1 Duties from Autonomy

If we take the steps advocated in the last three chapters, Kantianism for Animals results. It is a Kantian ethical framework that includes animals in moral concern in the same way and on the same grounds as human beings. I want to suggest that it is also the closest thing to Kant’s ethics that progressive animal ethicists can accept in good conscience. The point of this framework, however, is not just to be a cruelty-free substitute to the ‘real thing’ (although there is nothing wrong with a good substitute). The point is that an approach that makes certain Kantian commitments might be positively helpful and interesting for animal ethicists. At this point, it will help to pause for a moment and consider an overview of Kantianism for Animals, particularly concerning the points that distinguish it from dominant approaches to animal ethics.

For convenience’s sake, let me divide this overview into five claims: Kantianism for Animals is a moral framework which grounds duties in autonomy, considers duties to be primary over moral rights, recognises duties to self and duties to others, asks us to reconcile practical love for others with a maxim of non-exaltation, and which ties the moral worth of actions to their incentives. In the following chapters, I will then go further into detail and discuss some potential uses of Kantianism for Animals regarding more specific ethical questions.

To see what is distinctive about the Kantian-for-Animals framework, we should first of all consider how it grounds duties in autonomy. Recall my argument from Chap. 4: Kant’s account of moral concern—of how we ought to treat others—does not follow directly from the Formula of Humanity or any other formulation of the Categorical Imperative. Attempts to ground moral concern in the special value Kant accords to rational beings lead into fallacy. This special value can only explain why we are due moral esteem—an approving acknowledgement of our potential to be morally good—but not why we are due moral concern, such as in the form of beneficence. The proper place of moral concern in Kant’s system is in the doctrine of obligatory ends, which is grounded in the doctrine of the highest good in the world. With only a slight amendment to these two connected doctrines, we can progress to the materially specific duties we have towards ourselves and others, including duties towards animals.

This argument has an immediate upshot: Whatever we must do to Kant’s system in order to make it include animals as moral patients, the parts of it which he establishes in the Groundwork stay broadly intact. This is just not where the issue lies. I have argued in Chaps. 4 and 5 that we must differ from Kant when it comes to the conditions of ‘duties towards’ and the conception of animals themselves. We must deflate Kant’s partially second-personal approach to duties towards others to a purely first-personal one, and we must grant more complex capacities to animals than Kant himself would have allowed. But none of this is particularly destructive to Kant’s system.

Entire branches of Kant’s moral philosophy remain unchanged in Kantianism for Animals. This is true, most importantly, for Kant’s views on the relation between moral duties, autonomy, and free will. Kant asserts that the rational being must think of herself as free in order to act (G 4:448.09–11), and being free entails the capacity to act on a self-imposed law rather than merely according to the laws of nature (CPrR 5:093.32–094.02). This autonomously imposed law is the moral law from which our ethical duties spring (G 4:440.14–15), and heteronomy is the origin of all false principles of morality (G 4:441.01–02). Kantianism for Animals affirms all of these claims.

Therefore, Kantianism for Animals allots a crucial role to our own autonomy—understood as the capacity to act on a self-imposed law, which is the moral law. We could put the view in the following words:

Duties from autonomy

Ethical duties derive their bindingness from the autonomously imposed moral law.

Autonomy plays the role of the normative basis of our duties—it accounts for their bindingness. Autonomy is ipso facto the capacity that accounts for our having duties. Contrast this with a claim Kantianism for Animals does not advance: that autonomy is a trait that, in virtue of its own value, makes its bearers particularly precious or to-be-protected, directly giving rise to moral claims. Kantianism for Animals does not rest on such a valorisation of autonomy. Moral claims do not arise directly from any supposed value of autonomy, but are merely the correlatives of the duties of others, which in turn arise from autonomy.

In fact, Kantianism for Animals stands out for how little it emphasises the notion of the value of individuals in general when it derives its duties. What it means for animals to ‘matter’, to ‘deserve moral concern’, is not for them to exhibit some substantive moral value to which moral agents must be receptive. Rather, to ‘matter’ is to figure in the content of rational beings’ duties in a certain way, namely as a being with a happiness at stake. And so, the previous chapters have not contained arguments to the effect that animals, or their pleasures and pains, or their lives, exhibit any substantive moral ‘value’ (or value-conferring capacity) from which we must then derive our duties. Rather, I have been concerned with the content of the duties of moral agents and whether animals can figure in this content in a particular way.

Kantianism for Animals differs from orthodox Kantian theory in that it does not view the moral law as essentially co-legislated by all rational beings. There is no ‘second-personal’ moral authority according to this theory at all. At best, statements to the effect that the moral law is ‘co-legislated’ by all rational beings are a shorthand to convey that it is not individual human beings who make moral rules, but that the moral law is a law of pure practical reason, a capacity regarding which all finite rational beings are equal. So all rational beings legislate alike, but not together. Taken literally, we do not co-legislate or even just share the moral law—we stand under moral laws with the same content each, which we have each autonomously self-imposed. Others—be they human beings or animals—can help to determine the content of our duties, but they cannot make these duties binding or lift them off our shoulders.

Its emphasis on autonomy sets Kantianism for Animals apart from virtually all prominent approaches to animal ethics. Of course, there is a contrast to any form of utilitarianism that is based on an axiology of utility (such as value hedonism). Its emphasis on autonomy as the normative basis of our duties also sets it starkly apart from sentimentalist, virtue-ethical, care-ethical, and contractualist approaches.

Perhaps more surprisingly, however, even self-avowedly ‘deontological’ and Kantian approaches to animal ethics have given notions of value great explanatory importance in the derivation of duties.Footnote 1 Regan relies so heavily on the notion of ‘inherent value’ that it has been called his “heaviest theoretical weapon” (Narveson 1987a, 197, 1987b, 37). Indeed, the notion of inherent value is crucial to Regan’s argument at several points. For instance, he uses it to demarcate the realm of rights-bearers (Regan 2004, 243ff.), as well as to clarify his notion of ‘respect’ (Regan 2004, 248). And even Wood and Korsgaard, both card-carrying Kantians, rely on readings of Kant’s arguments in the Groundwork according to which these arguments revolve around the value (or value-conferring capacity) of ‘ends in themselves’. As discussed in Sect. 4.3, Wood and Korsgaard differ when it comes to the source of this value. For Wood, it is a preexisting, substantive value which rational beings can only detect. For Korsgaard, it is a value created by rational beings through acts of choice. For both, however, moral patienthood is a matter of exhibiting some value, and moral concern is a matter of reacting to that value in the right way. So even among ‘deontological’ and expressly Kantian views in animal ethics, Kantianism for Animals stands out for the way it derives its duties—as if by the motto ‘duty first, not value first’.

2 The Primacy of Duties over Rights and Claims

Kantianism for Animals treats duties as the primary unit of moral prescription. As we have just seen, duties are binding not because they respond to some inherent value of individuals, but because they derive from an autonomously imposed moral law. From this emphasis on autonomy also arises the primacy of duties over moral rights: Moral rights exist only in virtue of their correlative duties (explanatory primacy), we can only know about our moral rights by deriving them from our duties (epistemic primacy), and moral rights derive all their bindingness from their correlative duties (normative primacy). Not vice versa. The same holds for ‘claims’, even if they are conceived of as a weaker kind of demand than rights. To sum up:

Duties over rights and claims

Duties have explanatory, epistemic, and normative primacy over moral rights and claims.

Although animal ethicists often associate Kant with rights theory, it is actually not uncommon for Kantians to be sceptical of the very notion of a moral right due to the primacy of duties over rights (see e.g. Mohr 2010). If moral rights are merely a roundabout way of speaking about duties, we might as well speak about duties directly to ward off confusions and distractions.

The primacy of duties over rights sets Kantianism for Animals in apparent contrast to Regan, who calls his own view the ‘rights view’. However, it is not as though Regan ever explicitly committed to the explanatory, epistemic, and normative primacy of rights over duties. This would require adopting a substantive account of moral bindingness or goodness, which is exactly what Regan’s method of ethical argument is designed to avoid. He begins not from a substantive account of the right and the good, but from a series of candidate moral theories that are simply posited and then tested for consistency, adequacy of scope, precision, and conformity with intuitions (Regan 2004, 131–136). Although to my knowledge, Regan never made this explicit, his method is perfectly compatible with a Moorean scepticism vis à vis substantive accounts of goodness. And here lies the true underlying difference between Kantianism for Animals and Regan: Regan’s view does not commit to a substantive view about the nature of duties and rights (only to a certain method and place to draw the line of moral consideration), Kantianism for Animals does. The contrast here is not between believers of different faiths, but between a believer and an agnostic. Despite all differences in vocabulary and emphasis, then, to some extent we can think of Kantianism for Animals as a complement to Regan more than as a competitor. It provides a substantive account of the nature of duties, which Regan avoids.

The reason why Kantianism for Animals considers duties to be primary is that it is connected to Kant’s account of moral bindingness as arising from autonomy. Duties only bind us because they are derived from the autonomously imposed moral law. If moral rights were to be more than mere correlates of our duties, there would have to be some authority by whose power we are bound to respect them. But such an authority would lie outside of the moral agent herself and would thus be heteronomous. For this reason, moral rights cannot be primary in Kantianism for Animals, and indeed it is doubtful whether talk of ‘moral rights’ is useful in this framework at all. We may as well cut out the middleman and talk about ethical duties.

The preoccupation with notions of duty does not restrict the level of generality at which Kantianism for Animals can issue its prescriptions. This level of generality corresponds to the description of the case. If we consider ourselves merely as human beings who share the world with others who pursue their own happiness, our duty is simply to ‘promote the happiness of others and our own moral perfection’. But the more facts about ourselves and others we take into consideration, the more specific our duties become. However, Kant’s own aspiration is not to answer moral questions with quasi-scientific precision (Wood 2007, 54–57). In the particular situation, we always need our own capacity for moral judgement. Moral philosophy can only direct us towards the right kinds of considerations. Often, the way in which it does this is by highlighting the emotional-practical stance we ought to take towards ourselves and others—avoid arrogance, be beneficent, do not be cruel, and so on. Or it can help us select general maxims in accordance with duty. For this reason, Kantianism for Animals does not fit the stereotype of an absolutist ‘deontological’ approach that obtusely insists on the observation of generally conceived rules irrespective of the particular situation (which is a description Kant’s moral philosophy in general does not fit (Timmermann 2015, 85–88)).

Another upshot of the primacy of duties is that there can be duties which do not correspond to any rights. As we saw in Sect. 2.6, Kant refers to these duties as ‘meritorious’. This is one of the ways in which Kantianism for Animals goes beyond traditional animal rights philosophy and offers resources to make up for some of its gaps. As philosophers of various backgrounds have argued, the notion of an ‘animal right’ is too narrow to capture the richness and complexity of our moral relations with animals. To name some influential examples, Diamond has called for the notion of a ‘fellow creature’, in analogy to our ‘fellow human beings’ (Diamond 1978). Gruen calls on animal ethicists to pay more attention to moral capabilities such as empathy, rather than moral principles (Gruen 2015). Benton calls for solidarity with animals, in addition to the mere ‘safety net’ of rights (Benton 1996). These calls are motivated, in one way or another, by the insight that from moral rights alone, we can only construct a quasi-legalistic hydraulics of competing claims, and this often does not make for an adequate or helpful representation of the moral landscape. Kantianism for Animals takes an interesting place in this discussion. By prioritising duties over rights, incorporating duties that do not correspond to rights, and tying duties to various emotions, it opens the view to a fuller picture of the moral landscape than is associated with traditional animal rights philosophy. To some extent, we can turn this into a defence of animal rights philosophy: It is not necessarily connected to an impoverished representation of the moral landscape, provided we understand rights as mere correlates of duties and then focus on the richer vocabulary of duties. However, the vocabulary provided by Kantianism for Animals might itself be helpful to further articulate ideas of fellow-being, entangled empathy, and solidarity.

3 Duties to Self and Others

Kantianism for Animals is unique in contemporary animal ethics in that it recognises two types of duties, namely to self and others:

Duties to self and others

We have a duty to others to promote their happiness, and a duty to self to promote our own moral perfection.

As we have seen in Chap. 5, Kantianism for Animals takes the directionality of our duties to be a matter of duty-content. Duties that derive from the obligatory end of the happiness of others are called duties ‘towards’ others, while those that derive from our own moral perfection are duties ‘towards’ self. There is no requirement of mutual ‘constraint’ because the bindingness of moral duties rests only on the autonomy of the moral agent.

Our duties towards others demand that we promote their happiness. The account of happiness presupposed is broadly hedonistic—to be happy is to experience maximum pleasantness. This implies that moral patients on the Kantian-for-Animals view must be capable of feeling pleasure. Hence, this framework draws the line of moral concern in a familiar place, namely at sentience.Footnote 2 However, the agency of others plays a crucial role for the way in which we ought to promote their happiness: We ought to use another’s own actions and behaviours as guideposts for our attempts at beneficence. In Kant’s words, “what they may count as belonging to their happiness is left to their own judgement” (MM 6:388.08–09).

Of course, the demand that we promote the happiness of others, including animals, does not make Kantianism for Animals particularly unique in the landscape of animal ethics (though it is distinctive among Kantian approaches in demanding beneficence for animals on the same grounds as beneficence towards humans). What does make Kantianism for Animals unique, however, is that it also recognises duties towards self. They stem from the obligatory end of our own moral perfection—which is another feature which generally sets Kantianism apart from utilitarianism (Timmermann 2005a, 252). What does concern for our own ‘moral perfection’ amount to? Kant distinguishes between two types of duties that follow from this obligatory end: duties that pertain to us as animal beings and duties that pertain to us purely as moral beings. Among the former, Kant lists the duty not to commit prudential suicide (MM 6:422.03), not to overindulge in sexual urges (MM 6:242.10), nor in drugs and food (MM 6:427.02–03). Kant’s overall point is that we ought to keep ourselves, as natural beings, in a shape that is serviceable to our moral capacities. This requires, of course, that we are alive. It also requires that we retain the ability to overcome our urges if necessary.

Among the latter type of duty, Kant lists duties against lying (MM 6:429.02), against being overly frugal (MM 6:432.02), and against servility (MM 6:434.20). Here, the central idea is that we ought to act in accordance with the esteem we are due as moral beings (see Chap. 4). At this point, Kant presupposes that we already accept, on independent grounds, that lying is wrong. The additional problem he points out is that by lying, we sacrifice a clear conscience for the sake of our happiness and make ourselves an object of contempt in our own eyes: “For the dishonour (to be an object of moral contempt) that accompanies it also accompanies a liar, like his shadow” (MM 6:429.11–13). So quite distinctly from other prohibitions of lying, there also exists a duty not to lie because we should avoid having to hold ourselves in contempt. The other two duties are more straightforward: By being overly frugal, we fail to acknowledge that we can only act on our moral capacities if certain basic needs are met. By being servile towards others, we fail to see that we are their moral equals.

The other side of the coin is that we only have duties of moral self-perfection towards ourselves. We do not have a duty of self-love, or to secure even just a fair share of goods for ourselves. To promote our own happiness may be our inclination, but it is only other people’s duty. Hence, Kantianism for Animals has a strong tendency towards altruism, or even sacrifice. This tendency is restricted only by the indirect duty to secure the minimum of happiness we need in order to remain moral agents at all, which is a duty of moral self-perfection (see G 4:399.03–07; MM 6:388.26–28).

That there are duties towards both self and others has another mentionable upshot: Kantianism for Animals can retain the notion of an ‘amphiboly of moral concepts of reflection’ (see Chap. 3). That is, we can confuse a duty of one type for a duty of the other type. For example, our duty to cultivate our capacity for sympathy is still a duty towards self, since it is about our own moral perfection. But it may appear to us like a duty towards others. That is a confusion. The crucial difference to Kant is that the ‘amphiboly’ does not need to explain away what appears to us like a duty towards animals. Since there indeed do exist duties towards animals, we may as well trust our ordinary feelings of obligation towards them. But if all we are concerned with is a duty to cultivate our own sympathy, and we take this to be a duty towards someone else, animal or human, we have fallen prey to a confusion.

4 Practical Love and Non-exaltation

Kantianism for Animals preserves many of the main distinctions of Kant’s taxonomy of duties in the Doctrine of Virtue. We have already seen the distinction between duties to self and others at work. Another major distinction, between perfect and imperfect duties, is preserved too. This distinction does not pick up on whether duties allow for arbitrary exceptions on the grounds of inclination—no duty does that. The difference is rather that perfect duties are so specific that whenever we can observe them, we must. Imperfect duties are broader and apply to many situations, so that we must choose when and how to observe them, but observe them we must. To make this choice, we must consider our imperfect duties in context with all other duties. For example, our duty not to be arrogant is a perfect duty. Whenever we are tempted to be arrogant towards others, we must resist. Our duty of beneficence, by contrast, is imperfect. There are many situations and many ways in which to help others, and we must choose carefully when and how to do it. So our task is to figure out, in reflecting on our various duties, how to best help others while also observing our other duties. Another general distinction Kantianism for Animals adopts from Kant is that between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ duties in the old Kantian sense (see Sect. 3.1). This is not a distinction based on whom we have the duty towards, as the distinction is used in contemporary animal ethics. Rather, ‘direct’ duties are true duties, while ‘indirect’ duties are accidental means for fulfilling duty (see Timmermann 2005b, 140). For example, to be beneficent is a true or ‘direct’ duty, but to use our own sympathetic feelings as a catalyst for moral action is an indirect duty (MM 6:456.25).

Among duties to others, Kant distinguishes between duties of love and duties of respect. The former ask us to be beneficent, grateful, and sympathetic towards others—stances appropriate to the promotion of their happiness. The latter ask us to recognise and act in accordance with the equal humanity of others. This requires that we refrain from being arrogant, from backbiting and ridicule, and in general from stances that view others as less in status as a being capable of morality. This even requires that we put an upper limit to our beneficence, since at some point overbearing beneficence becomes condescending. Kantianism for Animals endorses a version of this view:

Practical love and non-exaltation

We ought to reconcile practical love for animals with a maxim of non-exaltation.

Practical love comprises the ends and activities we pursue in order to promote the happiness of others. Here, Kantianism for Animals stays fairly close to Kant. To repeat, the kind of ‘happiness’ the framework asks us to promote is hedonic in nature. It is a matter of feeling good. However, practical love also requires us to recognise that others are agents who are able to pursue and produce their own happiness. They may do so by means of instrumental practical reason, consciously picking means they deem appropriate to the end of happiness. Alternatively, there may be evolved patterns of action that produce happiness or some of its prerequisites, like health and flourishing. So what we should do, more often than not, is to help along others’ self-chosen endeavours—so long as they still plausibly promote their happiness.

However, Kantianism for Animals does not endorse Kant’s conception of ‘duties of respect’ exactly as he presents it. What Kant considers a ‘duty of respect to others’, Kantianism for Animals considers a duty of non-exaltation to self, merely regarding others. We do have a duty not to ‘exalt’ ourselves above others along the lines suggested by Kant. But this duty derives from the end of our own moral perfection, which requires that we recognise, and act in accordance with, our own moral capacities. We should neither lower ourselves below the status of a being capable of goodness, nor exaggerate our own moral worth (and relatedly, our worthiness of happiness). When it comes to other autonomous human beings, we should regard them as equals sharing our fundamental moral predicament, the struggle between inclination and duty. When it comes to non-autonomous animals, we should regard them as morally incomparable to us, as neither more nor less deserving of their happiness. We exalt ourselves above animals by being arrogant and viewing ourselves as categorically elevated above them in virtue of our moral capacities, but also by being beneficent from an insufficiently humble mindset.

Another noteworthy aspect of Kantianism for Animals is that according to this framework, reason and feelings each play an indispensable part in moral life. Rational beings autonomously impose the moral law on themselves by means of reason, and actions never get their moral worth from the feelings that have helped cause them. But the fulfilment of our duties towards others is always accompanied by certain feelings about them, ourselves, and the moral law. Hence, Kantianism for Animals does not parrot the rhetoric of reason found in many early works of animal ethics. Singer and Regan in particular insist that their moral concern for animals has its origins in reason, not in any feelings whatsoever (Regan 2004, xli–xliii; Singer 2002, xxif.). For both Singer (2002, xxi) and Regan (2004, lii), as well as for many non-philosophers in the animal rights movement (Groves 2001), this appeal to reason in contrast to emotion is a deliberate rhetorical tactic used to avoid being stereotyped as irrational. In any case, Kantianism for Animals does not need to rely on this tactic.

5 Motives Matter

One of Kant’s most iconic claims in moral philosophy is that an action can only have moral worth if it springs from the right incentive, namely respect for the moral law. An action which is merely in accordance with duty may be permissible, but if its incentive is inclination, the action fails to have moral worth. Kantianism for Animals does not disagree with any of these parts of Kant’s thought. It bears repeating, however, that incentives are not Kant’s main unit of moral guidance—the obligatory ends are. For this reason, the recurrent allegation is false that Kant’s singular—and patently unhelpful—piece of moral guidance is that we must act from duty. What is true, however, is that Kant’s moral philosophy allots an important role to the things we may call the ‘motives’ of actions—the ends towards which they are directed, the maxims from which the actions spring, and the incentives that drive them:

Motives matter

Ends, maxims, and incentives matter for moral worth.

Of course, other views in animal ethics may agree with the above claim. Any sensible approach to animal ethics would consider actions wrong if they pursue cruelty as an end, for instance. However, Kantianism for Animals differs from influential views in its order of explanation. For Singer and Regan, to name prominent examples, what makes it wrong to pursue a cruel end is that it leads to bad outward acts—a failure to maximise utility or a violation of rights, respectively. For Kant, the ethical issue lies with the motives of actions in themselves, and outward acts are ethically wrong if they are connected to certain motives contrary to duty.

To sum up, I have used this intermission to capture the main features of Kantianism for Animals in five key claims. Kantianism for Animals distinctively claims the autonomously imposed moral law to be the normative basis of our duties towards animals. It claims that duties have explanatory, epistemic, and normative primacy over rights and claims. It adheres to a doctrine of obligatory ends according to which we have a duty to promote the happiness of others and a duty to pursue our own moral self-perfection. It claims that we must find the right balance between beneficence and non-exaltation vis à vis others. And it claims that our moral worth depends on the motives of actions broadly construed—the ends we set, the maxims from which our actions spring, and the incentives from which we act. Taken individually, not all of these five claims are novelties in the literature. But taken together, they characterise Kantianism for Animals as a novel and distinctive framework in animal ethics.