Kant’s ethical theory is famously (or notoriously) anthropocentric -- or rather, it is logocentric, by which I mean that it is based on the idea that rational nature, and it alone, has absolute and unconditional value. Kant takes the authority of the moral law to be grounded in the fact that it is legislated by rational will. The fundamental end whose value grounds the theory is the dignity of rational nature, and its command is always to treat humanity as an end in itself. Here the term ‘humanity’ is being used in a technical sense, to refer to the capacity to set ends according to reason. It includes the technical predisposition to devise means to arbitrary ends, and the pragmatic predisposition to unite our ends into a comprehensive whole, called ‘happiness’. ‘Humanity’ is one of the three original predispositions of our nature, along with ‘animality’, which includes our instinctual desires promoting our survival, reproduction and sociability, and ‘personality’ which is our rational capacity to give moral laws and obey them (R 6:26, VA 7:321-324).i ‘Humanity’ in this sense does not refer to membership in any particular biological species. (As a matter of fact, Kant thought it quite likely that there are rational beings on other planets; they would be ends in themselves every bit as much as human beings (in the nontechnical sense)(AN 1:351-368).)
Even so, it might seem as though a theory of this kind would license (or even require) a ruthlessly exploitative attitude toward humanity’s natural environment and all nonhuman things in it. For if rational nature is the only end in itself, then everything else must count only as a means to rational nature and its ends. Nothing else could have a worth which might set limits on those ends or on the ways in which rational beings might choose to employ nonrational nature in pursuit of them.
Some of Kant’s own statements, moreover, appear to be shameless endorsements of this ghastly inference from his logocentric theory. In his explication of the Formula of Humanity as End in Itself, Kant distinguishes persons -- rational beings possessing the dignity of rational nature as an end in itself -- from things, which, he says, “have only a relative worth, while persons, and they alone, may not be used merely as means” (G 4:428). A similar thought is found at the opening of Kant’s lectures on anthropology:
“The fact that the human being can have the representation ‘I’ raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth. By this he is a person… that is, a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion” (VA 7:127).
And in his essay Conjectural Beginning of Human History, Kant describes in the following words the sense of self-worth which our first parents acquired when they began to use reason and to reflect on the gulf which this marvelous new capacity put between them and the rest of creation:
“The first time [the human being] said to the sheep, Nature gave the skin you wear not for you but for me, and then took it off the sheep and put it on himself (Genesis 3:21), he became aware of the prerogative he had by nature over all animals, which he no longer saw as fellow creatures, but as means and tools at the disposal of his will for the attainment of the aims at his discretion” (MA 8:114).
Passages like these surely tend to confirm the view, which is widely held among (but not restricted to) animal’s rights advocates, proponents of ecological or ecofeminist ethics, and postmodernist critics of rationalism and humanism, that an ethical theory such as Kant’s is well-suited to promote those attitudes which have led to the monstrous destruction modern technological society has wrought on nature, and continues to wreak on it with increasing ferocity.
In what follows I will not try to persuade the people just mentioned that Kantian ethics is in full agreement with them.ii But I will defend my own conviction that Kant’s principle, properly interpreted – and more generally, a “logocentric” morality (in the sense described above) -- is the one best suited to dealing with ethical questions about how we should treat nonhuman living things and the natural environment. To that end, I will criticize Kant’s manner of interpreting and applying his principle, even to the extent of calling into question one of the assumptions underlying his taxonomy of ethical duties in the Metaphysics of Morals. But my ultimate aim will be only to make Kantian logocentrism the more consequent and secure.
A good place to begin is by noting some of Kant’s own moral conclusions about how nonrational nature is to be treated. These conclusions, though otherwise not particularly remarkable, may be quite different from what we would expect on the basis of the passages just quoted. Kant denies that domestic or work animals are to be treated only as tools or objects of use, and insists that there are moral restrictions in the ways we may use them. Animals should not be overworked, or strained beyond their capacities. An animal, such as a horse or dog, which has served us well, should not be cast aside like a worn out tool when it is too old to perform its task; it should be treated with gratitude and affection, like a (human) member of the household, and be allowed to live out its days in comfort. Kant thinks it is permissible to kill animals for human ends (such as for food); but he insists that this should be done as quickly and painlessly as possible (MS 6:443; VE 27:459-460). And he regards killing animals for mere sport as morally wrong (VE 27:460). Kant considers that the actions of vivisectionists, who perform painful experiments on living animals, can sometimes be justified if the ends are sufficiently important. But he regards as morally abominable “agonizing physical experiments [on animals, carried out] for the sake of mere speculation, or whose end can be achieved in other ways” (MS 6:443). He praises Leibniz for taking the trouble to place a worm back on its leaf after examining it under a microscope (KpV 5:160; cf. VE 27:459). Kant thinks we also have moral duties regarding nature in general as regards what is beautiful or purposive in it. We must not wantonly destroy what is beautiful in nonrational nature. We ought to take an interest in the beautiful in nature irrespective of any intention to use it (MS 6:443; KU 5:298-299).
The first question we need to raise is how Kant proposes to justify these opinions on the basis of the moral principles described earlier. To answer this question, we must look at the way the principle of morality is applied in Kantian ethical theory. Common interpretations of Kantian ethics (which appear to be based exclusively on the first forty pages or so of the Groundwork, and completely ignore his explicit account of the matter in the Metaphysics of Morals), suppose this procedure has to do with formulating maxims and deciding whether they can be universalized. But it does not. Instead it consists in attending to the various ethical duties which can be grounded on the principle of morality, – nearly always, in the Metaphysics of Morals, using the Formula of Humanity as End In Itself. The Metaphysics of Morals contains a taxonomy of such duties, and to understand the authentically Kantian approach to any particular moral question is first of all to understand its relation to the principles of that taxonomy.
The first division of duties in Kant’s system is that between duties of right or juridical duties and duties of virtue or ethical duties. Duties of right are those which can be coercively enforced by law and the state. Duties of virtue are those to which a moral agent must be constrained only inwardly by her own reason. We have no direct duties of right regarding nonrational nature, since only finite rational beings (in our experience, human beings) have enforceable rights (MS 6:241). Any juridical duties we might have involving the treatment of nonrational nature must be consequent to the rights of human beings and laws made by the general will of a state – for example, their rights of property over nonrational things, and laws promoting the common good or fulfilling its collective moral duties (such as duties of charity toward the poor) (MS 6:325-328). Kant mentions no specific juridical duties regarding animals or the natural environment under the latter heading, but it is worth noting that there is room for them. In Kant’s theory, the fact that nonrational beings have no rights does not entail that the general will of a state may not legislate restrictions on how they may be used or treated.
The most fundamental division among ethical duties is between duties toward ourselves and duties toward others. Kant never gives us an explicit account of what it means for a duty to be a duty to or toward (gegen) someone. But it is not hard to construct such an account. As we have seen, Kant regards only rational beings as persons, which are to be treated as ends, regarding all other beings as things. Even his statement of the Formula of Humanity as End in Itself – “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (G 4:429) – involves the idea that humanity or rational nature has a moral claim on us only in the person of a being who actually possesses it. This idea is what I will call the personification principle. Kant’s division of ethical duties into duties to ourselves and duties to others may be regarded as a corollary of the personification principle. Duty d is a duty toward S if and only if S is a rational being (or more than one), and the moral requirement to comply with d is grounded on the moral requirement to respect humanity in the person of S.
Duties to ourselves are those required on account of the respect we owe humanity in our own person: Kant considers all such duties to fall under the end of our own perfection (natural or moral), since we show respect for humanity in our own person by promoting the perfection our rational nature and of the powers at its disposal (MS 6:385-387). Duties to ourselves are strict (or owed) duties, if they require us to perform or omit specific actions in order to avoid moral blame or demerit; they are wide (or meritorious) duties if they require no such specific actions but actions in fulfillment of them are meritorious (MS 6:390-394).
Following the personification principle, all duties which are not to ourselves are required on account of the respect we owe humanity in the person of other rational beings; they fall collectively under the end of the happiness of others, since we show respect for humanity in others by promoting the (permissible) ends set by their rational nature, which are summed up in the idea of a person’s happiness (MS 6:387-388). Duties to others are further distinguished into duties of respect and duties of love (which parallels the distinction between strict and wide duties in the case of duties to ourselves) (MS 6:448-450).
It follows from the personification principle that there can be no duties toward animals, toward nature as a whole, or indeed toward any nonrational being at all (MS 6:442). Yet in an interesting section of the Metaphysics of Morals (MS §§ 16-17, 6:442-443), Kant argues that we nevertheless have duties in regard to (in Ansehung) nonrational beings. These duties, he says, appearto be duties toward them, owing to an “amphiboly of moral concepts of reflection,” that is, a sort of conceptual illusion which leads us to mistake a duty to oneself for a duty to beings other than oneself.
Kant argues that our duty to cherish and promote what is beautiful in nonrational nature irrespective of its usefulness, and to behave with kindness and gratitude toward animals, are really duties to promote our own moral perfection by behaving in ways that encourage a morally good disposition in ourselves. Kant claims that appreciation for the beauty of nature, by awakening in us the disposition to value something apart from its usefulness for our ends, prepares the way for a genuinely moral disposition in our behavior toward rational beings (MS 6:443; cf. KU 5:298-303). Similarly, practicing kindness and gratitude toward animals cultivates attitudes of sympathy and love toward human beings, while callousness or cruelty toward animals promotes the contrary vices and makes worse people of us.
These arguments, even if they are correct as far as they go, are still not very satisfying. They do not adequately articulate the reasons why most of us think we should cherish natural beauty and care about the welfare of other living things, for the simple reason that (true to Kant’s principles) they do not involve valuing nonrational nature or the welfare of living things for their own sake, but treat the whole of nonrational nature as a mere means, having only an extrinsic and instrumental value. That the end served by acting well toward nonrational nature is that of our own moral virtue may even strike us as only making matters worse, since it seems to enshrine the insufferable Kantian proposition that the whole of nature is worth nothing except in relation to our own self-righteousness. Another way to bring out the unsatisfactoriness of Kant’s arguments is to observe that if it happened to be a quirk of human psychology that torturing animals would make us that much kinder toward humans (perhaps by venting our aggressive impulses on helpless victims), then Kant’s argument would apparently make it a duty to inflict gratuitous cruelty on puppies and kittens so as to make us that much kinder to people. Seen in this light, Kant’s argumentative strategy must strike us not only as unpersuasive but even downright repugnant.iii
What we should not fail to notice, however, is that, whatever its weaknesses, this strategy is actually forced on Kant by purely theoretical considerations. For Kant’s logocentric principle requires him to ground all duties in the value of humanity or rational nature, and his personification principle compels him to regard every duty as a duty to some rational being or beings. Hence duties regarding nonrational nature must be either a duty to others (promoting the happiness of other human beings), or else on a duty to ourselves (promoting our own perfection).
Given these options, I submit, Kant has at least made the best of an extremely bleak situation. He has avoided treating the beauty of nature and the welfare of nonrational living things merely as means to what human beings want – as he would have done if he had argued, for example, that we should treat animals with kindness and preserve the beauties of nature only because people happen to want animals not to suffer and find natural beauty and purposiveness pleasant or useful. By grounding duties regarding nonrational nature in our duty to promote our own moral perfection, Kant is saying that whatever our other aims or our happiness may consist in, we do not have a good will unless we show concern for the welfare of nonrational beings and value natural beauty for its own sake. This means he comes as close as his theory permits him to treating nonrational nature as good independently of the ends of rational beings.
Yet even if Kant has made the best of a bad situation, the features of his ethical theory which forced a bad choice on him are still open to criticism. Many will think it self-evident that the offending feature of Kantian ethics is simply its logocentrism, the fact that it recognizes no value which is independent of the dignity of rational nature. Logocentrists such as myself, however, will want to avoid this conclusion. We think that there is a tight connection between the fact that rational beings are capable of appreciating and accepting valid norms and values and the idea that their rational capacity, which provides the sole possible authority for such norms and values, must be seen as their ground.
It is beyond the scope of this lecture to trot out the positive arguments in defense of Kantian logocentrism (something I have done elsewhere).iv What does need to be emphasized here is one distinctive feature of that starting point, which is that it grounds ethical theory neither in a principle to be obeyed nor in an end to be pursued, but in a value to be esteemed, honored or respected. This is fundamentally what it means to say that humanity or rational nature is an end in itself. This is why Kant describes an end in itself not as an “end to be effected” but as an “independently existing” or “self-sufficient end” (selbständiger Zweck) (G 4:437). That rational nature is an end in itself is closely related in Kant’s view to the dignity of rational nature, its absolute value, which cannot be substituted for or rationally traded off against anything, but which must be unconditionally respected in all our actions (G 4:434-435).v
To treat rational nature as an end in itself is to display or express in one’s actions that one recognizes its absolute and unconditional value.vi From a Kantian standpoint, much of the difficulty and complexity of moral questions lies in the fact that the expressive meaning of actions regarding the dignity of rational nature is often hard to interpret, inherently controversial, in part culturally variable and in no wise subject to the elegant decision procedures which some other ethical theories (such as utilitarianism) think they can provide. But Kant’s theory of duties is based on some claims about it which are hard to dispute. In the case of duties to ourselves, respecting rational nature means not only preserving and perfecting it but also acting in such a way as to live up to it or to be worthy of its dignity. In the case of duties to others, we ought to seek their happiness because it is the sum total of their ends, and we ought to honor their rational nature which has set those ends by helping to promoting them.
I will argue that where Kant goes wrong regarding his theoretical defense of our duties regarding nonrational nature is not in accepting his logocentric principle but in accepting what I have called the personification principle. This principle says that rational nature is respected only by respecting humanity in someone’s person, hence that every duty must be understood as a duty to a person or persons. Now it may seem self-evident that to respect or honor rational nature is always to honor it in the person of some rational being; it may even seem nonsensical or self-contradictory to think that we could honor rational nature in a being which does not have rational nature. But consider, for example, the ways theistic religions honor the supreme perfection, goodness and power of God. It is not the case that they honor God only in actions which have God alone as their object. On the contrary, all theistic religions hold that it is essential to the worship of God that we behave in certain ways toward beings other than God, because these beings stand in certain salient relations to God, such as being his creatures or being made in his image. These relations to God which make our conduct toward them expressive of our love for and devotion to God.
St. Augustine takes a controversial position among theists when he maintains that we must love creatures, including other human beings, only for God’s sake, and that it is sinful to love any creature for its own sake.vii This is controversial because it is more common for theists to hold that it is not only permissible to love creatures for their own sake, but that the proper worship of God consists (in part) in loving them for their own sake.viii Even St. Augustine, however, holds that our devotion to God requires that we love God’s creatures, especially his human creatures. Hence even St. Augustine rejects the theistic analogue of Kant’s personification principle – which would say we must love and worship God only in God’s person, and that we must regard creatures only as means. Likewise, I argue, a logocentric ethics, which grounds all duties on the value of humanity or rational nature, should not be committed to the personification principle. It should hold that honoring rational nature as an end in itself sometimes requires us to behave with respect toward nonrational beings if they bear the right relations to rational nature. Such relations, I will argue, include having rational nature only potentially, or virtually, or having had it in the past, or having parts of it or necessary conditions of it.
Some of Kant’s critics object to his saying that I should respect humanity in your person, thinking that this somehow means that I do not really respect you. Perhaps he conceived the personification principle as a concession to such people, because by guaranteeing that I respect humanity only in some person, and never in anything else (KpV 5:76), it seems to fend off the notion that my respect is directed only toward humanity or rational nature in the abstract. But if the personification principle is a concession to this line of thinking, then it is an ill-considered one, which Kant should not have made. Of course we should respect rational nature in persons, and this means respecting the persons themselves. But my main argument here depends on saying that we should also respect rational nature in the abstract, which entails respecting fragments of it or necessary conditions of it, even where these are not found in fully rational beings or persons.
The point I am making is easiest to see, and hardest to deny, in the case of many human beings (in the nontechnical sense) who lack ‘humanity’ (in the technical sense), and therefore must fail (technically) to be persons at all.ix They include small children and people who have severe mental impairments or diseases which deprive them, either temporarily or permanently, of the capacity to set ends according to reason. Clearly Kant would not want to say that such human beings are mere things, which are to be treated only as means. The important thing, though, is not what Kant would want to say, but rather what is required by a reasonable interpretation of his basic principle that rational nature should be respected as an end in itself. The point is that it would show contempt for rational nature to be indifferent to its potentiality it in children, and to treat children as mere things or as mere means to the ends of those beings in whom rational nature is presently actual. Owing to the fragility and vulnerability of the potentiality for rational nature in children, Kant’s principle might even dictate giving priority to its development in children over promoting some of the ends of actual rational beings. It might, for example, require adults to devote scarce resources to protecting, caring for and educating small children, instead of using these resources to satisfy their own contingent ends. Similar points might be made about respecting rational nature in people who have temporarily lost it through disease or injury. It would show contempt for rational nature not to care about them, and to do nothing to help then recover their rational capacities. Further, the value of rational nature arguably also forbids our treating human corpses as mere lumps of decaying matter to be gotten out of the way or put to whatever use seems most serviceable. We honor the rational nature that was formerly present there, for example, by making only such use of the organs of dead people as those people consented to when they were alive and exercising their reason.
The vital point here is not that these judgments accord with our pretheoretical moral intuitions, but that the dignity of rational nature, the value grounding Kant’s own principle, commits him to a rejection of the personification principle, since it involves placing value on nonrational beings (hence on what are, on Kant’s theory, literally or technically nonpersons), and even giving this value priority to some of the ends of rational beings (who are literally persons).
It may be offensive to some to hear that on Kant’s theory, children, the mentally incapacitated and so on are literally nonpersons. They may think it self-evident that personhood must extend to all living human beings. But if we are to go beyond mere prejudice in extending personhood this far, then we need to specify what features human beings have that justifies giving it to them and only to them. Being a member of a certain biological species, as many animal rights advocates correctly point out, is not a sufficient reason; if we try to justify it by the fact that they are members of our species, then this seems no more justifiable than (and objectionable for precisely the same reasons as) giving certain people special status because they are members of our race or nationality. If, like Kant, we do identify some property (such as rational nature) which grounds moral personhood, then (whatever property this is) it seems likely that some members of the human species will not have it. So any view about what counts as a person which goes beyond mere prejudice is likely to be committed to the view that some human beings are literally nonpersons. In any case, it is not as if there were no problems about what counts as a person even if we think that personhood extends to all living human beings – as is clear from controversies about the moral status of fetuses.x
Once we see that a reasonable interpretation of the principle of humanity as an end in itself requires us to respect the value of rational nature even in human beings who are literally nonpersons, it becomes less difficult to see that there might be an issue about whether respect for rational nature limits our conduct in the case of nonhuman nature in general.xi Relevant here is a paradox present in Kant’s own discussion of our duties in regard to natural beauty. Recall that Kant says that our duty to further our own moral perfection requires us to appreciate and preserve natural beauty for its own sake.xii Here Kant is apparently acknowledging that something, namely natural beauty, can have worth for its own sake (and not merely as a means) without being rational nature in the person of some rational being. This is still consistent with Kant’s logocentrism as long as the value of natural beauty for its own sake is in some way derived from the fundamental value of rational nature; but it seems obviously inconsistent with logocentrism if it is interpreted through the personification principle.xiii The personification principle, then, although it is even incorporated in Kant’s statement of the Formula of Humanity, involves an interpretation of the basic idea behind that principle which is false and even inconsistent with Kant’s own conclusions.
To reject the personification principle is to reject the most fundamental taxonomical principle of Kant’s doctrine of virtue, the principle that divides all ethical duties exhaustively into duties to ourselves and duties to others. But this rejection opens the way for us to recognize, solely on the basis of Kant’s logocentric principle and without introducing any value outside that of rational nature, duties regarding nonrational beings which are not based on or derived from any duties toward rational beings.xiv
I submit that this way of looking at Kantian logocentrism does a far better job of grounding duties regarding animals -- even the duties Kant himself recognizes -- than do Kant’s own arguments (which are restricted by the personification principle in ways we have noted). For although nonhuman animals may not possess rational nature itself, they do possess recognizable fragments of it. They have capacities which we should value as the infrastructure, so to speak, of rational nature. Many animals have desires and they experience pleasure or pain. To frustrate an animal’s desires or to cause it pain maliciously or wantonly is to treat with contempt that part of rational nature which animals share with human beings. Many animals also have what Tom Regan calls ‘preference autonomy’: that is, they have preferences and the ability to initiate actions to satisfy them.xv Preference autonomy is not the same as the rational autonomy on which Kantian ethics is grounded, but it is a necessary condition for rational autonomy and part of its structure.xvi
Kant himself holds that respect for rational nature requires us to respect the natural teleology involved in the animal part of our own nature. This is the basis of his arguments about our duties to ourselves regarding self-preservation and the enjoyment of food, drink and sex (MS 6:422-428). The desires in question are, in effect, the infrastructure of our own rational nature as regards survival, nourishment and reproduction. If respect for the rational nature served by this natural teleology requires that it not be thwarted or frustrated, then once we are free of the restrictions of the personification principle it seems reasonable to extend this argument and claim that respect for rational nature requires similar constraints regarding the natural teleology in nonrational living things.
Kant’s own arguments are based on the idea that someone who behaves cruelly, carelessly or maliciously toward an animal, needlessly tormenting it or frustrating its desires, behaves in a way that closely resembles the misconduct of a person who disrespects rational nature in the person of a rational being by frustrating a human being’s permissible ends. But the resemblance is morally relevant, on Kantian principles, only if the behavior in both cases exhibits what is morally the same trait of character – which it does if what it expresses regarding rational nature is the same, as by disrespecting in the animal those fragments, or underpinnings of rationality which we share with animals. Ingratitude toward the long service of a dog or horse is an expression of contempt for its qualities of devotion and affection; this is morally quite similar to treating with contempt the same qualities in a rational creature who has treated you well. It is similar, on Kantian principles, only if what it expresses is a contempt for qualities that are shared between rational and nonrational creatures, and it should be condemned for the contempt it thereby necessarily expresses toward rational nature.
Even Kant’s own arguments about our duties regarding animals make sense only if we suppose that cruelty, ingratitude or callousness toward animals already itself expresses distrespect for rational nature (whatever its effects might be on our conduct toward human beings). When Kant argues that kindness and gratitude toward animals promote similar dispositions to behave toward human beings, he is apparently assuming that it does so by a mechanism of habituation. That is, he is assuming that we acquire a certain morally relevant trait of character by perfoming the actions which exhibit that trait. But if that is the assumption, then our behavior toward animals is reasonably taken as reinforcing kindness and gratitude toward human beings only if we take it as already exhibiting the very same trait we are trying to reinforce by habituation – that is, the trait with the same expressive meaning as regards the worth of rational nature. Hence Kant’s argument seems tacitly to presuppose that kindness and gratitude toward animals already express respect for rational nature, while attitudes of cruelty, exploitativeness and thoughtless disregard for the welfare of animals express contempt for rational nature.
Of course as long as Kant is in the grip of the personification principle, he cannot acknowledge this explicitly.xvii But I think he is doing his best to express it when he avoids treating our duties in regard to animals as duties based on the happiness of others (who will presumably benefit from the kindness we are fostering in ourselves), and argues instead that it is a duty to ourselves. For this implies that we aren’t in the right moral condition unless we value the welfare of animals for its own sake. This actually comes quite close to an explicit admission on Kant’s part that the trait of being kind toward animals is good because this kindness itself shows respect for rational nature. If Kant had been more consequent in his logocentrism, he would have made the admission openly.
To say that Kantian ethics allows for us to value nonhuman living animals and their welfare for its own sake does not, of course, determine in detail how they are to be treated. The view I am defending falls considerably short of saying that animals have rights. I do not know how in general to decide when the welfare of nonrational beings should prevail over the ends and interests of rational beings.xviii My aim here is not to work out the details of what logocentrism implies about our duties regarding nonrational nature, but only to say what its general approach is, and why I think it is the most defensible one.
I now want to leave behind Kant’s arguments about our duties regarding particular nonrational creatures, such as animals, and turn to what Kantian ethics says about the larger question about our duties regarding the natural environment as a whole. Perhaps the most natural charge here is the charge that by uniquely privileging rational beings in its scheme of values, Kantian ethics leads to a monstrously megalomaniacal view of the world in which human beings regard themselves as the lords of nature, and think of nature as a whole as existing only for their sake.
I won’t deny that logocentrism does involve a view of that kind. In Kant, moreover, it is quite explicit. In the critique of teleological judgment, Kant argues that in order to unify our cognitions of the natural world, we should try to see the whole of nature as a single teleological system. Just as Aristotle does in the opening lines of the Nicomachean Ethics, Kant thinks a teleological system can be unified only through the subordination of some ends to others in hierarchical fashion, until finally the entire system is united by being ordered to one ‘ultimate end’ (letzter Zweck) (KU 5: 425-434). For otherwise the system, even if all its parts somehow were ordered purposively to others, would lack finality: each part might be there for the sake of something, but the series of ends would run on endlessly, and the whole would be purposeless.
Kant does insist that there be an ultimate end of nature: and this end he locates in human beings.xix He considers here the objection of Linnaeus, that human beings are no more exempt than anything else in nature from serving as means to other living things or the stability of purposive systems (as we do when, like brave Hotspur, we become food for wormsxx) (KU 5:427). Kant accepts the point that in nature we are means as well as ends, but notes that if this argument proved that human beings are not the ultimate end of nature, it would also thereby prove that nature could have no ultimate end, and hence – contrary to an indispensable regulative principle of reflective judgment – that nature cannot be conceived as a finally unified teleological system (KU 5:428).
Kant’s ground for holding that of all the beings interconnected as means and ends within nature, human beings alone can be thought of as the ultimate end because they alone can form the concept of ends and organize the mere aggregate of such ends into a system (KU 5:426-427). His argument here parallels the argument that rational nature has supreme worth or dignity as an end in itself, since in both cases it turns on the idea that the pivotal place in a system of objective values (norms or ends) must be occupied by beings having the capacity to make objective judgments about such values.
Kant’s view that human beings are the ultimate end of nature is, however, emphatically not a view of nature which sees it merely as a tool or raw material for human beings to do with as they please. It is instead another way of looking at the dignity of rational nature, regarded as something we have a duty to live up to. When we regard ourselves as the ultimate end of nature, we look at nature as a unified and harmonious teleological system – the term for it today would be ‘ecosystem’ – and we undertake the responsibility of shaping our ends in such a way that they provide this system with its crowning unity and harmony. Far from putting nonrational nature at our arbitrary disposal, this orientation toward nature imposes on us the responsibility both of making sense of nature as a purposive system and then of acting as preservers and guarantors of that system.
Clearly we do not do this when we exploit parts of nature for our arbitrary ends, giving no thought to the long term consequences of what we do. Nor do we do it when we destabilize the existing system of natural ends, leading to the destruction of entire living species and even of entire natural environments within which alone the survival of whole systems of species remains possible. Rather, we do it only insofar as we make the effort to understand nature as a system of ends, and then act toward it in such a way that our own ends harmonize with that system. This involves simultaneously a theoretical and a practical responsibility – which is why we find it brought out explicitly in the Critique of Judgment, where Kant is chiefly concerned with the unification of the standpoints of theoretical and practical reason.
An ethical viewpoint of this kind, in my view, is the one which stands the best chance of making theoretical sense of the attitude intelligent and morally sensitive people already take toward our duties regarding the natural environment. Such people think that we should try to understand the delicate balance of natural ecosystems and take care not to upset them. But the very conception of an ‘ecosystem’ – as well as of the ‘beauty’ and ‘balance’ found in it and the value of its preservation and that of the species of living things which belong to it – these are always products of our rational reflection on nature and our attempts to maximize unity and harmony in what we find. Both our cognitive and our practical interests must be engaged for nature to appear to us at all in this way, and it is only to beings with rational ends that nature could appear as a system requiring to be fostered or preserved. xxi
This does not mean, of course, that only a logocentric or Kantian ethics could see nature as a system which is to be valued in such a way. The harmonious system of nature might be valued, for example, as God’s creation, or as the embodiment of some other kind of value, religious or aesthetic – as it is by many contemporary views which at least nominally reject logocentrism in any form. But some of these views turn out to be committed to logocentrism when their presuppositions are thought through consistently, however stubbornly their proponents may assert the contrary. For example, if we honor creation for God’s sake, then what we are doing implicitly relies on some account of the goodness of God. God’s goodness has usually been understood as the supreme perfection of will, to which our rational capacities stand as an image or lesser imitation. It is hard to make sense of this account of God’s goodness except by treating it as a form of logocentrism. More resolute attempts to reject logocentrism in recent times usually involve talk about reverence for nameless mysteries or for otherness in the abstract – in other words, to schemes of value which are utterly opaque or even openly paradoxical, typically backed by attitudes of blame or condescension directed toward anyone who refuses to embrace the paradoxes spontaneously and uncritically. As Romantic, existentialist and postmodernist thought all amply illustrate, it is far easier to disavow logocentrism in words than to articulate an intelligible alternative to it.
Some may think that the value of nature is to be apprehended not by reason but by some higher faculty, aesthetic or religious, which operates through special feelings or intuitions of which, as Pascal says, reason knows nothing.xxii But they have the problem of getting the rest of humanity to share these intuitions, and (having abjured reason) they cannot hope to do so by appealing to evidence or argument. They seem to be excluded by the nature of the case from explaining to anyone who does not share their feelings why they too should value the preservation of natural species and ecosystems. The problems posed by human conduct toward nature, whatever else they may be, are massive problems of co-ordination, whose solution requires successful rational communication and concerted effort. If these problems could be solved merely at the level of shared feelings or intuitions, then surely we would not be confronting them the first place. To propose in the face of them that we abandon reason in favor of something more immediate and less corrupt is not to suggest a new solution but only to express the wish (as vain as it is pious) that we should never have brought our present predicament upon ourselves at all.
In this way of thinking there is a good deal of what Kant called ‘misology’ or hatred of reason. Such hatred, Kant thought, is a natural consequence of gaining insight into two important truths, both probably associated most closely with the name of Rousseau, but which Kant himself insisted on as emphatically as anyone. The first is that from what human history shows us, reason turns out not to be a good instrument for making rational beings happy or contented. It complicates their lives, generating new desires and creating new and more complicated circumstances in which people must devise ways of satisfying them. The second truth is that the development of reason also arouses a profoundly vicious side of human nature – self-conceited, self-centered, insatiably greedy and prone to all kinds of pernicious errors and delusions -- which can easily make humanity appear to itself not as the ultimate end of nature but on the contrary as nature’s most deformed and dangerous mistake (R 6:26-39).
Kant thinks that misology, like discontent and vice, is a by-product precisely of the development of reason. In fact, it is merely another aspect of the discontent with themselves which Kant takes to be the peculiar fate of finite rational beings. He views this discontent as itself part of the system of natural teleology, since it serves the function of inciting rational creatures to employ their reason in the further development of their capacities. For reason involves above all the capacity to which Rousseau gave the name ‘perfectibility’ – the capacity to adopt new and varied ways of life, and to develop varied abilities and modes of behavior in response to new situations and new needs.
One characteristic delusion of human misology is the sweet dream of an earlier, less troubled, more innocent age – a Golden Age or Garden of Eden, or the fantasies which more developed cultures project on earlier stages of their own history or else on foreign peoples, whom (in their imperfect comprehension of other ways of life) they often fancy to correspond to a happier and less corrupted version of themselves (MA 8:122-123). The hatred of reason then sometimes takes the form of a wish to return to this more innocent state. This is of course a deeply deluded wish, not only because the condition they imagine never did and never could exist in the form they imagine it, but also because the natural function of such imaginings is exactly the opposite of what is projected in the wish. For that function is to make us discontented with our present condition and prod us to develop our capacities further, making our lives more rational. Only in this way, moreover, in Kant’s view, do we have any prospect of overcoming the vice and misery brought on by our reason in its present condition, which is still merely in the early stages of its development and has far to go in perfecting itself.
There is a grave danger in such imaginings, however, which is that people may really try to actualize their impossible delusions of a lost past, precisely by suppressing reason and divesting themselves of its achievements. In this respect, misology -- even in the relatively benign forms which take themselves to be trying merely to save us from the catastrophes to which the excessive arrogance of our reason may lead us -- has more in common than it wants to acknowledge with the characteristically modern cultural phenomenon we know as fundamentalism. Every fundamentalism is a superstition which has lost its innocence, an idea which, through the advance of reason, has lost its authority over the human mind and now seeks to reclaim its former position by wreaking vengeance upon reason -- especially on its capacity for openness and self-criticism (since fundamentalism correctly perceives that they are chiefly to blame for depriving old superstitions of their ancient rights). Those who like to think in terms of catastrophes (ecological or otherwise) will be well occupied in contemplating the possible triumph of this most common and virulent form of misology.
In response to misology in all its forms, Kant’s logocentric thought is that although the only reason we have is limited, imperfect and even corrupt, the only cure for the ills it brings upon us is more reason, a better developed and perfected reason applied more consistently and resolutely. Since there is no a priori assurance that the progress of reason will ultimately be victorious over the evil in human nature that accompanies it, this is not a comforting or consoling thought. But it is the only thought that orients us in such a way that we may still hope to avert the catastrophes we have most reason to fear.