Some Thoughts on Reason and Kantian Ethics

Posted on Posted in Animal Rights, Ethics, Kant, Kantian Ethics

Reason plays a large role in all of Kant’s philosophy from the The Critique of Pure Reason to The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and everything else in between and after.  And I think rightly so as Kant was in many respects to quintessential Enlightenment philosopher and the very embodiment of the Enlightenment. He not only want to critique everything by the standard of reason but also to critique reason by the standard of reason. It might sound strange to critique reason itself by the standard of reason but what other standard is there?

But there are places where Kant doesn’t quite get it right, which is more than understandable given the incredible scope of his projects.

Probably the biggest place is in his ethics where he argues that only rational beings ought to be treated as ends in themselves.

Certainly others have noted this. Tom Regan certainly does in his modified Kantian ethics that includes animals as beings that have value in themselves and ought not to be used as merely a means to an end.

Here’s a simple argument that I think highlights the problem with Kant’s basic reason:

1. If Kant’s Rationality Thesis (KRT) is true then we would not have to respect the non-rational ends of rational beings.

2. We do have to respect the non-rational ends of rational beings.

3. So, KRT is false.

KRT is the view described above that only rational beings are to be treated as ends in themselves.

Focusing a bit more of the Groundwork itself and Kant’s argument there I think the clearest argument Kant presents is in argument for the Formula of Humanity. There his argument is that

1. From a subjective point of view I consider myself as an end in itself.

2. Every other person considers themselves as an end in itself

3. From an objective point of view all persons are ends in itself

4. So, as a rational agent I ought to treat all persons as ends in themselves.

I think the argument is a great argument,  I just think it is a non-sequitor to assume that only rational beings are ends in themselves. Animals may not consider themselves ends in themselves but they act as if they are and from the perspective of reason I don’t think it makes sense to deny them status as such. That is all intuitively plausible, but it is nice to have an argument. There are probably a number of ways to spell out the problem but I think the one suggested above works pretty nicely.

Another way to go would be something like this:

1. I act as if I am an end in itself.

2. All other biological organisms act as if they are ends in themselves.

3. From the perspective of reason all biological organisms are ends in themselves.

4. So, as a rational agent I ought to treat all biological organisms as ends in themselves.

This argument of course has a much larger scope, which I think is good thing but it also needs a good bit of working regarding the details of how we would go about this and dealing with conflicts between various species etc. A complete prohibition seems impossible to a satisfactory account is going to be necessary to make such a radical argument seem plausible and attractive.

This post turned into more than I had intended but that is part of the fun of writing about philosophy.


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