Debating Meat IV: Kantian Kabobs

{{w|Immanuel Kant}}, Prussian philosopher.

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In part III of debating meat, I examined Descartes’ arguments as to why it is no crime to kill and eat animals. I now turn to a brief examination of Kant’s view of animals.

In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Given this view, it would seem that Kant would not be very concerned with how animals are treated. After all, they would seem to be mere things. Oddly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot  be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty-they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

While encouraging this good treatment, Kant does allow for some decidedly not-nice behavior. He uses the specific example of vivisectionists (those who studied living animals by dissecting them) and justifies their cruelty because animals are “man’s instruments.” In short, we should not be cruel to animals, unless doing so is to our advantage.

Kant does, however, place some limits on cruelty. While using animals for scientific purpose is justified, Kant claims that being cruel for sport cannot be morally justified. As such, Kant’s view would make certain forms of hunting unacceptable.

In the case of eating  meat, his theory would seem to allow it. After all, if cutting apart living animals for scientific purposes is acceptable, then killing a cow or pig for food would seem to be acceptable as well. However, given his remarks about cruelty for sport, Kant’s theory would probably cast certain ways of raising (and killing) meat animals as being unacceptable. After all, if cruelty for sport is out, presumably cruelty for culinary pleasures would also be out.  For example, veal would probably be out on the grounds that it is needlessly cruel.

Interestingly, Kant’s argument can be pushed to support vegetarianism. After all, if being cruel to animals makes us more likely to be cruel to humans, then treating animals as mere meat would seem to harden our hearts against living things. As such, it would seem that to better develop our human feelings we should forgo meat.

Of course, it can be argued that people can eat animals without suffering such a hardening of the heart (just hardening of the arteries). If so, then Kant’s view would allow the eating of meat.

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