What’s Good, to a Cat?

In a new book of philosophy, Harvard professor Dr. Christine M. Korsgaard demands that we reconsider basic animal ethics

Kyle Piscioniere
Nov 13, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Kyle Piscioniere

A creature roams my house. Her name is Clarice. She’s an adopted cat with one bulging marbled eye, which is blind, and one curious green eye, which I suspect can see ghosts. A white patch at her throat interrupts her otherwise mottled gray coat. At sunrise she paws my arms, with growing panic, until I rise from bed and feed her. When I come home from work, she demands to be held.

A question of philosophy: what do I owe this belligerent creature? On a simple practical level, what is my relationship to Clarice?

The average animal lover may not spend much time agonizing over whether the answer lies in Aristotle, Kant, or Bentham, but anyone who has ever wrestled with the question of what we owe to animals is wading into a centuries-old debate that has occupied many of philosophy’s biggest stars.

One voice has tended to dominate that debate, especially in the last fifty-ish years: Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher credited with translating veganism into a coherent philosophical position. Singer’s 1975 Animal Liberation used the utilitarian principle that the best moral course of action is the one that maximizes the good for all involved to argue that animals deserve moral consideration because they can suffer, and suffering should be avoided because it is morally wrong.

The argument will sound familiar to most vegans. In fact, most vegans have probably made that argument, because it seems like a fine argument that explains, in obvious terms, why animals should not be killed.

And yet it might deserve a second look. The position that animals deserve moral consideration needs careful justification. When adopted as a widespread moral truth, it will radically reshape human culture, infrastructure, resource use, and our relationship to the other inhabitants of this planet. This is why philosophy, as our animal activist forebear Mary Midgley liked to say, “is like plumbing. It is not optional.” Sloppy foundational work will corrode your house, leaving it, and possibly you, full of shit.

In fact, Dr. Korsgaard, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, demands that we reconsider our relationship to animals, not just to protect vegans from moral inconsistency, but as an obligation to the very animals we hope to liberate and protect. Her new work, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, builds a new framework for understanding vegan ethics and the relationship between human and nonhuman animals.

Korsgaard challenges Singer’s conclusion, which has become vegan orthodoxy, that animal exploitation is wrong because it causes animals to suffer. Korsgaard makes a slightly different case. Suffering matters, but so does the life of the animal independent of its pain or torment. In philosophy-speak, Korsgaard is establishing that animals are “ends-in-themselves,” a term coined by Immanuel Kant, meaning that animal life is inherently valuable — a value that is not contingent on the animal’s happiness or whether it is creating value for other beings.

That may seem like a fine distinction. Maybe it seems like common sense. It is neither. A bulk of contemporary philosophy assumes that humans are more important than nonhuman animals. That foundation props up the entire factory farming industry, as well as the individual beliefs of those who support it. It is a (bad) philosophy which got us into this mess. Fellow Creatures proceeds with the solemn, brutal knowledge that animal suffering hangs in the balance of its argument.

And yet, even with such high stakes, Korsgaard’s argument begins with a wholesome, even joyful, observation. Korsgaard, in a stunning passage, first presents readers with the bizarre and pleasant miracle of animal existence: “A well-functioning animal likes to eat when she is hungry, is eager to mate, feeds and cares for her offspring, works assiduously to keep herself clean and healthy, fears her enemies, and avoids the sources of injury.” Korsgaard asks that you “allow yourself to be struck by the fact that there are entities, substances, things, that stand in this relation to themselves and their own condition.”

Because animals can “stand in relation to their own condition,” Korsgaard reasons that, for them, things can be good. Things are valuable when they are “good-for” animals, who perceive them as good. For example, my cat, Clarice, currently warms herself in a patch of sun. This, we can all agree, is a Good Thing. But why? Korsgaard would say that the goodness of sunlight comes from Clarice’s ability to feel pleasantly warm in that patch. The sunlight is not good independently; it is good for the cat. Korsgaard reasons that goodness cannot exist beyond the creature for which things are good. Things are good because they are good for creatures.

Korsgaard calls this the “tethered” model of goodness. Anything good or important must be “tethered” to the creature for whom that thing is important. Therefore, the ancient question of whether animals are “less important” than humans is “nearly incoherent” to Korsgaard. It demands the response: Important to whom?

In fact, Korsgaard argues that the capacity to consider things important, or good, is essentially the definition of being a creature at all! And if that sounds as tautological to you as it did to me, you’ll find a brilliant rebuttal in her third chapter.

Therefore, Korsgaard argues, it makes no sense to ask whether a thing is absolutely good, or a person is absolutely important. There are no such qualities without reference points. As she puts it in a later chapter, a thing can only be considered universally good if it is tethered to us all, becoming “a universally shared or common good, one that we can all pursue together.” Things which only one party perceives as a good — like killing another party to consume their flesh — do not fit the definition.

This basis buttresses Korsgaard’s main argument that animals, like humans, are ends-in-themselves. But while she builds on Kant’s most famous moral framework, Korsgaard also treats Kant with palpable disappointment for so terribly misreading the moral status of nonhuman creatures.

Most animal-centric philosophers ignore or reject Kant, because he argued that animals don’t deserve the same consideration as humans. To Kant, animals lacked rationality, meaning they could not meaningfully assess what is good.

As a result, most animal-aligned philosophers have rejected him. Korsgaard’s book, importantly, expands Kant’s framework to show that — by Kant’s own standards! — animals must be considered ends-in-themselves. From within his own theory of moral reasoning, Korsgaard carefully implodes Kant’s relationship to animals. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are crucial reading for vegans who care about deliberate and well-grounded arguments in the face of intolerable antipathy, or even ambivalence, towards the lives of animals. The argument has the feel of a controlled demolition. Korsgaard bursts open the skyline of Kant’s Kingdom, flooding it with the light of dawn over a newly-visible, vegan, horizon.

But even as Korsgaard resists those, like Kant, who refuse to see the moral standing of animals, she also denies vegan writers who understand animal moral standing wrongly by rejecting Kant’s basic moral framework. Utilitarians like Singer, she writes, flatten animals into “receptacles for the good.” By focusing on their capacity for suffering to the exclusion of their intrinsic value, they render “the subjects of experience essentially as locations where pleasure and pain … happen, rather than as beings for whom these experiences are good or bad” (159). Any ethic which reads animals as objectively less important than humans could lead, Korsgaard reasons, to dangerous consequences. Creatures, human and nonhuman, must be considered ends in themselves.

Finally, Korsgaard applies her moral framework to some of the daunting ethical riddles vegans face. The true feat of her book is the remarkable practical value of her thinking. In her final chapters, Korsgaard poses a host of questions that vegans cannot easily answer. Here is where Korsgaard’s thinking becomes, in Midgley’s terms, as necessary as plumbing.

What should vegans do about the horrible fact of wild carnivorous predation? Would we have an obligation to stop lions from tormenting antelope, if it were possible? Or, to take a more potent question, what of companion animals, our cats and dogs? Do we value them as less than ends-in-themselves, and if so, are we obligated to free them?

These questions, which are usually disingenuously asked as non sequiturs by nonvegans who reject veganism’s moral premise, deserve the vegan’s attention. They may have unpleasant answers, but we must face them if we’re going to get serious about this vegan business. They must be answered with moral consistency, because a time is coming when the average person will recognize the immorality of exploiting animals. And in the wake of that realization, vegans need concrete, resolute plans to reorient human life toward our fellow creatures. Dr. Korsgaard’s book may be the finest place to start.

A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

Kyle Piscioniere

Written by

Animals, ecologies, language, persuasion. MA-PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric.

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A friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all.

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