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When the Tail Wags the Dog: Animal Welfare and Indirect Duty in Kantian Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Jens Timmermann
University of St Andrews


Even the most sympathetic readers of Kant's moral philosophy usually disagree with him about some aspect of his theory, or some particular moral judgement. His unqualified condemnation of lying in the essay ‘On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy’ is a classical case in question, as is his strong endorsement of retributive justice and the death penalty. A third prominent source of discontent are Kant's repeated verdicts on the moral status of non-human animals, or rather the lack thereof. For, despite the fact that his practical recommendations in this field are sensible and even progressive, he repeatedly insists that there are no direct duties to animals, that the well-being of animals is morally indifferent, in particular that we ought to treat animals decently solely for the sake of humanity. As a result, the foundations of his advice seem morally inadequate, even offensive.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2005

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1 Schopenhauer, Arthur, Freisschrift über die Grundlage der Moral, 2nd edn (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1860), p. 162Google Scholar(§8); On the Basis of Morality, trans. Payne, E. F. J. (Providence and Oxford: Berghahn, 1995), p. 96Google Scholar. On Schopenhauer and the role of compassion in animal ethics in general, cf. Wolf, Ursula, Das Tier in der Moral (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1990)Google Scholar.

2 Pybus, Elizabeth and Broadie, Alexander, ‘Kant's treatment of animals’, Philosophy 49 (1974), 375–83Google Scholar(quotation p. 375). Cf. also Regan, Tom, ‘Broadie and Pybus on Kant’, Philosophy 51 (1976), 471–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Pybus, Elizabeth and Broadie, Alexander, ‘Kant and the maltreatment of animals’, Philosophy 53 (1978), 560–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 There is one notable exception: for a recent exploration and apology of the original Kantian theory, cf. Denis, Lara, ‘Kant's conception of duties regarding animals: reconstruction and reconsideration’, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 17 (2000), 405–23Google Scholar. However, Denis's defence of Kant's account seems to rely on an inadequate understanding of Kant's notion of an ‘indirect’ duty (see below). Modified Kantian accounts include Wood, Allen W., ‘Kant on duties regarding nonrational nature I’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume LXXII (1998), 189210CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wood rejects Kant's assumption that all duties have to be duties to persons, either to oneself or to others, which opens up the possibility of duties regarding animals that are not duties to any specific person while at the same time respecting certain conditions of personhood present in animals. I shall return to this proposal. Cf. also Guyer, Paul, ‘Duties regarding nature’, in Kant and the Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 303–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Cf. Korsgaard, Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. Lecture 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 God's case is somewhat more complicated because we have no knowledge of God's existence. It is, however, said to be a duty to the self to be religious, that is, to believe in God.

6 Cf. Kant's preparatory notes for the Doctrine of Virtue, 23: 380-1.

7 In both the Lectures on Ethics and the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant's examples of ‘lifeless’ things are products of nature. He never even mentions an artefact as something we could have a duty not to destroy. This is curious. Is it because its destruction is psychologically harmless and there is not even an indirect duty regarding artefacts? Or because the products of nature have some special value (which seems unlikely in the context of an indirect duty)? Or because they are just Kant's favourite examples of things beautiful? Is it because artefacts have makers that are themselves worthy of moral consideration, which would complicate the matter?

8 Lara Denis stresses this point in her philosophically conservative account of Kantian duties regarding animals, cf. ‘Kant's conception of duties regarding animals’.

9 Kant ought to have said ‘in Ansehung’ (‘regarding’) animals, but he (or rather the person who took the lecture notes) defies terminological consistency. There is a further infelicity: the Lectures claim that ‘we have no immediate duties to animals; our duties to them (gegen die Tiere) are indirect duties to humanity’ (27: 459). Kant probably said that all ‘indirect’ duties regarding animals are ‘direct’ duties to the self (cf. 6: 443, the passage quoted above).

10 If I owe you some money, and giving you a cheque here and now is the only way of repaying my debt, I have an indirect duty to write you a cheque. If I also happen to have cash on me, I have an indirect duty either to write you a cheque or to repay you in cash, other things being equal. Matters of concrete detail, settled by historical, social etc. accidents, cannot produce any more than indirect duties. Concerning the choice of means only, they must not be included in one's maxims. My writing you a cheque is, of course, part of a direct duty of settling my debt and as such it is morally good, but only qua settling my debt, not qua writing a cheque. If writing a cheque is the only means of giving the money back, I do have a duty to do so. It is a good thing that I settle my debt, but there is nothing good as such about my writing a cheque. Such matters of detail lead to rules of skill that serve the function of making maxims sufficiently precise to be acted on. Rules of skill are morally neutral (cf. Groundwork, 4: 415). In the case of animals, according to Kant, there is nothing about the animal that makes treating them decently morally good. Treating animals decently is a mere means to taking care of your own moral well-being. It is, like other indirect duties, as such devoid of moral value. As always in Kantian ethics, one must carefully pay attention to the action description. The correct one is singled out by the maxim, the locus of moral worth; accidental means must not be part of it.

11 This is easily overlooked. For example, Onora O'Neill considers indirect duties ‘real duties that bind all who are capable of having duties’ (‘Kant on duties regarding nonrational nature II’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume LXXII (1998), 211-28, quotation p. 223). Similarly, Lara Denis considers ‘duties regarding animals’ to be ‘genuine, well-grounded Kantian duties’ (‘Kant's conception of duties regarding animals’, 406, cf. p. 417). Yet they are ‘duties’ only in a manner of speaking. Alexander Broadie and Elizabeth Pybus are entirely justified in capitalizing on the uselessness of the concept of an ‘indirect’ duty. Examples of ‘indirect’ duties in Kant include the following: to promote one's happiness (Groundwork, 4: 399), to acquire wealth (Metaphysics of Morals, 6: 388), to acquire compassionate feelings (ibid., 6: 457) and to give a voice to conscience in one's deliberations (ibid., 6: 400). (This last case is tricky, but discussing it in detail is beyond the scope of this article.) There is a duty to do all of these things, but not under the description given. Accidentally promoting or cultivating these factors facilitates moral action; and that is what is morally good about it. Properly caring for one's moral capacities and character is a direct duty to the self, and this entails ‘indirect’ duties; but there is nothing morally good about caring for one's happiness as such. One might thus say that ‘indirect’ duties introduce an element of consequentialism into the Kantian ethical framework. In the case of animals, there would be no duty to do it if neglect did not lead to adverse effects on our moral capacities.

12 It is an amphiboly of ‘the moral concepts of reflection’, similar to the transcendental amphiboly of the theoretical understanding discussed in the Critique of Pure Reason, A 260/B 316 ff.

13 Cf. Baumgarten, Alexander, Ethica Philosophica, 3rd edn, 1763 (repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1969Google Scholar, and in volume 27. 2,1 of the Academy Edition of Kant's works), $§301 ff.

14 Cf. Wolf, Ursula, Das Tier in der Moral, pp. 33–8.Google Scholar

15 This may include potential rational beings such as infants. We treat them well for the sake of their incipient rationality. Human beings who will never develop or regain full autonomy probably ought to have the same moral status as non-human animals, but cf. , Wood, ‘Kant on duties I’, 199Google Scholar, and Onora O'Neill's discussion of Kant's ‘speciesism’ in her ‘Kant on duties II’, 217 ff.

16 , Wood, ‘Kant on duties I’, 193.Google Scholar

17 Cf. for example, Critique of Pure Reason, A 534/B 562.

18 Cf. O'Neill on the two aspects of Kant's ‘logocentrism': We are agents to whom moral commands are addressed; and we are also on the ‘receiving end’ of each other's actions, ‘Kant on duties II’, 217.

19 Kant uses this example to illustrate an inherent tendency towards evil in children that must not be tolerated, cf. Lectures, 27:441.

20 A wide duty to others is, in a sense, not a duty to the person benefited, but rather a duty to humanity in that person. Formal duties to others, for example, the duty not to lie to them, are also duties to mankind in my own person; they are only the latter if the person in question ‘drops out of the picture’ because he has lost his moral status.

21 This does not imply an overall moral judgement. Even if the amount of pain was exactly the same, twisting the tail of a dog is not in all respects morally equivalent to stepping on someone's toe. The point I am trying to make is merely that in both cases pain, wilfully inflicted, has direct moral weight. For the moment we shall leave such complications aside.

22 Concerning the psychology of animal sacrifice, the divinity was presumably supposed to be pleased with the sacrifice human beings were prepared to make for his or her sake, not about the suffering of the victim.

23 Similarly, Allen Wood notes 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’ (‘Kant on duties I’, 194 f.). As things actually – and contingently – are, Kant seems to be right: human beings who maltreat animals are more likely to treat other human beings badly too.

24 It is not the animal's fault that it is the kind of thing it is. Animals are morally innocent. However, it may be a person's fault if he turns himself into an animal, and it is not clear how a principle like the Golden Rule should be applied in such cases.

25 There is a question as to what kind of being exactly it is that the argument should be concerned with. It would perhaps seem that it has to be pitched at the kind of being the other party essentially is. To ask whether another human being would mind maltreatment appears not to address the question properly. On the other hand, if we merely ask whether an animal would be happy with a certain kind of treatment, there is the danger of under-mining the actions of vets that are initially painful even though ultimately they are to the animal's benefit. (I should like to thank Elizabeth Pybus for pointing this out to me.) The best solution is probably the idea of oneself making provisions for the case of being reduced to one's animality. There is another interesting thought experiment that might have changed Kant's mind (or at any rate reveals a point he is not clear about). What should the moral status of animals be that possessed theoretical rationality only, being the spectators of their own actions and mental states? They would still not be equal members of the moral community, but does that mean that we would be justified in treating them as mere means? Does it really take full practical autonomy to be ‘counted in’?

26 In his article ‘The structure of practical reason’ (Cullity, Garrert and Gaut, Berys (eds), Ethics and Practical Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 161–88)Google Scholar, Berys Gaut rightly challenges Kant's view that ‘without man, all of creation would be a mere wasteland, gratuitous and without final purpose’ (Critique of Judgement, 5: 442). It is wrong to say that ‘the value of animals and plants is completely dependent on that of people’ (p. 179, my emphasis), or that if we had to choose we should be indifferent as to whether to prefer a world in which all life is destroyed and a world in which animals and plants survive (ibid.). Whereas the case for plants may be purely aesthetic, the case for animals is bound, at least in part, to be moral.

27 Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, esp. Lecture 4. There is at least on e crucial difference between the book, published by Cambridge University Press in 1996, and an apparently earlier version of the Tanner Lectures, reprinted in Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan and Railton, Peter (eds), Moral Discourse and Practice (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 389406Google Scholar. In the latter version of the text, Korsgaard applies the Golden Rule directly to animals: We must be able to ask the question ‘Ho w would you like it if someone did that to you?’, and thus ‘must be able to intrude into our consciousness and make us think’ (Tanner Lectures, p. 403). It is absent from the ‘official’ 1996 Cambridge University Press version (cf. Sources, p. 153).

28 , Korsgaard, Sources, p. 150.Google ScholarThis sounds like realism about reasons, not in the case of human beings, but rather in the even more contentious case of animals. The Wittgensteinian attempt to make normative reasons public seems philosophically risky. The claims that, according to Korsgaard, animals as well as human beings have onus almost seem to be ‘external’ reasons incompatible with Kantian autonomy. It also appears to make obligation conditional on whether others make their reasons publicly known.

29 , Korsgaard, Sources, p. 150Google Scholar. There is a problem here: not all pain is dam-aging, or a threat to the animal's identity, in any substantive sense. Indeed, a torturer may be so clever as not to cause any physical damage at all but we would still think that causing an animal to be in pain would be bad. I should like t o thank Sarah Broadie for pointing this problem out to me.

30 , Korsgaard, Sources, p. 152Google Scholar. However, Kant was not too keen on our shared animal nature. Echoing Plato's Socrates in the Phaedo, he frequently avers that as rational beings we would gladly be free from our animal nature, if only that were a realistic option (cf., for example, Groundwork, 4: 428). The doctrine of the standpoint of reason, which grounds normativity in Groundwork III, rests entirely on our identification with our ‘higher’ rather than our ‘lower’ self. However, Kantians may still value aspects of our animal nature in so far as (i) de facto we cannot exist independently of it and (ii) our desires springing from our animal nature are not contrary to reason. Similar considerations count against Wood's attempt to ground duties regarding animals in the shared conditions of rational nature (‘Kant on duties I’, 197 ff.). At least for Kant, there is no necessary link between what we need to survive as rational creatures and rationality, which could be instantiated under different conditions (as in the case of God, angels etc.) without much loss; and it is not entirely clear that we have to respect such accidental conditions of reason in creatures that will never be rational or autonomous.

31 Korsgaard seems to think they are. Not only are animals said to value their existence (which seems doubtful if we bear in mind that they could hardly do otherwise, which Korsgaard considers a precondition of 146 normativity). ‘A living thing is an entity whose nature it is to preserve and maintain its psychical identity. It is a law to itself (Sources, p. 150). If, as Kant supposes, it is theoretically rather doubtful whether we have a free will, whether we are the kinds of entities that deserve respect, it must be even more doubtful whether animals are. The law determining animal choice could only be a law of nature, not the law of reason; and only the latter counts as far as autonomy is concerned. The desire to preserve one's identity does not elevate animals into the moral realm either. Moreover, it makes pain seem of secondary importance. One might even try to ascribe a similar nature to a rubber ball, which always returns to its natural spherical shape when kicked, hit or twisted. For further comments on Korsgaard's position cf. , Wood, ‘Kant on duties I’, p. 209, n. 11Google Scholar.

32 Cf. Groundwork, 4: 428.

33 , Korsgaard, Sources, p. 148.Google Scholar

34 It is true that we mislead animals, for example, lure them into traps by making them believe that they will obtain food easily and safely. Yet, in that case, it is still the damage and harm done to the animal when we actually catch it that morally matters, not the act of deception as such.

35 Triebfeder, literally the ‘driving spring’ of action. The analogy is mechanical; ‘motive’ or (in a broad philosophical sense) ‘desire’ would be less misleading translations.

36 Cf. Darwall, Stephen, ‘Reasons, Motives, and the Demands of Morality’Google Scholar, in Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan and Railton, Peter (eds), Moral Discourse and Practice, pp. 305–12Google Scholar, esp. p. 308. Metaphysical internalism is a variant of the principle ‘Ought implies Can’. If you cannot be sufficiently motivated by rational considerations, and if action needs a sufficient motive, you cannot act accordingly. Kant struggles to solve the problem of moral motivation, of how we can take an interest in ‘reasons’ external to our motivational set, in the third section of the Groundwork.

37 Schopenhauer clearly considers his ethic of compassion or sympathy superior to Kantian ethics because it can accommodate duties to animals: ‘The moral incentive advanced by me as the genuine, is further confirmed by the fact that the animals are also taken under its protection’ (Preisschrift §19.7, p. 283, English trans., p. 175).

38 The motive could also be something like love. At first sight, Kant seems to suggest a division of labour between respect and love in the Metaphysics of Morals, 6: 448 ff. (Perfect duties to others are said to be a matter of respect, wide duties of practical love.) A closer look reveals that the respect in question is not the moral incentive that motivates the adoption of a maxim but, rather, the respectful attitude specified in a maxim adopted on the strength of such an incentive. Similarly, practical love is not an incentive to adopt a maxim of loving one's neighbour, nor any other kind of feeling, but the content of a maxim (6: 450) adopted on the basis of moral judgement and the intellectual incentive of respect for the moral law. Without the incentive of respect, no maxim of practical love can be adopted.

39 I fear that much the same difficulties arise if, like Wood, one drops the requirement that duties must always b e duties t o some person o r other. Respect for reason would never get off the ground because nothing essentially links animals an d rationality. Without an appropriate motive or incentive, the thesis of metaphysical internalism defeats any possible obligation.

40 ‘Kant's treatment of animals’, p. 375.

41 , Korsgaard, Sources, p. 153.Google Scholar

42 That is why, in the case of the murderer at the door in ‘On a presumed right to lie’, Kant thinks that, even though the person asking about the whereabouts of your friend has no right to your being truthful, you still have to honour your moral duty to yourself to be truthful. N.B. that in the legal context of the essay - which cannot consider duties to the self –he seems to dispense with the personification principle and argues for an abstract duty to humanity ‘tiberhaupt’ (8: 426 f.).

43 Wolf similarly objects to Kant's rather quick classification of animals as mere means: it is not, in fact, obvious that animals—though not persons –should be means at all (cf. Das Tier in der Moral, p. 35).

44 The analogy is not perfect. For example, in the case of the child you voluntarily undertake the duty involving the child, which is a duty to the parent, whereas our duties involving animals are presumably ‘natural’ duties. Also, every child has the potential ultimately to be a person him or herself, and is thus a (potential?) direct object of duties. Nevertheless, I hope the resemblance is strong enough for the example to serve as an illustration of how the object of your concern need not be the person you owe the discharging of your duty. Another analogy, already mentioned several times, is the following. The duty to treat animals well is with respect to its formal structure rather like the duty of truthfulness. Cases of self-deception excepted, you ‘need’ someone else to be truthful to, but insincerity or straightforward lying violate other people's rights only in a minority of cases. Truthfulness, even towards others, is primarily a duty to the self. Similarly, the proper and ‘humane’ treatment of non-human animals, while crucially involving a being over and above the agent, could be primarily a duty to the self, to humanity in one's own person.

45 Taking sentience to be the relevant criterion for what an animal would mind being done to it, I have bracketed the question which animals are sufficiently sentient to merit moral consideration. This seems largely an empirical question that need not concern us at present. Denis spells out some of the possible practical implications of Kant's original account, ‘Kant's conception of duties regarding animals’, pp. 412 ff.

46 It is worth noting that, even though we have established the direct moral significance of animal pain, Kant's original arguments remain intact, if at a subordinate level. (Even Korsgaard, who completely breaks away from the Kantian account, considers it a plausible source of duties regarding non-sentient beings, for example, plants, cf. Sources p. 156.) As animals have not been made full citizens of the kingdom of ends, there may still be a place for analogical reasoning in cases where animal pleasure and pain are not directly at stake. For example, if there is something distinctly ungrateful – as opposed to cruel – about killing an old dog after a decade of faithful service, it is not implausible to say that this is so only by virtue of analogical reasoning. It seems that as long as basic duties are grounded in an animal's capacity for pleasure and pain, reasoning by analogy may be used to fill the gaps. Secondly, there is still something to be said for the argument that disregarding the natural interests of animals may make you disregard the legitimate interests of human beings in the end; but the justification of a duty to treat animals decently no longer rests on it.

47 If duties involving animals are duties to the self, does that mean that the state has no right to interfere? If the state ought to have a right to interfere, can duties involving animals still be duties to the self? These questions too merit further discussion.

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