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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  1. Given that Hitler and many of his fellow Nazis were vegetarians and that the Nazis actually put into effect stronger legislation to protect animals, the argument that people who are not cruel to animals are not cruel to people doesn’t seem to have much of an empirical basis.

  2. I think you would find similar feelings amongst the mechanically inclined toward the well designed machines and tools that they work with.

    Personal experience this morning at the gym, a woman was exercising on an elliptical machine (the type I never use) and I could hear what sounded like the flywheel coming loose. Knowing (almost feeling) the machine being abused was very hard to listen to. The machine did not belong to me and had no economic impact on my life, and the noise itself was not much different than a drum beat, yet it was still quite annoying to hear.

  3. @amos
    Perhaps the hardening of the heart came to the psychopath (hitler) before his decision to be a vegetarian. What is suggested here is that cruel treatment of animals MAY serve as a gateway towards the cruel treatment of humans. It isn’t suggested that if one is to become a vegetarian, they will not be cruel to humans. There is no such premiss, here, to derive that conclusion.

    My question is, how do we define ‘reason’? There are several primate infraorders with intelligence, learning capabilities, emotion and reciprocity that would astonish the average person. Where do you draw the line between edible and non-edible? According to Kantian belief, the fact that a life-form cannot reason means that it may be used in a way that benefits man (or woman). So if a human (which is a primate a.k.a. “animal”) is brain damaged and destined to a life of vegetation, should I be able to send them to the butcher, butter and BBQ them and dine on some man-ribs? (or woman-ribs)

  4. As a lover of animals and as a person who also enjoys bacon on everything, I’ve been vexed by the question of the morality of eating meat for a long time.

    I dislike prejudice of almost any type. I think we should all try our best to go through life walking a righteous path, wanting to do more good than bad, and besides this, wanting to do the least amount of bad possible. But for some reason, I can’t find it in me to include animals much presence in my moral sphere. That being said, I wouldn’t feel very comfortable in a slaughter house, or watching dog fights, but these seem to hit me as aesthetic preferences, not well reasoned moral inclinations.

    Their are certain arguments against meat eating that appeal to me, such as how our over indulgence leads to all kinds of health problems along with meat farming being very resource intensive. I also recognize that what is normative, morally, has seemed to progress historically to include more compassion towards more people and things, and I don’t really want to be in a group that is thought of by future generations to be horribly depraved because I ate the flesh of other animals.

    Regardless of all this, there seems to me to be such differences between humans and non-human things (so far as we know) that, at least, my idea of morality just doesn’t include them. At this point I’m afraid of someone taking this last line of thought and saying something like, “If I were a Nazi in 1938 Germany, I might think that there were such differences between Jews and Aryans that my idea of morality just doesn’t include them,” and there might be some merit in throwing this back in my face, and that scares me, I guess. But my experiences with cattle suggests to me that the gulf between their experience of life and mine is orders of magnitude greater than the difference of experience between me and any other race of human you could think to name. These differences between non human animals and myself are the same ones that keep me pro-choice; I just can’t see that what’s growing inside the belly of a woman fits into the (my) moral sphere.

    Like I said, it vexes me. I don’t like the idea of being morally corrupt, and a lot of people seem to think there’s something really wrong with eating animals, and my catholic upbringing already makes me feel guilty about most things I enjoy, but dammit, eating cows and chickens and such just doesn’t seem wrong to me. What am I to do?

  5. Because we (still) feel some connection between what they, animals, are, and what we are. And yet another connection between what they do, and what it is that we do. Even if continuity would be provable, and even if, at some point, we broke the chain and became `no longer analysable` alongside animals, I think the analogy: “cruelty towards animals” vs “cruelty towards men” is foolish. If one engages in such arguments, why not “cruelty towards plants”? They breathe …

    The more you think about it, the more slippery slopish Kant seems to manifest his pure reasoning.

  6. @argumentics
    First of all, WE are animals, too.
    Second of all, plants are not comparable, in through the Kantian perspective because no evidence points to them being able to “reason.” Ones ability to ‘reason’, is the reasoning for Kant’s animal ethic concepts. (according to this article)

  7. @argumentics
    First of all, WE are animals, too.
    Second of all, plants are not comparable, ithrough the Kantian perspective because no evidence points to plants being able to “reason.” Ones ability to ‘reason’, is the reasoning for Kant’s animal ethic concepts. (according to this article)

  8. Amos,

    I would take the view that there is a causal connection between how a person treats animals and how they treat people. After all, kindness is something that would seem to ofter (but not always) have a universal tendency. That is, if I act kindly towards animals then this will tend to develop my kindness in general (as Aristotle would argue).

    But, the correlation is not perfect. There are people who love their pets but hate other people. There are folks who are not fond of animals but are fond of people.

    Anecdotally, I have found that the correlation tends to hold fairly strongly.

  9. WTP,

    Interesting point. Given that Kant takes animals to be objects (in that they lack rationality), his argument would also seem to apply to machines.

    While machines do not feel or suffer, I do wince when I see people misusing or damaging machines. The main reason is similar to Kant’s argument: people who are careless with their machines tend to be careless in general and this is not a good thing.

  10. Kant has his own definition of “rationality”, but what rationality amounts to is a matter of great controversy. Also, there is considerable debate about whether ethics should be based on rationality or not.

    In regards to a human that is not rational, Kant’s theory about animals could be applied. It could be argued that treating a human as food would severely damage a person’s humanity and hence should not be done. Of course, given his view of rationality, a non-rational human would be an object and hence not a person.

  11. Michael F.,

    Like you, I eat meat while also being concerned about the ethics of the matter.

    You raise an excellent point with the Nazi analogy. This point can be addressed by arguing that some moral distinctions are not justified, while others are. So, it could be argued that cattle are inferior to humans and this justifies the consumption of their flesh. In the case of the Nazis, their view can be criticized because their moral assessment is flawed.

    Of course, the basic principle of “I can do bad things to X if X is inferior to me” can be called into question.

    As far as what to do…that is a tough question. From an ethical standpoint, the right thing to do seems to be to give up meat. After all, the arguments seem to be rather compelling against eating meat. But, I must confess, that I have been unable to live up to this principle and this makes me a bad person by my own standards.

  12. One stock argument about plants is that we cannot be cruel to them because they lack feeling. In the case of Kant’s theory, it could be argued that being cruel to a plant would not damage a person’s humanity. He would probably also argue that since plants cannot occupy roles analogous to human roles, then what was said about animals cannot be applied to them. So, the slope would stop there.

  13. What goodly motives compel a person to a meatless diet? The choices seem to be educated self-interest or godlike performance of moral duty. Interestingly, the animals sacrificed fulfill a biological need to preserve the species.

    One ought not to eat meat because a vegan diet makes for a healthier person, lower healthcare costs, etc. This argument is akin to Plato’s argument that a master ought to be respectful of his slave in the manner a prudent tradesman will care for his tools. Simply put, a wise man does not abuse his valuable property.

    But this blog is looking for a more compelling moral reason. I suppose the test would be “Not to eat meat, even if a diet of meats would be healthier than vegan.”

    It is curious, though, that a species does better to be a meat sacrifice to men. I mean how many bulls would get it on if we stopped eating heifers.

  14. Mike: Actually, I’m a vegetarian myself. As to whether those who are not cruel to animals are also not cruel to people, lately I’ve come into contact with certain extremely fanatical vegans (in Jean Kazez’s blog), and while I would not call them cruel, certain vegans seem to fall short of what Aristotle would have considered to be a well-balanced virtuous human being. They lack key virtues like temperance, a sense of the mean/limits, and practical wisdom.

  15. To avoid inevitable misunderstandings, let me make clear that Jean Kazez herself is not a fanatic nor a vegan nor does she lack practical wisdom.

  16. As much as I loathe the whole Hitler/Nazi/Godwin’s Law meme, since it keeps popping up, I’d like to make this point…and surely some trained philosopher can name the logical fallacy vis-a-vis vegetarianism and Nazism…the root similarity (and I speak only of extreme vegetarianism here) is an obsession with purity, something they have in common with many extreme religions and cults. Purity of the body, purity of morals, purity of the soul, purity of thought. Inbreeding, or even asexuality, often follows.

    If you look at the limited feeding, breeding, and behavioral patterns of animals relative to humans, the animal experience seems much more narrow and perhaps from their perspective “pure”. Maybe a simplified life is what keeps animals animals. Of course studies of animals such as chimpanzees/bonobos, whales, dogs, etc. has shown more complexity than casual observation would reveal. However, the complexity of humans far exceeds.

    Obsession with purity narrows one’s choices and experiences which I would say actually makes one less god-like and more like the lower animals.

  17. Ripis,

    Educated self interest would seem to do well. In my own cast, my elevating blood pressure got me to drop bacon(and other bad stuff) from my diet (amazingly, even running 50+ miles per week couldn’t beat the bacon).

    I think it would require less than a godlike performance to give up meat. Demi-godlike should do it. 🙂

  18. Amos,

    I have also encountered fanatical vegans. I don’t think that merely being a vegan makes a person virtuous or even contributes to virtue in and of itself. Now, if a person choses to abandon meat for reasons of health and ethics, then that can add to a person’s virtue.

  19. The fallacy is most likely “guilt by association.” The idea is that a person “reasons” that because a bad person believed or did X, then X is itself bad. This can also be cast as an ad hominem.

    I would agree that an obsession with purity tends to lead to bad results (as the Nazi example shows). This was rather cleverly mocked in Dr. Strangelove.

  20. Mike,
    Is there something intrinsically virtuous about a meatless diet? For ‘intrinsic’, let’s go with the OED “Belonging to the thing in itself, or by its very nature; inherent, essential, proper; ‘of its own’.”

    I suppose someone might believe that all life is sacred (or beautiful) and that any food should come from organic things that have completed their life-cycle. Is some such commitment needed to elevate a vegan preference to a deeply held moral belief?

    Or is there a weaker position available; say, “One should make diet decisions on grounds other than satisfying taste.”

  21. WTP: Sorry for bringing up the Nazi’s. I hope it was clear that I wasn’t linking them to vegetarianism, but instead was just comparing my (bad) moral choices to theirs.

    Does it not seem a little anthropomorphic to think that we can be cruel to chickens and cattle? Is it really that dangerous of an assumption that the machinery between their ears just doesn’t allow for the kind of suffering we experience when someone is cruel to us? I know that this argument from their “inner experience” can then be stretched to humans with poorly or non-functioning brains, but I think if we had to, we could come up with other reasonable moral arguments for not eating those people. And, again, isn’t this much the reason pro-choicers are not opposed to abortions? The lack of brain power residing in an unborn child is what makes it not murder, right? At least, that’s pretty close to how I understand it. And I agree. It’s really hard for me to imagine cows or chickens or unborn fetuses suffering in a sense that should be meaningful to me.

    By the way, I understand that my lack of imagination doesn’t make for a very good argument.

  22. Ripis,

    Good question. I’d be inclined to say that a meatless diet is not intrinsically virtuous. The moral problems with meat tend to stem from 1) the harm to animals and 2) the harm to the meat eater. Artificial meat could solve both problems-just imagine inexpensive vat grown meat matter that has been engineered to be as healthy as soy. It would be rather hard to make a plausible case that eating such meat would be wrong.

    As such, there seems to be nothing intrinsically good or bad about the diet itself. Rather, the virtue or vice seems to mainly involve other factors (like the source of the meat).

  23. Michael F.

    That is an excellent question. Intuitively, we cannot be cruel to pencils. However, we can be cruel to other people. This seems to indicate that cruelty is only possible to being that have certain capacities.

    I am inclined to hold the view that beings that can suffer can be victims of cruelty to the degree that they can suffer. Naturally, cruelty can be very contextual. For example, if I were to mock a student with a learning disability about their performance in class, then that would be cruel. However, if I were to mock a chicken for being stupid, that would not be cruel-the chicken cannot even understand that it is being mocked.

    However, this does break down a bit. For example, if I mock a person who does not get that he is being mocked, then I could still be acting cruelly. In this case, it might be said that it is cruel because the person would be hurt if he did understand. Of course, the same could be said of the chicken-if it knew I was mocking it, it would be sad.

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