Animals and Kant’s account of dignity

In the reading group run by Chris Norris today, Rebekah Humphreys gave us a talk on the relation between animals and the concept of dignity (thank you for your interesting talk!). After the talk, I was reading Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and remembering what Kant’s account of dignity was.

Kant famously excludes animals from his moral system. Kant argues that we ought not to treat rational beings (such as we human beings) as a mere means to achieve ends, on the other hand, we could treat animals as a mere means to achieve ends. The reason for this exclusion is as follows: according to Kant, morality is ‘the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will, that is, to a possible giving of universal law through its maxim’ (4: 439). We ought to act on a maxim we can will as a universal law. When we consider in this way, we regard ourselves as citizens of ‘the kingdom of ends’. In this kingdom, all citizens try to act on the maxim they can will as universal laws. Moreover, in this kingdom, citizens regard themselves and one another as ends in themselves. At this point, the concept of dignity comes in. Kant wrote as follows:

morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable morality, is that which alone has dignity (4: 435).

I understand that the first part of the quote above says that we can regard rational beings as ends themselves only under that condition of morality, which is, in this context, the kingdom of ends. To be a citizen of the kingdom of ends, it is necessary to regard rational beings as ends themselves. The latter part of the quote says the consequence of Kant’s morality: such ends themselves have dignity. Kant explains the notion of dignity as follows:

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity (4: 435).

the law giving itself, which determines all worth, must for that very reason have a dignity, that is, an unconditional, incomparable worth; and the word respect alone provides a becoming expression for the estimate of it that a rational being must give (4: 436).

So, according to Kant, rational beings which are lawgivers in the kingdom of ends have dignity, and dignity is a kind of intrinsic value which cannot be replaced by any other thing. For the Kantian morality, the notion of dignity rational beings themselves is essential to maintain the kingdom of ends.

Given the above Kantian account of dignity, I present my account of dignity:

[RD] A being has dignity iff that being is capable of becoming a lawgiver in the kingdom of ends.

Then, if we accept my account of dignity, why do we exclude animals from the Kantian system of morality? A straightforward answer would be given as follows: animals do not have dignity because they cannot be lawgivers in the kingdom of ends. Animals are not capable of reasoning in a way rational beings are. Rational beings could try to think what would be categorical imperatives in the kingdom of ends, regarding rational beings as ends.

Suppose we exclude animals from our system of morality due to my account of dignity, and concludes that we do not need to treat them as ends due to their lack of dignity. Then, how should we think the matter in a following case? Imagine a baby is just born. Unfortunately, this baby has so many difficulties and illnesses. This baby has to physically suffer a lot. This baby would not be able to see things, hear sounds, think rationally, even if the baby manages to live somehow. Then, what we have to say is as follows:

[1] The baby does not have dignity since the baby is not capable of being a lawgiver in the kingdom of ends.

[2] If we think of active euthanasia of this baby, we cannot assume that euthanasia is for keeping this baby’s dignity. The rationale of this euthanasia can be considered only when we consider this baby as a mere means to achieve some ends: such as for decreasing this baby’s awful pains, parents’ emotional suffering, etc.

I don’t know if many people feel [2] is a plausible account of killing the unfortunate baby. Perhaps, some consequentialists, would say that [2] is the only possible rationale we can give for active euthanasia of this baby. But some people might have an intuition that we should say that baby does have his own dignity regardless of his capability of being a lawgiver in the kingdom of ends.

Then, what I thought was as follows:

a. Kant reaches his account of dignity through his analysis of our ordinary moral concepts.

b. So, if the intuition that the baby does have his dignity is plausible, we might say that Kant’s analysis has some flaws and his account of dignity is not a proper result of the analysis of our moral concepts.

c. If so, given the idea that capability of being a lawgiver in the kingdom of ends is not the necessary condition for being’s having its dignity, the proponent of dignity of animals could develop her argument rejecting the Kantian account of dignity.

If what I thought is plausible, it is good news for the proponent of animals’ dignity, since she can reject the Kantian account of dignity as an implausible account, and gives us a better account which allows animals to have some sort of dignity, I suppose …


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One Response to Animals and Kant’s account of dignity

  1. I really don’t know what it means to talk about a baby’s dignity? Although I am not in favor of euthanasia.

    I recall that Rebekah argued that

    1) We apply the term loss of dignity to people who are not conscious of having lost their dignity e.g. people who are in coma’s but are incontinent, or people who are dressed up for ridicule while not being awake. We also apply the term to deceased bodies i,e, graves being dug up would constitute a loss of dignity.

    2: loss of dignity is a bad thing i,e, a loss of something valuable.

    3: So we can apply the notion of a loss of dignity to animals even if they are not conscious of having lost their dignity e.g. bears dressed in maids uniforms in the moscow circus or the monkey dressed as used by the organ grinder.

    4: When this happens in 3 something of value has been lost. [Although in other cases not – as in Chris Norris’s quip about going out and losing your dignity i,e, enjoy yourself and let your inhibitions about what others might be thinking go]

    My criticism was that unless we understand why we are applying the case in 1 we cannot know whether we are applying it in 2 legitimately.

    Rebeckah replied by saying that we can apply it in 1 without knowing what governs the use of the concept. I agree but to me this is a case of applying the concept blindly or at the least being unphilosophical about dignity and it doesn’t help settle whether there is any valid application of the concept to non-humans.

    I think dignity is tied up with understanding how others perceive us or how we would want others to perceive us and as such it is difficult to apply this to non-humans such as bears or cats.

    Maybe Rebekah can come on here and clarify for us?

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