Josh Dunigan |||

Korsgaard’s Core Argument in Fellow Creatures

This is an essay from one of my philosophy classes. I read Fellow Creatures almost three times now. It is a rich and a great book. This essay tries to interpret her core argument and give a possible critique to it.


In a short statement, Kant stated that animals were not rational beings and therefore were only things which do not have value as ends in themselves. Korsgaard makes an argument throughout the first two sections of Fellow Creatures that says that animals should have worth as ends in themselves. She does this by showing that we make ends of our action our animal desires, which in doing this would make the animals members of the Kingdom of Ends as sort of passive citizens, unlike the active citizens who are lawmaking rational beings. In this paper I will outline Korsgaard’s argument for showing that animals are ends in themselves. I will also explain why I think that we do not have to value our animal desires as absolutely good and therefore animals do not have to be desired as absolutely good either.

To care about animals

Korsgaard uses in her argument the concept of tethered good. Something cannot be good or bad unless it is good-for some being or bad-for some being. There is no notion of external objective good or some sort of free floating good. This means that we cannot aggregate good and bad things for different beings like a utilitarian. In that, when two people get 10 dollars each is not the same as one of them getting 20 dollars. One example she uses to illustrate this point is in talking about gentrification. People usually say something along the lines of the neighborhood is so much better for its citizens than it used to be” and Korsgaard would ask better for whom? The original residents were pushed out of the neighborhood, possibly living farther on the outskirts away from the central city and their jobs or even homeless. The new residents may have nicer and more expensive apartments, more neighborhood amenities, and modern shops. Korsgaard would say that gentrification is bad-for the original residents and good-for the new residents and that it does not make sense to say that gentrification of the neighborhood was just good without asking for who. So when deciding on changes for a neighborhood, one should weigh how it will possibly be good for certain citizens and bad for other citizens.

Two ways that we say that things are good or bad is in the functional and then final sense. The functional sense of good can support good-for as well. A knife is good when it has properties that make it such that it can perform its function properly, namely sharpness and having a handle to be able to cut things with it (it would be hard to cut without a handle). A difference between an animal and a knife is that an animal will actively seek out the things that are good-for it. A knife will not sharpen itself, but an animal will avoid things that are bad for it and do things that are good for it. Another difference is that the animal represents its environment to itself in some form and then acts based on that representation guided by the things that are good-for or bad-for the animal. This is what Korsgaard calls having a valenced character. The animal represents her environment to herself so that it can pursue the things that are good-for and avoid the things that are bad-for itself. This valenced character allows an animal to take the functional goods as ends of their own actions. She states Because what I am saying is that an animal functions, in part, by making her own well-functioning, the things that are good for her in the functional sense, an end of action, a thing to go for, a final good. … — a good, in the sense that might matter morally” (Korsgaard 2.1.7). Korsgaard says that knives and cars do not have final goods and that animals definitely do. In one of her footnotes, she mentions plants and how they may or may not have a valenced character, however Korsgaard decided not to take up the plants question in seriousness in this book.

One of the next phases of the argument is to show that if humans value our natural ends, we should value the natural ends of animals as well. As a rational being, we take our ends to be of value, otherwise we would not do that end. This does not mean that specific end is good and that all rational beings should take it as good in that we could value it, but it might violate the categorical imperative. When a rational being takes some end to be of value to them, we have a reason not to inhibit the realization of this end, to respect that end as good-for them, and even as a reason to help the end be realized. For Kant, when a rational being chooses something, we presuppose as well that this object of choice is something that is absolutely good. The limit is that the ends of a rational being must be compatible with the categorical imperative, they must be able to be willed as a universal law.

This lawmaking capability of rational beings is what makes us as humans part of the Kingdom of Ends, members who are ends in themselves. Korsgaard thinks that lawmaking members are not the only members who are ends in themselves. She says that there are two concepts that Kant uses, an active and passive sense of ends in themselves. An active member is one who is capable of legislating for me, and so as capable of placing me under an obligation both to respect your choices, and to limit my own choices to things compatible with your value as an end in itself.” (Korsgaard 8.5.1). The passive sense is when I am obligated to treat your ends, or at least the things that are good-for you, as good absolutely” (Korsgaard 8.5.1). The way a rational being engages in practical activity is that we must presuppose ourselves as ends in ourselves, while animals as passive members do not presuppose themselves to engage in practical activity. Here I understand practical activity as carrying out actions that align with a beings final good.

Another question that this brings up is the reason of our presupposition that we are ends in ourselves, do we presuppose this because we are autonomous legislators or because things can be good or bad for us, that we have a final good? Korsgaard says that we do both. When we make a decision about something, we pursue it because it is good-for ourselves as if it were good absolutely” (Korsgaard 8.5.3). Also, we embody that decision in a law that I make for everyone, including myself” (Korsgaard 8.5.3). The first aspect of when we make a decision relates to how we stand to ourselves, I am taking things that are good-for me to be good absolutely. The second aspect of when we make a decision is in the way we stand to other rational beings as an autonomous legislator in the Kingdom of Ends” (Korsgaard 8.5.3).

Not only are human beings rational, we are animals. As mentioned before, animals have a final good due to their valenced character. Humans are no different in that we take our animal ends, our natural needs, to be ends of our choice and absolutely good. Then Korsgaard says that what this principle is when generalized is that we must take the ends of any being that has a final good to be absolutely valuable. In other words, things can go good or bad for us and animals, so we are to respect the ends of animals as well since they engage in the same practical activity. When I say engage in the same practical activity, it is that they engage in taking their functional good as ends of their action via a mechanical, stimulus-response way” (Korsgaard 8.6.1), whereas humans also do this, but via a rational decision making way.

Humans therefore have a different relationship with animals as passive citizens, but what does this entail? Korsgaard says that just because animals kill other animals does not mean that we have to kill animals. Our desire to eat meat is not an ineradicable conflict, we can choose not to engage in it. However, nature is full of ineradicable conflicts and looking how to treat animals seems to present difficulties in figuring out what we should do for animals. This does not hurt Korsgaards argument, however, since humans as rational beings have the ability to make the moral choice in our relationship to animals.

My critique

What I want to critique is what is Korsgaard’s interpretation of human’s rational decision making which is the first aspect of our decision making. This is where we take what is good-for us, similar to animals, as absolutely good. Before examining the argument, I am going to reiterate Korsgaard’s example of making a decision to grow vegetables in your garden, which would require some regular upkeep including getting rid of the weeds as they pop up. This decision is legislating a categorical imperative for yourself. Your future self obligates you to buy some gardening tools and pads to protect your knees. Your future self is obligated to you in that they must keep gardening. If you set value to gardening, you cannot just give it up without good reason, she says. What you feel, maybe you are tired or just don’t want to garden, is not a sufficient reason to not garden. You may say something has more value to you, she uses the example of caring for an ailing friend, to override the other decision to garden.

Korsgaard says that by acting on the reasons above would mean that you are respecting your own autonomy by obeying the law you legislated on yourself. If others respect your choice, then they are respecting your autonomous choice as well. Seemingly as well, gardening your own garden will be consistent with the ends of other rational beings. The other aspect of this is that our original inclination, the desire that gardening would be good-for you, is only good absolutely because we are beings that have a final good.

When talking about choosing ends from our animal inclinations, Korsgaard says that I have no other reason for taking my end to be good absolutely, than the fact that it is good for me. Why must we view our animal inclinations as absolutely good? Say I assigned the animal inclinations of my own human self of only instrumental value or of a certain aesthetic value. If we as rational beings did not eat, we would die, and choosing not to eat would be considered a sort of suicide which would violate the categorical imperative. The buddha did something similar in that he was not interested in worldly desires, but that does not mean that you can not eat at all. Similarly, if we had a duty to reproduce and create more rational beings, sex could be seen as instrumental like certain religions. It can be viewed as well that, unlike animals, our rational nature may allow us to engage in some of these acts like eating and sex in an aesthetic way. Where an animal hears noise, a human might see a work of art. Where an animal sees food as consumption, we see a beautiful Michelin starred meal full of culture, history, and beauty. Where an animal sees a mate for reproduction, we see a person we are in love with. Even pain can be construed as instrumental worth (pain as information), not taken as worthy at all (some sort of Buddhism), pain as good (masochism), or of some religious value (pain as sacrifice).

I do not see why it is necessary, that is, why there is no other reason than taking our natural inclinations to be absolutely good. If we only give instrumental, aesthetic,or cultural value to our animal inclinations, then we would have no reason to include animals as passive members of the Kingdom of Ends. This could mean that we treat animals based on instrumental reasons to ourselves, cultural reasons (the bald eagle), or aesthetic reasons (preserve a tiger over a snail). We can still respect other people’s autonomy and their choices about things that conflict with ours. If someone is a vegetarian because they take their animal ends to be absolutely good we can still respect their choice, but they could not say that we are treating animals immorally as long as we are consistent with how we view our own animal inclinations. What I am arguing for is that it does not seem necessary to act on our animal inclinations only if they are absolutely good and therefore we do not have to value animals as ends in themselves.


Korsgaard makes an argument that shows we have some moral relation to animals from a deontological position, trying to show that animals are not merely things. As humans, we are rational beings and animals. Korsgaard says that the way we think of our animal ends such as food, sex, comfort, etc., as absolutely good means that we must care about animals ends in similar ways as well. These animal inclinations arise from the fact that humans and nonhuman animals both have final goods where things can be good-for or bad-for them. I disagree with the assumption that we have no other reasons for taking our animal inclinations to be of value outside of valuing them as absolutely good. If it was necessary for humans to value our ends in this way other than maybe instrumental, aesthetic, etc., then I think we would be obligated to have some sort of moral consideration for animals. What exactly those moral considerations look like are complex and difficult to figure out as Korsgaard shows in the third section of Fellow Creatures.

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