Interview with Christine M. Korsgaard: Animal Ethics, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

by Erich_Grunewald1 min read8th May 202111 comments

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DeontologyOther moral theoriesNormative ethicsAnimal EthicsUtilitarianism
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Christine M. Korsgaard was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine. Here's an excerpt:

ERICH: I have the impression that some utilitarian philosophers are having an outsize impact on the world. I am thinking, for example, of Singer, Toby Ord, William MacAskill and Hilary Greaves who have been instrumental in founding the Effective Altruism movement, which is having a large impact on global poverty and health, factory farming and so on. Is this a correct observation, do you think? If so, is it something about utilitarianism that spurs concrete action of this sort? And does Kantianism not?

CHRISTINE: The idea of doing a lot of good has a lot of appeal. The Effective Altruism movement also appeals because of its focus on good you can do right now, and as an individual, at least as long as someone else is doing the complicated work of organizing the charity and distributing the proceeds effectively. The problem of global poverty requires a political solution; charity, no matter how extensive, can never be more than a band-aid. But it does have immediate results. I think utilitarianism has an advantage over Kantianism in the public sphere because it is, at least superficially, much easier to understand, and the theoretical problems with it that I described before are hard to see.

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If I understand things correctly, in Fellow Creatures, you write that animals have moral standing because (1) things can be good or bad for them, (2) they experience things as good or bad through their senses, and (3) they are self-maintaining. You also write that “[i]f we invented a machine that was conscious and had valenced experiences that guided her to pursue her own functional good, then she would be an animal, by my definition”.

I haven't read her work myself and probably should, but I was told by someone that basically condition 3 or even having goal-directed behaviour is not necessary. I would hope it wouldn't be, because we could have a being who experiences good and bad and so has their own ends, but has no power to control what they experience and so would just be completely vulnerable and unable to pursue their own ends. Wouldn't such a being still matter? It seems like many young animals and (conscious) fetuses are in such a state. Maybe one way of putting it is that these experiences do in fact guide them to pursue their own (functional) good, but they are just unable to actually do so. But then what does it mean to say these experiences guide them to pursue their own good if they can't pursue their own good?

I also wonder what she has in mind by "functional" in "functional good". Do we need to decide what something's function is, if any, to define their goods and bads, and how do we do that? In my view, animals define their own goods and bads through their valenced experiences and/or desires, not just that they happen to experience their goods and bads or that their experiences guide them towards their own functional goods.

And what if their valenced experiences guided them to violate their own functional good?

It's interesting that she brings up artwork and the environment, too, as potential ends in themselves:

The hardest problems arise in cases where you are dealing with something that isn’t a person, but doesn’t seem like it should be treated merely as instrument or a resource either. Animals, fetuses and embryos, artworks that are part of a shared cultural tradition, the environment. These things aren’t mere means. Are they ends in themselves, or do we need more categories? In Fellow Creatures, I concluded that there are two different ways of being an end in itself, with different implications.

Thank you for the thoughtful comment! It is an excellent book – if you are at all interested in Kant's moral philosophy, I highly recommend it. I will preface the remainder of this comment with the caveat that I am explaining someone else's work, and that Professor Korsgaard may not agree with my interpretation. Also, any typos in the quoted passages are copying errors.

I haven't read her work myself and probably should, but I was told by someone that basically condition 3 or even having goal-directed behaviour is not necessary. I would hope it wouldn't be, because we could have a being who experiences good and bad and so has their own ends, but has no power to control what they experience and so would just be completely vulnerable and unable to pursue their own ends. Wouldn't such a being still matter?

Here's a passage from the book that expands on that thought but doesn't counter your objection:

The small [objection] is that the definition that I have given of what an animal is is not the same as the definition a contemporary biologist would give. An "animal", as I am using the term, is an organism that functions as an agent, where by agency I mean something like representation-governed locomotion. Animals are conscious organisms who seek out the things that are (functionally) good-for them and try to avoid the things that are bad. [...] The organisms we are concerned with when we think about whether we have duties to animals are sentient beings who perceive the world in valenced ways and act accordingly. This is the feature of organic life that I have argued places an organism in the morally interesting category of having a final good.

However, later on she gets to the argument from marginal cases (if something like intelligence or rationality is the ground for moral standing among humans, then what about infants, or folks with severe developmental impairments?), which I think is similar to your objection here. Korsgaard argues against it, because to her, there is such a thing as a type of creature, even if categories have fuzzy borders. And though your example beings may not be able to pursue their own functional goods, they are still the sorts of creatures who do.

A human infant is not a particular kind of creature, but a human creature at a particular life stage. I believe that it is not proper to assign moral standing, and the properties on which it is grounded, to life stages or to the subjects of those stages. Moral standing should be accorded to persons and animals considered as the subjects of their whole lives, at least in the case of animals with enough psychic unity over time to be regarded as the subjects of their whole life. Nor, except perhaps in the case of extremely simple life forms, should we think of the subject of a life merely as a collection of the subjects of the different temporal stages of the life. [F]or most animals having a self is not just a matter of being conscious at any given moment, but rather a matter of having a consciousness or a point of view that is functionally unified both at a particular time and from one moment to the next. That ongoing self is the thing that should have or lack moral standing, or be the proper unit of moral concern.

[...]

There is a third reason for rejecting the argument from marginal cases, and it is the most important. A creature is not just a collection of properties, but a functional unity, whose parts and systems work together in keeping him alive and healthy in the particular way that is characteristic to his kind. Even if it were correct to characterize a human being with cognitive defects as "lacking reason", which usually it is not, this would not mean that it was appropriate to treat the human being as a non-rational animal. Rationality is not just a property that you might have or lack without any other difference, like blue eyes. To say that a creature is rational is not just to say that he has "reason" as one of his many properties, but to say something about the way he functions. [...] A rational being who lacks some of the properties that together make rational functioning possible is not non-rational, but rather defectively rational, and therefore unable to function well. [...] It is not as if you could simply subtract "rationality" from a human animal. A non-rational animal, after all, functions perfectly well without understanding the principles of reason, since he makes his choices in a different way.

[...]

The Argument from Marginal Cases ignores the functional unity of creatures. A creature who is constructed to function in part by reasoning but who is still developing or has been damaged is still a rational creature. So the Kantian need not grant and should not grant that infants, the insane, the demented, and so on, are non-rational beings. The point is not, of course, that we should treat infants and people with cognitive disabilities exactly the way we treat adult rational beings, because they too are rational beings. The way we treat any creature has to be responsive to the creature's actual condition. But the creature's condition itself is not given by a list of properties, but also by the way those properties work together.

Korsgaard is talking about rationality here because that, to her, is what sets humans apart from the other animals (though of course she thinks that is the reason why we are moral agents, but not why we have moral standing). But I think she would argue similarly about creatures that are defective in other ways, e.g. who has no power to control what they experience or to pursue goals.

I also wonder what she has in mind by "functional" in "functional good". Do we need to decide what something's function is, if any, to define their goods and bads, and how do we do that? In my view, animals define their own goods and bads through their valenced experiences and/or desires, not just that they happen to experience their goods and bads or that their experiences guide them towards their own functional goods.

If I understand you correctly, I think she would agree. Her distinction between "final goods" and "functional goods" comes, I think, from this 1983 paper of hers, though there she calls functional goods "instrumental" instead. The functional good is basically that which allows a thing to function well, e.g. a whetstone is good for the blade because it keeps it sharp and tar is good for the boat because it keeps it from taking in water. The final good is "the end or aim of all our strivings, or at any rate the crown of their success, the summum bonum, a state of affairs that is desirable or valuable or worth achieving for its own sake". Where does the final good come from? Korsgaard basically argues, if I recall correctly, following Aristotle, that creatures have functions, and that, when we act to achieve some end, to attain whatever we value as good-for us, we take that end to be good in the final sense. I think this is pretty similar to what you were getting at?

It's interesting that she brings up artwork and the environment, too, as potential ends in themselves.

Ah yes, I thought so too, especially since I had understood (mistakenly, apparently) from the book that she did not think of those things as ends in themselves. I actually wrote a dialogue in the old style about this very subject, concluding that inanimate objects are not ends in themselves.

Thanks for the clarifications!

And though your example beings may not be able to pursue their own functional goods, they are still the sorts of creatures who do.

(...)

But I think she would argue similarly about creatures that are defective in other ways, e.g. who has no power to control what they experience or to pursue goals.

Maybe having valenced experiences means they have goods and bads, and not being able to pursue them makes them defective, regardless of what type of creature they are (e.g. if they were designed from scratch to lack the ability to pursue their ends)?

 

A human infant is not a particular kind of creature, but a human creature at a particular life stage. I believe that it is not proper to assign moral standing, and the properties on which it is grounded, to life stages or to the subjects of those stages. Moral standing should be accorded to persons and animals considered as the subjects of their whole lives, at least in the case of animals with enough psychic unity over time to be regarded as the subjects of their whole life.

Aren't human infants pretty psychologically disconnected from their future rational selves, though? It's extremely rare for adult humans to retain memories from experiences in infancy, although I suppose experiences in infancy might still shape their adult personalities.

 

If I understand you correctly, I think she would agree. Her distinction between "final goods" and "functional goods" comes, I think, from this 1983 paper of hers, though there she calls functional goods "instrumental" instead. The functional good is basically that which allows a thing to function well, e.g. a whetstone is good for the blade because it keeps it sharp and tar is good for the boat because it keeps it from taking in water. The final good is "the end or aim of all our strivings, or at any rate the crown of their success, the summum bonum, a state of affairs that is desirable or valuable or worth achieving for its own sake". Where does the final good come from? Korsgaard basically argues, if I recall correctly, following Aristotle, that creatures have functions, and that, when we act to achieve some end, to attain whatever we value as good-for us, we take that end to be good in the final sense. I think this is pretty similar to what you were getting at?

Are final goods also functional goods, though? It seems to me that our functions are also supposed to determine our final goods, not just that functional goods are instrumental. Or maybe they happen to coincide for humans? From the abstract of this paper of hers (assuming this is the view she is promoting generally, not just a specific defense of Aristotle):

Drawing on the account of form and matter in Aristotle's Metaphysics, it argues that “function” does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning — how a thing does what it does. The way human beings do things is by making rational choices. The human good or happiness is not merely a result of rational choice, but consists in it, because a rational action or activity is one whose principle expresses the agent's conception of what is worth doing for the sake of what.

 

A rational being who lacks some of the properties that together make rational functioning possible is not non-rational, but rather defectively rational, and therefore unable to function well. [...] It is not as if you could simply subtract "rationality" from a human animal. A non-rational animal, after all, functions perfectly well without understanding the principles of reason, since he makes his choices in a different way.

This gets into modal personism/personhood. I have some objections to this and her responses to the argument from marginal cases in general, some coming from the literature on this topic (I think here and here, but it's been a while since I read those), but maybe they are based on misunderstandings, since my understanding is pretty shallow here:

  1. I think you could subtract rationality from a human being and they could still function well (in terms of achieving their ends), depending on the context. We still have a lot of instinct and more basic forms of learning that non-rational animals rely on to survive and pursue their own ends, so we could potentially get by on those alone. Of course, our ancestors who lacked rationality probably did make up for it in other ways.
  2. If functions are just the ways we do things, as in her paper that I cite above, and a particular human lacks rationality, rationality can't be their function. (See also points 3 and 4 for objections to possible responses to this.)
  3. Why would we consider a human whose genes do not support rationality to be defectively rational or a "rational being", rather than a non-rational being? If it's determined by their genes, isn't it in their nature? Why wouldn't this be a different type/category of creature from a rational human? And by changing enough genes, we could get a completely different non-rational species.
  4. Why isn't every individual being their own type? On what basis are we grouping them? If we reference species in our definitions, this would be a kind of speciesism. We can even imagine creatures without anything similar to genes or designs, like Boltzmann brains, although maybe they are too unlikely to ever exist.
  5. What if a human never becomes rational due to some omission, e.g. something to do with the environment in the womb or inadequate nutrition? If we gain the ability to enhance nonhuman animals to be rational, couldn't failing to do so make them defectively rational, too? If we can gain the ability to enhance otherwise non-rational nonhuman animals, couldn't they be defectively rational now? Is function determined by the "design", the genes?

Indeed, and a commenter there pointed out an interesting paper by Richard Yetter Chappell (pdf) which explores and argues against this claim by Korsgaard:

In utilitarianism, people and animals don’t really matter at all; they are just the place where the valuable things happen.

The title of the paper is "Value Receptacles". I haven't read it yet but I suspect it would be of interest to many here.

The problem of global poverty requires a political solution; charity, no matter how extensive, can never be more than a band-aid.

(...)

We should think about it politically. People in this condition aren’t just needy. They are not free. Their rights are being violated. We need more international forms of governance to address this kind of problem.

I wonder what she has in mind, especially what reforms she thinks are most politically feasible. Also, to what extent will developing countries essentially free their own citizens as they develop? Maybe there isn't much we can feasibly do other than speed up growth and ensure it makes it to the people (with more and better trade agreements, oversight in supply chains), rather than just the government and the corrupt?

I would think the impartiality and demandingness of utilitarianism are the main motivators to do so much good. Others' interests matter as much as your own, up to equal consideration of equal interests, and should be promoted to the same extent, all else equal. My impression of Kantian ethics is that it's much more permissible to pursue your own interests even if it means not promoting others' to a greater extent. On the other hand, in utilitarianism, your own interests are effectively dominated by others', and so should basically be treated instrumentally (i.e. you need to take care of yourself to help others sustainably and effectively), although they do still matter in themselves.

That's interesting and I think that's true to a certain extent, the bottomless pits of suffering and all that. Though Kantianism does make some pretty strong demands in its own way, for instance in the way that it really hammers home the idea of seeing things from others' points of view (via the Formula of Humanity), or in the way that it considers some duties to be absolute ("perfect").

I believe that Korsgaard also thinks we have duties to help others' promote their own good if it's at no great cost to ourselves, though these duties are not as strong as those not to violate other people's autonomy. I think maybe these sorts of duties lead to something like Effective Altruism, though I haven't really thought all of this through yet, or read much of the relevant literature, so what do I know.

I wonder what she thinks of EA's approach to animal advocacy. I know that many rights theorists object to welfare reform for allowing or promoting animal exploitation.

Also, intervening to promote wild animal welfare, too. There's been some writing in EA connecting wild animal welfare and rights:

  1. https://was-research.org/writing-by-others/legal-personhood-positive-rights-wild-animals/
  2. https://was-research.org/blog/wild-animals-a-rights-based-approach/

Only seeing this now, but she does have sections in the book on thinking about species, habitat loss, eliminating predation and what she calls "creation ethics" among other things. I didn't get the feeling reading the book that she would be against welfare reform, but leafing through the pages now I couldn't find any passage that covers that topic explicitly. Thanks for the resources.

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