Can Animals Be Kantians?

I decided to share some of the papers I wrote this semester. I’m sharing this one because it is a paper I sort of surprised myself with and these are issues I am passionate about.

In the paper, I first looked at some authors who tried to accommodate animals in Kant’s very anthropocentric ethical framework. Then something strange happened. The paper sort of took over and decided to consider not only whether animals can be ethical patients but whether they can be ethical agents as well, and Kantians at that. Does that happen to anyone else? It seems to happen to me quite often. Unless I make a really good outline, I never know what the hell I am writing until it’s written :) If you read all the way to the end, you can also see that I haz a puppy and I think about our inter-species interactions a lot. I don’t know if that was a TMI moment and wonder if my professor was raising their eyebrows all the way up or what. Oh well 🐶


Visibly upset that eating the couch is a NO. Not quite a Kantian yet. Understands “No”; doesn’t give a fuck :)


A Consideration of the Moral Status of Animals in Kantian Ethical Frameworks

Is it possible to construct an ethical theory that is inclusive of humans, non-human animals, plants and inanimate phenomena alike using a Kantian deontological ethical framework? I find Kant’s ethics admirable for various reasons I will explicate below and find value in the efforts to salvage this framework to accommodate some important concerns that Kant did not address adequately such as the moral status of non-human animals. In this short paper, I will only limit myself to envisioning a model that can extend the Kantian moral concern for humanity to non-human animals. I will first offer a quick sketch of Kantian ethics with particular focus on the Humanity Formulation and Universal Formulation of the Categorical Imperative. I will then explain and evaluate some philosophical positions that attempt to find a basis for recognizing non-human animals as worthy of moral concern within a notoriously anthropocentric Kantian ethical framework (Korsgaard 2005, Regan 2009, Kain 2010, Denis 2000, Wood 1999 ). All of these positions unanimously try to grant some moral standing to animals as beings humans have duties to but not as moral agents themselves. In the final part of the paper, in addition to asking whether Kantians can accommodate animals, I also ask whether animals can be Kantians in any sense.

Kantian ethics is first of all deontological which means it defines morality independently from the consequences of moral action and without reference to the good resulting from the action. What matters in this view is that the action conforms to the moral law, or the Categorical Imperative which holds absolutely, unconditionally and necessarily. Morality in this sense is a priori, that is, independent of all experience or any kind of human nature but sought in the concepts of pure reason. It is based not on emotion, which Kant found an unreliable basis, but on reason and duty alone. Categorical imperative holds and must be followed regardless of how the moral agent feels about it. In fact, going against one’s inclination to eschew moral duty and fulfilling it despite one’s desires to the contrary constitutes the essence of ethical action for Kant because then the sense of duty is the pure motivator of the act. Of course having the correct inclination in this case does not hurt. Kant values emotions but does not accord much moral worth or relevance to them. As we will see below emotions are only valuable to the extent that they are conducive to producing the moral temperament.

There are four formulations for the Categorical Imperative of which two will be relevant in the following discussion. The first is the Universal Law Formulation which Kant succinctly stated as: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”(Driver 2007: 87). This formulation is almost a test of moral permissibility. The question to ask is if this maxim applied to everyone whether this would create a contradiction? In other words, could one conceive of such a world. Secondly, if there is no logical contradiction created by universalization, then the question is whether one could rationally will to live in such a world where this maxim was universalized. In connection with the Universal Law formulation, Kant also delineates perfect and imperfect duties. Duties the violation of which results in a logical contradiction in a universalized maxim are perfect duties whereas those that only create a contradiction in the will are imperfect duties (Driver 2007: 92). Perfect duties must always be fulfilled whereas imperfect duties allow for a lot of discretion. Duty against lying for Kant is a perfect duty whereas beneficence is imperfect.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is the Formulation of Humanity which Kant stated as follows: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means. (Driver 2007: 90)” In other words, treat all rational beings as ends-in-themselves, as inherently valuable autonomous beings worthy of dignity and respect. This is not to say that one can never form instrumental relationships with others but that one cannot form solely instrumental relations with others and that one cannot treat others as means in a way that they would rationally disagree with.

Kant’s ethics is attractive for a number of reasons. The Kantian framework is rather Leibnizian, if only in a methodological sense, reach as it does myriad conclusions from a small number of principles. For instance the Humanity Formulation of the Categorical Imperative seems applicable to countless moral scenarios. The Universal Formulation, on the other hand, comes close to being a general guideline for testing many kinds of moral claims. Deontological theories like Kant’s are also attractive because the value of moral action does not depend on consequences which is beyond the control of the moral agent. Finally Kant’s ethics is attractive because of its absolutism; the idea that there are some things that are absolutely wrong in any context beats any complicated utilitarian algorithm for general welfare which seems unable to prohibit murder if the algorithm rules in favor of it. The accounts I will evaluate below either rapidly dismiss utilitarian/consequentialist frameworks as ethical alternatives (Korsgaard 2005, Regan 2009) or ignore them altogether (Kain 2010). While it would be interesting to pursue some kind of a mixed theory taking the best of both worlds, it is not possible within the confines of this paper so I will similarly dismiss utilitarian theories and focus on what the Kantian framework can offer in order to see whether it is indeed adaptable to accommodate non-human animals.

The views under question might be roughly categorized into two groups although they all similarly attempt to find a place for non-human animals in a Kantian framework. Kain (2010), Denis (2000) and Wood (1999) remain very close to Kant’s conception of the matter and argue that a good reconstruction or contextualization of Kant’s indirect duties towards animals already provides a lot of room for their decent treatment and that this is satisfactory. Regan (2009) and Korsgaard (2005), on the other hand, take the more radical route of making duties to animals direct and perfect by showing that animals might also be considered as ends-in-themselves. The first group focuses more on interpreting the passages in Kant’s ethical writing where he directly talks about animals whereas the second group focuses more on reworking the Humanity Formulation. While I find the efforts of both groups worthwhile, my own position is closer to the latter group as indirect duties with regards to animals do not seem to have the moral force of the categorical imperative and so remain deficient in carving a genuine moral status for animals in a Kantian framework.

According to Kant only rational autonomous beings can have moral worth and can be considered ends-in-themselves with absolute value. So rational beings have direct duties only to themselves or towards other rational beings. Any duties toward non-rational beings like animals are formulated as duties to oneself or to other rational beings. For instance cruelty towards animals is wrong because it may cultivate morally undesirable emotions and endanger the moral character of the agent undertaking the behavior (Korsgaard 2005: 15). This not only violates the perfect duty of self-perfection that rational beings owe to themselves as animals and moral beings, but also imperfect duties of fostering useful moral feelings as well as imperfect duties of sympathy and love towards others (Denis 2000: 408). Denis thinks that the violation of maxims with regards to perfect duties to the self could suggest that the rational being’s nature lacks dignity thereby they are prohibited under the Humanity Formulation (2000: 408). It is unclear how this very convoluted account of duty can be truly binding with regards to the treatment of animals.

Kain (2010) similarly emphasizes that indirect duties towards animals (duties not “to” but “regarding” animals) have to do with the cultivation of moral sentiments that contribute to the preservation of one’s rational nature as an end (222). Along with Denis, Kain endorses the unconvincing view that these indirect duties may provide many maxims against animal cruelty, limit testing and prohibit unnecessary suffering. Kain also argues that Kant’s view of animals, while refraining from assigning direct duties towards animals, is not just parasitic on his definition of the nature of rational beings but connected to the nature of animals (2010: 214). For this end, Kain provides a fascinating survey of Kant’s various thoughtful comments on the nature of animals found in his writings on empirical biology, psychology, anthropology and geography. Kant seems to have formed his idea that “animal nature has analogies to human nature” (Driver 2007: 97) from these investigations where he displays a genuine “sense of wonder” especially with regards to animals like dogs and elephants that he ascribes analogies of rationality and morality (Kain 2010: 217-218). Interestingly, Kant was less impressed by monkeys which he found to have analogies of rationality but not morality (Kain 2010: 217). Wood (1999) makes use of these analogies or analogues in making space for animals in the Kantian framework by arguing that rational nature can be respected both in the person of a rational being as well as in the abstract when it is found only partially as an analogue in animals. As stated earlier, these revisions of Kantian ethics that accept indirect duties toward animals and that try to find a place for them through their analogues or similarities to humans fail to provide a clear moral standing for animals. Let us now turn to the second group of articles.

Out of this small sample, Regan, advocating for an abolitionist approach (that seeks an unconditional end to animal agriculture, testing and hunting) offers the most radical and prescriptive yet incomplete view with regards to animals. Korsgaard’s in-depth treatment of Kant, however, not only allows a similar abolitionist attitude but opens the path for considering other organized life forms and even inanimate forms as ethically relevant. Both Korsgaard and Regan seem to be interested in reformulating the Humanity Formulation to make room for animals. There are two ways this can be done. One can either argue that animals are rational and autonomous as humans (this would be either impossible or very difficult) or argue that while they are not rational or autonomous in the way humans are, they are still ends-in-themselves with absolute worth. According to Regan animals have “inherent value” by virtue of being “experiencing subjects of a life,” (2009: 342) whereas according to Korsgaard (2005) animals clearly show that “they matter to themselves” and thereby they can be “sources of normative claims” on rational beings (33).

In Regan’s account it seems that for an animal to be morally relevant, to ever come under the moral spot light, it first has to come into contact with humans in a subservient relationship and be used merely as a means. It is of course understandable that Regan wants to find a way to address the grave wrongs humans do to animals and so limits his scope to those areas with the greatest unnecessary suffering such as animal agriculture, hunting and testing. But how about animals we rarely have contact with, or those for whom we have absolutely no use? How about insects? As Denis notes, even Kant is more inclusive in his treatment of animals as evidenced by his repeated recounting of an anecdote in his ethics lectures about Leibniz carefully returning a worm back to its leaf after examination (2000: 418). It seems that even to see animals as the experiencing subjects of a life Regan needs the justification of proximity or familiarity to humans. In a sense, while Regan seeks to show how similar animals are to humans, Korsgaard is more interested in equally showing how humans are very similar to animals or rather to remind the reader that humans are also animals.

Korsgaard uses the Aristotelian view of matter as organized to fulfill some function (which Kant also seems to endorse). Using this definition then “good” or the natural good of an organism is defined as what enables matter to function and to function well. Animals, plants and humans alike share this fundamental property of being self-maintaining organisms, always striving for what it is good for themselves. This is more pronounced in animals than plants. Because humans are also animals they share this natural good which is conferred normative value at the moment humans value themselves as ends: “It is therefore our animal nature, not just our autonomous nature, that we take to be an end-in-itself” (Korsgaard 2005: 31). What distinguishes humans from other animals is the capacity (whether realized or unrealized, diminished, obliterated or not yet developed) to build a rational order out of this simple self-maintaining striving for life. In Korsgaard’s view, while animals who matter to themselves do not have a legislative will and therefore cannot be ethical agents in the way humans are, they can still be the source of normative claims and be covered by direct moral duties for being ends-in-themselves. Korsgaard’s view encompasses all humans and animals not just a convenient selection (even plants and possibly all organized matter) under the Kantian framework as inherently valuable beings subject to direct moral duties from rational beings with legislative wills.

Among the various reconsiderations of Kant discussed above, Korsgaard’s seems like to most viable option. But all of the accounts share one feature in common in that they unanimously agree that animals have no moral duty but that humans might have moral duties to them. While I agree with this, in the sense that humans cannot expect animals to act morally in reciprocation, they nevertheless seem to do just that sometimes. So in addition to asking whether Kantians can accommodate animals, I would also like to ask whether animals can be Kantians. Going back to Kant’s remarks about some animals displaying analogues to morality and rationality, it was interesting that Kant regarded monkeys as having a lot of what seems like rationality but little to no morality. That sounds a lot like humans. For Kant humans are not rational animals, they are animals capable of rationality (Wood 1999: 199). As stated above, having the capacity for rationality does not mean it is exercised in any significant or successful way.

One wonders what Kant would have thought of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the suggestion that humans are descendants of apes. What would Kant think if he found out that humans are mostly monkeys? Would that have changed his account in any way? Perhaps if Kant had been born in a more recent time, he would have had access to all the leading research in empirical sciences being the polymath he was and perhaps could have reached different conclusions. For instance Kant thought most animals were very gullible although new research shows that not only pattern deception (like an eyespot distracting a predator) but intentional deception similar to lying (both inter- and intra-species) is rampant in the animal world especially in more cooperative animal societies (Sebeok 1986). Lying or self-conscious deception for advantage in animals seems to be a very sophisticated form of apperception. Could this “immorality” also suggest that animals might have morality as well?

Let us consider an example. For instance dogs seem capable of some form of manipulation especially of the emotional blackmailing variety although this cannot be strictly defined as lying. It is more like a solution to a problem that they reach through trial and error (or induction). If the dog finds out that yelping brings them the attention they crave then they will yelp like they are on fire until they get it even if they are not necessarily in any kind of physical or emotional distress. Yet perhaps this could also be seen as the dog universalizing the maxim: “when in need of attention/affection, yelp” without, however, the help of human language. The dog also expects others to act this way and will respond in kind. When my puppy gets too rough in play, I sometimes yelp and he stops and cares for me. This is in fact one of the first things dogs who are fortunate enough to spend some time with their litter mates and their mother learn. Dogs who are separated from their litter too early, on the other hand, have a hard time learning bite inhibition. The former kind of dog learns it because it hurts a lot when their litter mates bite too hard and they yelp, and vice versa. In Kantian terms then perhaps they can be said to learn and universalize the maxim “don’t bite too hard during friendly and playful encounters with others.”

Unlike humans, when animals seem to learn and universalize (a very limited number of) maxims, they never forget them and they will never act in breach of the categorical imperative. When the puppy finally figures out the maxim: “do not urinate or defecate in the house,” they will never backtrack even when their humans break the corresponding maxim (“take your dog out at least two-three times a day”). Dogs in this case will stick to the imperative against elimination inside the house even if it means great distress to them. In a very limited sense dogs can be said to be more Kantian and more moral than humans can ever be precisely because they lack the rational faculty which alone is supposed to make humans moral agents. This is because dogs can never rationalize their way out of a categorical imperative once it is set in stone. But humans will eschew their duties towards human and non-human animals alike through complicated self-interested rationalizations animals are simply incapable of (“I am too tired to take the dog out, he can hold it anyway.” “I love the taste of meat and those cows would be butchered anyway, even if I never ate meat.” “There are five other people around, I am sure one of them can save the drowning baby.” et cetera multa ad infinitum.) My very anecdotal evidence (that uses very human frameworks that do not exactly apply to animals) seems to suggest that animals might be more Kantian than humans (at least in terms of lying and keeping promises) and humans might have something to learn from them in this regard. But my humble point is that animals are probably more and humans are probably less autonomous than we think and that rationality might not always directly lead to morality. As Kant observed with monkeys, sometimes too much rationality might signal a dearth of morality.


Denis, Lara. 2000. Kant’s Conception of Duties Regarding Animals: Reconstruction and Reconsideration. History of Philosophy Quarterly 17(4): 405-425.
Driver, Julia. 2007. Ethics: The Fundamentals. Maine, Oxford and Virginia: Blackwell Publishing.
Kain, Patrick. 2010. Duties regarding animals. In Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals: A Critical Guide, ed. Lara Denis, pp. 210-233. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Korsgaard, Christine M. 2005. “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duty to Animals,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, ed. Grethe B. Peterson, pp. 1-38. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press. [] Accessed December 30 2015.
Regan, Tom. 2009. “The Case for Animal Rights, ” in Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. James E. White, pp. 336-344. New York: Thomson Wadsworth.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1986. I am a Verb: More Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs. New York: Plenum Press.
Wood, Allen W. 1999. Kant’s Ethical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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