How the Categorical Imperative Entails that we cannot Treat Animals as Means Only

It is often thought that utilitarianism is the only moral theory that recognizes that non-rational animals matter morally. This view is usually contrasted with some deontological view (typically Kant) that claims that animals in no way matter. But this is actually mistaken.

Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imerpative ‘Act on the maxim which you can will as a universal law of nature’ straightforwardly leads to his second formulation ‘act so as to treat the humanity in a person as an end only and never as a means only’. This is because I cannot consistently will a maxim that lets rational agents be treated as means only, as that would mean that I, a rational agent, could be treated as a means only which contradicts the natural desire of rational agents to govern themselves. Exactly parralell reasoning will get you another formulation of the categorical imperative which is something like ‘act so as to treat sentient creatures as an end only and never as a means only’; for consider a world in which sentient creatures were treated as a means only (used for food, hunted for pleasure, etc) in such a world it would be OK to treat you as a means to an end, (you are after all a sentient being), but this contradicts a sentient being’s natural desire not to be used in such ways.

Perhaps one may object that they could will a maxim which was limited to non-rational sentient beings. But then you have the usual problems with infants, the mentally infirm, and senile senior citizens. Perhaps we could limit it to non-human sentient beings? But this is to make an exception to a universal rule, which is the very indication that one is acting contrary to the Categorical Imperative!

6 thoughts on “How the Categorical Imperative Entails that we cannot Treat Animals as Means Only

  1. Hiya Professor! Hmm- that makes sense. I never said that Ethics is useless! I just didn’t word it correctly, I guess. But business does suck and Ethics does rule! …do I get any extra credit for saying that? Can I? 😀

  2. […] I have argued that we can get the same results that Regen wants without having to say that animals thereby have a right to be treated in certain ways. Rather what we argue is that we, as moral agents, have duties towards animals in spite of the fact that they don’t have rights. These obligations towards animals are grounded in the two concerns that Regen and Singer each point to. We ought not to cause animals to suffer because suffering matters, we also ought not to kill them, even painlessly, because their life matters to them. It is not that they (the animals) recognize this that makes it important. It is the fact that we recognize, through our ability to universalize, that we cannot but help but contradict ourselves when we make it be the case that sentient beings are used simply as a means because that would entail that we, as sentient beings, could be treated that way. No, as Kant rightly points out, we want it to remain the case that we cannot treat sentient beings in certain ways but then make an exception to that universal rule (in the case of nonhuman animals). […]

  3. ‘Perhaps one may object that they could will a maxim which was limited to non-rational sentient beings. But then you have the usual problems with infants, the mentally infirm, and senile senior citizens. Perhaps we could limit it to non-human sentient beings? But this is to make an exception to a universal rule, which is the very indication that one is acting contrary to the Categorical Imperative!’

    This is exactly what I would do — it seems to me that since sentience ≠ rationality (or rational capability, if you like), sentient beings which are nonrational are not owed consideration under the categorical imperative. I’m perfectly prepared to accept the implication that the mentally infirm, senile, or undeveloped are not to be considered ‘persons’ for the purposes of Kantian ethics under this interpretation.

    I think that this agrees with the intuitions of many, and with the American legal tradition, in that we often limit the rights, which would otherwise be considered universal or guaranteed, of children (no right to vote, no rights to certain forms of self-determination as in the signing of a contract), the elderly, and the mentally handicapped (also cannot give consent in certain situations), etc. It doesn’t mean that these individuals get *no* moral consideration, but it seems to me that the rights owed to some creature cannot be determined by the mere fact of a simple notion of personhood. I would argue that instead, the many, particular rights we often associate with personhood (‘human rights’) are really owed individually to specific elements of the definition of the notion of personhood. For example, the obligation to avoid hurting one another is owed to the *specific* property of the capacity for pain, and *not* to personhood. (We have a separate obligation not to ‘damage’ one another based upon the fact that it impairs our autonomous functioning, so an action like stabbing someone is wrong for two reasons, and so it remains wrong even if you first anaesthetize your victim.)

    So to me, the notion of personhood as a primitive property which earns us various moral rights seems only to confuse the issue, even under a Kantian view. A compromise of one’s rationality constitutes a compromise of one’s personhood. And though I’d rather avoid the usage of a concept of personhood at all, I think it’s still salvageable if we accept the fact that it makes sense that one individual can be more completely a ‘person’ than another, and owed more, less, or different moral considerations on that basis.

    This would have implications for your human analogy argument against eating meat. To me, as your brain function declines, you are actually to be considered less a person. When you are totally dead, your personhood is entirely gone, and eating your corpse is only using a non-person as a means to an end. I don’t think cannibalism is wrong, but just icky. I feel that similarly, you’ve only really argued for the ickiness of eating meat, not the wrongness of it.

    I agree that we can’t make any special moral exceptions for human beings on the grounds of our DNA. But I believe that without being speciesists, we can recognize a need to treat animals differently from ourselves (and from each other!) for the same reason that we treat them differently from plants. We owe a gorilla less moral consideration than we owe a human, but naturally we owe it much more than we would a Harmonium in the caves of Mercury, even as we might likewise owe a Harmonium a bit more moral consideration than a potted fern.

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