Kant and animal testing

The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 sets out what makes animal experimentation legal. It begins by outlining those animals that fall under its jurisdiction. Namely it is a non-human vertebrate that has a level of independence, which it stipulates as the ability to feed itself, it also holds that the animal in question is alive as long as its brain is functioning. The legislation also lists what the permissible purposes of animal experimentations can be. The list generally encompasses a utilitarian style view that the animal experimentation is acceptable when it is necessary for a valid purpose, mainly the development of society in terms of medical research or education. With this established, the remainder of this essay will examine the notion of animal experimentation in terms of Kant’s ethics. As such, the essay will look at he aspects of Kantian ethics that refer to who or what is worthy of moral consideration. I will then apply this to the question of what consideration this means we have towards non-human animals. In doing so I will raise objections to Kant, which will lead on to assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his account of ‘indirect duties’ towards animals. At the end of this discussion, I will have shown that Kant’s consideration towards non-human animals is compatible with animal experimentation.

Primarily it is important to establish what circumstances are required before we are obligated to show moral consideration. Kant presents us with the idea that the basis for moral consideration is based upon personhood. Kant has clear requirements for what is needed to be considered a person and therefore in need of moral consideration. These requirements are that an agent is a rational, self-conscious and autonomous being. This means that in order to be shown moral consideration, whatever it is, must embody these qualities and for Kant personhood is defined as being an autonomous and rational agent (Cottingham, 1996, pp441-43). Kant explains his position in the Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals, he holds that what is to be human is to be rational; this capacity enables us to work out the moral rules that we ought to follow, or the Categorical Imperative. We ought to follow them as to not do so violates our rationality, and therefore our own humanity. This position gives us the account of treating persons as ends in themselves thus, in the Groundwork, Kant writes:

“Every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will…Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves.” (Kant, 1785, p428).

With this in mind, we can now consider his thoughts on animals. In Duties to Animals and Spirits Kant holds that “animals are not self-conscious” (Kant, 1786s, cited in Infield, 1963 p239), and this means there are no direct duties towards non-human animals as we can only have direct duties towards other persons. Contemporary Kantian scholar, Korsgaard, argues that by having self-determination as the required criteria for moral consideration, it is clear that animals do not fall under this umbrella (Korsgaard, 2004, p5). Therefore animals are not due any direct moral consideration because they are not rational agents. The immediate consequence of this is that it prima facie seems we can treat animals without any moral consideration – as such animal experimentation is consistent with our moral obligations.

Although, Kant does hold that there are limitations to the treatment of animals, in the sense that we have ‘indirect duties’ towards them. Kant develops this line of thought in Duties to Animals and Sprits; claiming that: “any action whereby we may torment animals, or let them suffer distress, or otherwise treat them without live, is demeaning to ourselves” (Kant, 1786, cited in Infield, 1963 p240). Cottingham (1996, pp441-43) explains, that Kant held animals are ‘analogous’ to humans in the sense that from how we treat them we learn about our own humanity. Kant holds that we should treat animals well, for example not cause harm to them, not because causing harm to an animal is wrong itself, but because causing that harm may harm another our overall humanity. Kant gives the illustration of a faithful dog. This dog has served her master well and for a long time. Kant says that this service is deserving of analogous reward to what you would give a human. In Kant’s example, the reward would be to keep the dog alive, even when it became too old to serve. Kant holds that this duty supports our direct duties towards other rational agents. This is because if the owner shoots the dog, it is not that she has failed in his duty to look after the dog, as the dog is not an end in itself, rather the owner has flailed in her direct duty to humanity. This is the first manifestation of ‘indirect duties’. Kant then goes on to say that there is a second aspect, namely that if we see a man is cruel in his treatment of animals, then he becomes “hard also in his dealings with men” (Kant, 1786, cited in Infield, 1963 p240). Kant ultimately says that “animals must be regarded as man’s instruments, but any such cruelty for sport cannot be just” (ibid). This leads him to conclude, “Our duties towards animals, then, are indirect duties towards mankind”. (ibid)

It is possible to see that Kant’s account of indirect duties is reflected in the legal justifications for animal experimentation, as it clearly allows use of animals as a means for the betterment of human interests, however there is the caveat that it must be ensured that the treatment is not needless, this is reflected by Potter’s claim that “there is not much substantive normative disagreement between Kant and moderate opponents of cruel treatment of animals” (Potter, 2005 p300).

However, there are apprehensions with the idea of ‘indirect duties’ in that it does not protect animals enough. Also, that when discussing the moral considerations we owe to non-human animals in a Kantian framework, there are complicated issues that are revealed with those ‘marginal’ cases of humanity, which will be discussed below. One central issue is that because Kant is not giving animals any intrinsic rights, there is the worry that relying upon our ‘indirect duties’ is not enough to protect animals from excessive, or unnecessary animal experimentation. We can therefore question if the established ‘indirect duties’ provides a full account of our considerations for non-human animals. As such, I will assess the objections to indirect duties Firstly I will address Christina Hoff’s claim that ‘Indirect Duties’ results in counter intuitive implications, and should therefore be rejected.

Hoff argues that “Unfortunately, the theory which gives to human beings a pre-eminent moral status altogether excludes animals from the moral domain” (Hoff, 1983 p63) she argues that our indirect duties generate “awkward consequence[s]” (ibid) when we do not pay attention to the well being of an animal in itself. She provides the example of a man who is kind to his family and friends, however has a secret ‘vice’ of burning stray dogs alive. She concedes that his behaviour can be condemned for the violence that it does to humanity, however considers that it is a failing with Kant’s theory that the condemnation is not due to the pain and suffering felt by the dogs themselves. She goes further, and says that a true Kantian would have to maintain that the suffering of all the animals in the world combined is nothing in comparison to the killing of one person. When we apply this style of criticism to animal experimentation, we can see that animals could be subjected to ceaseless suffering for the sake of a medical breakthrough of an illness that only one person on earth had. Hoff holds that this theory is implausible because it is “incompatible with common moral intuition” (ibid). Hoff holds this view because she is of the opinion that suffering itself is an evil, and it is an evil regardless of who or what feels it. She concludes that when one so dogmatically holds on to moral dignity of rational agents we fail to attend to the actual suffering of non-moral agents. Therefore we should reject Kant’s conception of indirect duties as a satisfactory account of moral consideration towards animals.

Hoff also draws upon a common objection to Kant, in that his ethics have “the unwelcome consequence that mentally impaired human begins, lacking rationality and moral autonomy, are underserving of moral recognition” (ibid). She provides the example of a child who has significant mental difficulties, in Hoff’s article it is assumed that the child is on par with the capabilities of some non-human animals. Hoff holds that there is more than the indirect duty to feed this particular child; she holds that it is a duty that is not distinct from our direct duty to feed a ‘normal’ child (ibid). Hoff holds that in order to get around this style of objection, a Kantian has to bite the bullet and hold that people such as this are not part of the moral community or find a way to incorporate non-rational humanity, and doing this would surely include moral consideration of non-human animals.

It is at this point which we can draw upon the “Argument from Marginal Cases”, which is at the core of what I consider Hoff to be saying. If it is to be the case that ‘marginal’ humans – which here means, humans with significant difficulties which render them lacking in the capacities usually needed to be considered a person by Kantians – are to be morally considered, then moral consideration cannot be consistently denied to animals with similar capacities (Tanner, 2009).

The argument is saying that if people such as those identified by Hoff have direct moral status then animals will correspondingly have this status too. The thrust of this argument comes from the basis that there is not a unifying quality that all humans have that non-human animals do not have (Dombrowski, 1997). In relation to this essay, the moral status that animals do not have is the one that stops them being used for animal experimentation. Peter Singer develops this; he holds that a characteristic that all human beings hold is one that is not limited only to humans. He provides the example of pain, all living things can feel pain so we should act in a way to minimise this (Singer, 2002).

I will firstly consider a Kantian reply to this argument. A Kantian does not need to say that in granting duties to humans lacking personhood, they have to grant direct duties to non-human animals. A Kantian can maintain that there is in fact a direct duty to a mentally impaired person because they have moral standing that results from “their membership in a species in whom rational capacity is the norm” (Reath, 2010, p10). Reath is claiming that this relationship is the reason for why we have a direct duty to these types of people, and we can suggest that non-human animals are simply lacking this quality. This style of arguing will also defend against Singer’s claim that there are no characteristics that all humans share that is not also shared by non-human animals. The characteristic in question is that the ‘marginal’ human belongs to a species that in general does have rational capacitates.

A second way to reply to the “Argument from Marginal Cases” is by drawing on what Tanner refers to as the Slippery Slope Objection. The crux of the argument is that when we see a “marginal” human suffer, we must consider it on the same level of a “normal” human (Tanner, 2009). If we do not do this then it could lead to “abuse by unscrupulous people” (Carruthers, 1992). Therefore Carruthers’ holds that this slippery slope objection resolves this issue as it reaffirms that there must be a line that is drawn starkly between “human beings and all other animals” (ibid). Carruthers then links back to Kant’s distinction of direct and indirect duties; this view is reinforced by Reath’s ideas of direct duties to “marginal people”.

Further, I do not consider that the “Argument from Marginal Cases” fully addresses what it means to be a person; it rests on the assertion that as we treat “marginal” people the same as non-marginal people we should afford non-human animals the same. However, it does not address why consider “marginal” people with the same moral status, this is why I think it is open to the Slippery Slope Argument. If it is the aim of the proponents of the “Argument from Marginal Cases” to show that both humans and non-humans are on par, it seems that the argument can be used to show the reverse, in that “marginal” humans are the same as non-human animals we can therefore also conduct experiments on them. Therefore, I am satisfied that the Slippery Slope Objection does help to defend Kantian ethics concerning the consideration that we owe to animals.

 I will now turn to a different objection to Kant’s idea of “indirect duties”, namely that it should be rejected because it is inconsistent with Kant’s own theory. Broadie and Pybus are associated with this objection, they phrase their argument as follows: “[…] if human beings maltreat animals they will acquire a tendency to use rationality (in themselves or in other people) as a means.”

The inconsistency they are referring to, is that Kant stipulates that things – i.e. animals, are what are to be used as means, however in using these things (animals) as a means we are therefore using humanity as a means. They hold that this leads Kant to have to say using things as mere means would also result in use using ends (humans) as means ”. (Broadie and Pybus, 1974 pp380-382). Hence we are treating things as a means, which is what we are able to do within Kant’s philosophy, but in doing so we are ourselves not acting as a fully rational agent.

Tom Regan replies to this objection, and claims that Broadie and Pypus have misinterpreted Kant. He maintains that Kant never suggests that you are not permitted to use an animal as a means to end because it is this which diminishes our humanity, rather what is ruled out by our indirect duties are acts of wanton cruelty. Regan affirms that the causal link is not between treating animals as a means that will result in mankind treating each other badly, rather it is act of actual mistreatment that will (Regan, 1976). However, we have not been given a definition of what Regan means by maltreatment, further in Letters on Ethics Kant makes direct reference to vivisectionists praising their work, it seems for Kant that maltreatment is when the cruel act is not necessary. However, this definition is not helpful in terms of animal experimentation, as often to test drugs for illnesses will require inflicting that illness on an animal. This seems cruel, but is in the parameters of the animal experiment necessary, and therefore consistent with indirect duties.

I am now going to draw upon Dan Egonsson in order to defend Kantian ethics from the idea that it does not give us any reason to give animals any meaningful moral consideration. Egonsson argues that Kant’s account of indirect duties do in fact give us a satisfactory level of consideration towards animals. He wants to show that indirect duties do more than stop wanton cruelty. In his paper “Kant’s Vegetarianism” he utilises the Categorical Imperative and also the idea of “indirect duties” to show that Kantians potentially are obliged to see vegetarianism as a duty. If he is correct in his account, then I consider there are wider implications for animal experimentation. Egonsson cites Tom Regan’s consideration of intensive factory farming, noting that there is high level of cruelty and suffering in this process. (Egonsson, 1997)

Firstly he utilises Kant’s Universal Law theory. He argues that living in a world where one does not eat meat that is the product of intensive factory farming would not result in inconsistencies, further he explains how because Kant’s conception of indirect duties shows that cruelty done to animals will damage our humanity, this is what happens therefore with meat eaters. Egonsson holds that if you were to eat a chicken that was factory farmed you are tacitly accepting harm and therefore your humanity is damaged. It seems that one can then extend this idea of accepting harm tacitly, to the treatment that non-human animals are subjected to during animal experimentation. If this is the case, then indirect duties can go beyond the scope of prohibiting wanton cruelty and not be as moderate as Potter proposes.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show that the commonly held view that Kantian ethics is inconsistent with animal rights or even animal welfare is disingenuous. I have sought to explain and then defend Kant’s conception of indirect duties from objections, finally, I have drawn upon Dan Egonsson’s argument, that can perhaps propel Kantian ethics into a clear and robust account of our consideration towards animals that does not rest upon ascribing animals rights. If Egonsson is successful then it seems that a true Kantian cannot hold that animal experimentation is acceptable. However, I consider that a Kantian consideration of animals is consistent with animal experimentation as long as the experimentation enables humanity to progress.


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