing is so vanishingly weak that it is not clear even if it makes sense even to call it standing, or to say that responding to it demonstrates concern. It is extremely difficult to adjudicate between that position and the one I advocate here, according to which the criterion of moral standing is sentience; when put into practice, the former position collapses into the latter.
Thus, despite the plausibility of the hypothesis that being alive is the criterion of moral standing, I believe sentience is the relevant criterion, and consequently I endorse claim (2*).13 I have space to comment only briefly on the remaining stages of my argument for the formula of animality. Claim (4*) is a result of the same inference that vindicates claim (2*): an individual’s sentience makes its well-being reason-generating because this hypothesis figures in the best explanation of why my well-being is reason-generating while the well-being of pianos and hurricanes is not. Claim (5*) follows from the definition of the formula of animality, and claim (6*) is deductively entailed by the previous five.
The chief obstacle to the success of the argument, apart from whether it succeeds in vindicating claim (2*), is whether it is correct in claim (3*) to characterize the reason-generating status of sentience as an entitlement of sentient individuals, where this characterization entails that a failure to respond appropriately to this status involves acting wrongly. Unfortunately I am not able here to provide a detailed defense of this claim. Comparing this with an analogous claim supporting the formula of humanity, however, presents a strong motivation for endorsing claim (3*). When a person violates either the formula of humanity or the formula of animality, he fails to attribute a normative status to an individual that he must attribute to himself in order to explain fully the rationality of his actions. A complete explanation of the rationality of his actions must appeal to both his rationality and his sentience. Although I cannot detail it here, I endorse an argument for the formula of humanity that trades on the ability of rationality to sustain the final value of a person’s choiceworthy aims; the analogous claim here is that sentience has the ability to generate reasons to promote an animal’s well-being. Denying the latter status to a sentient individual is thus akin to denying the former status to a rational individual. This denial arbitrarily treats one’s own capacities as exceptional, and so elevates oneself over an individual who has the same status. Such a mistake is not a mere failure to respond appropriately to a reason or value; it is more strongly a denigration or violation of an individual with moral standing.
3. The Animalification Principle
If my argument succeeds, all action is morally constrained by the formula of animality:
Act so that you treat sentience, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.
I label this principle the “formula of animality” to emphasize its similarity to the formula of humanity. Just as “humanity” is a technical term in the expression of the formula of humanity, picking out embodied rational capacities and not membership in the human species or benevolent dispositions towards others, so too “animality” is a technical term in the expression of the formula of animality. It is animality understood as the capacity of sentience, not animality understood as membership in the animal kingdom, that entitles its possessor to concern.
The formula of animality contains a qualification I label the “animalification principle”: this is the clause (“whether in your own animal or that of any other”) that limits the requirement to demonstrate concern for sentient individuals to cases where sentience is found in animals.14 I call this the “animalification principle” by analogy to what Wood calls Kant’s “personification principle”: this is the clause (“whether in your own person or that of any other”) in the formula of humanity that limits that principle’s scope to cases where humanity in found in persons. The animalification principle prevents use of the formula of animality to justify obligations in regard to individuals with what we might call the “infrastructure” of sentience; mere possession of a central nervous system or of the capacity to move in response to one’s environment, for example, fails to entitle an individual to concern.
Wood suggests that we drop the personification principle from the formula of humanity, and I endorse this proposal.15 Unlike Wood, however, I believe we need to replace this clause with a new criterion of moral standing. Contrary to both Kant’s logocentric endorsement of the personification principle and Wood’s logocentric rejection of this principle, I contend that the relevant criterion is sentience. In order to express the formula of humanity properly, I suggest, we should replace the personification principle with the animalification principle:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.
If we stipulate that we are using the term “humanity” as Kant uses it, the animalification principle is here redundant. Humanity is rationality as instantiated in embodied beings, and all embodied rational beings are sentient. It is nevertheless important to articulate the animalification principle explicitly, for this clause calls attention to the fact that humanity is a complex notion that encompasses both our rational capacities and our capacity for sentience. In my view, the notion of humanity must be analyzed into these respective components, if we are to provide the most perspicuous account of the obligations we owe to rational individuals. Thus I recommend that the formula of humanity be amended as follows:
Act so that you treat rationality, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself.
In this formulation, the animalification principle is not redundant. It distinguishes cases where rational capacities are found in sentient individuals – such as human persons – from cases, should there be any, where rational capacities are found in non-sentient individuals – perhaps collective agents are an example. The first clause tells us what we must respect (rationality), and the second tells us when we must respect it (when it is found in sentient individuals).16
In order that we may more clearly distinguish the formula of humanity from the formula of animality, I suggest further that the rationale for each of these formulae be incorporated into its expression, together with a brief gloss of how the formula is satisfied. Thus:
In recognition of the fact that the exercise of rational capacities can sustain the final value of an individual’s choiceworthy aims, act so that you treat rationality, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself, by demonstrating respect for every individual who possesses this capacity.
And the parallel formula of animality:
In recognition of the fact that the exercise of the capacities of sentience generates reasons to promote an individual’s well-being, act so that you treat sentience, whether in your own animal or in that of any other, never merely as a means but always as an end in itself, by demonstrating concern for every individual who possesses this capacity.
Each of these principles encompasses an important class of moral obligations. In the concluding section, I briefly explore some consequences of accepting both principles.
In this final section I note two implications of the account of morality I have argued for in this essay. I begin with the claim that sentience is a locus of moral standing in its own right, not dependent on its relationship to rationality for its ability to generate reasons. Since non-rational animals lack the capacity to cognize reasons as reasons, however, they are not themselves subject to moral norms. I thus depart from Kant’s view and from any other logocentric view, Wood’s and Korsgaard’s included, by denying the following claim:
Moral Community Closure: An individual is subject to moral norms just in case she is herself an ultimate source of moral norms.17
The rider “ultimate” is crucial here, since both Wood and Korsgaard contend that there is a sense in which animals are a source of moral norms. But their logocentrism commits them to the view that animal moral standing is itself derived from the moral standing of rational individuals.
Although the view I defend is not logocentric, it privileges rational capacities in a variety of respects.18 Rationality is held to be a distinct locus of moral status, when found in sentient individuals; rational sentient individuals merit respect, non-rational sentient individuals do not. This entails that rational sentient individuals are of a higher moral standing than their non-rational counterparts. This is important, since one of the chief virtues of the position is that it preserves Kantian insights about the distinctive status of persons. It is also independently plausible, since it explains why sentient persons should be given priority over non-rational animals in circumstances of triage. I thus deny:
Moral Standing Egalitarianism: If x and y are individuals with moral standing, then x’s moral standing is equal to y’s moral standing.
It may seem obvious that this claim is false, since both persons and animals have moral standing yet persons have a higher moral standing than animals. Practitioners of both Kantianism and utilitarianism often write, however, as though they believe this claim. Kantians sometimes deny that animals have moral standing, and utilitarians often assert that the priority appropriately given to persons is a consequence only of the kinds of goods they enjoy.19 In this essay I have begun to show how an important insight of each of these traditions of modern ethical theory – the Kantian insight that rational sentient individuals have a higher status than that of non-rational sentient individuals, and the utilitarian insight that sentience is the criterion of moral standing20 – can be incorporated into a unified theory without any objectionable loss of theoretical systematicity.
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