Kantianism

A final example of an indirect duty view is provided by the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In some respects Kant's moral philosophy regarding the treatment of nonhuman animals is an amalgam of Aristotle's and, stripped of its appeals to God, Aquinas's. In concert with both, Kant emphasizes rationality as the defining characteristic of being human and, echoing Saint Thomas, objects to cruelty to animals because of the deleterious effect this has on how humans are treated. "He who is cruel to animals," Kant writes, "becomes hard also in his dealings with men," whereas "tender feelings towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind" (Kant, "Duties in Regard to Animals," in Regan and Singer, 1976, p. 123; 1989, p. 24).

Despite these historical echoes, Kant's moral philosophy is in many ways highly original. Of particular note is his thesis that humanity exists as an "end in itself." Kant does not attempt to prove this thesis by appeal to some more basic principle; rather, it is set forth as a postulate in his system. In this capacity it places humans and other rational, autonomous beings in a unique moral category that distinguishes them, as "persons," from everything else that exists. Like Aristotle and Aquinas before him, Kant views the rest of the natural order as existing to serve human interests. In particular, animals, in his words, exist "merely as a means to an end. That end is man" (ibid.). Thus, whereas in Kant's view we are morally free to use other animals as we wish, subject only to the injunction to avoid cruelty, we are not morally free to treat human beings in a comparable fashion. Because humans exist as ends in themselves, we are never to treat them merely as means, Kant argues, which is what we would be doing if we treated them as we treat other animals (for example, if we raised humans as a food source). An abolitionist, a radical reformist, Kant is not. Provided only that we are not cruel in our treatment of nonhuman animals, we do nothing wrong when we treat them as we do.

A common objection against Kant's position is the argument from marginal cases (Regan, 1983; for criticism of this argument, see Narveson, 1977). All humans, Kant implies, exist as ends in themselves. To restrict this supreme moral value to humans among terrestrial creatures is not arbitrary, Kant believes, because humans, unlike the other animals, are unique in being rational and autonomous. However, not all humans are rational and autonomous. Those who are mentally enfeebled or deranged, for example, lack these capacities. Are these humans nevertheless ends in themselves? If Kant's answer is affirmative, then it is not the presence of rationality and autonomy that ground this supreme moral value; if, on the other hand, Kant's answer is negative, then it follows that these "marginal" human beings do not exist as ends in themselves, in which case it would seem that they, no less than other animals, may be treated as mere means. Because one assumes that this latter consequence would be seen by Kant to be morally grotesque, it seems fair to assume that he would want to avoid it; but he can do so, it seems, only by accepting the view that individuals who are neither rational nor autonomous nevertheless exist as ends in themselves, a view that undermines his confident assertion that nonhuman animals, deficient in reason and autonomy, exist "merely as means to an end," the end being "man."

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