What We Owe a Rabbit

Walton Ford/Kasmin Gallery
Walton Ford: Loss of the Lisbon Rhinoceros, 2008. For more on Ford’s work, see Lucy Jakub’s ‘Walton Ford: Twenty-First-Century Naturalist’ on the NYR Daily (nybooks.com/ford-daily).

Christine Korsgaard is a distinguished philosopher who has taught at Harvard for most of her career. Though not known to the general public, she is eminent within the field for her penetrating and analytically dense writings on ethical theory and her critical interpretations of the works of Immanuel Kant. Now, for the first time, she has written a book about a question that anyone can understand. Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals is a blend of moral passion and rigorous theoretical argument. Though it is often difficult—not because of any lack of clarity in the writing but because of the intrinsic complexity of the issues—this book provides the opportunity for a wider audience to see how philosophical reflection can enrich the response to a problem that everyone should be concerned about.

Since the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975, there has been a notable increase in vegetarianism or veganism as a personal choice by individuals, and in the protection of animals from cruel treatment in factory farms and scientific research, both through law and through public pressure on businesses and institutions. Yet most people are not vegetarians: approximately 9.5 billion animals die annually in food production in the United States, and the carnivores who think about it tend to console themselves with the belief that the cruelties of factory farming are being ameliorated, and that if this is done, there is nothing wrong with killing animals painlessly for food. Korsgaard firmly rejects this outlook, not just because it ignores the scale of suffering still imposed on farmed animals, but because it depends on a false contrast between the values of human and animal lives, according to which killing a human is wrong in a way that killing an animal is not.

Korsgaard deploys a complex account of morality to deal with this and many other questions. What makes the book especially interesting is the contrast between her approach and Singer’s. She writes, and Singer would certainly agree, that “the way human beings now treat the other animals is a moral atrocity of enormous proportions.” But beneath this agreement lie profound differences. Singer is a utilitarian and Korsgaard is a Kantian, and the deep division in contemporary ethical theory between these two conceptions of morality marks their different accounts of why we should radically change our treatment of animals. (Equally interesting is Korsgaard’s sharp divergence from Kant’s own implausible views on the subject. As we shall see, she argues persuasively that Kant’s general theory of the foundations of morality supports conclusions for this case completely different from what he supposed.)

Utilitarianism is the view that what makes actions right or wrong is their tendency to promote…

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