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Thomas Nagel: What We Owe a Rabbit

The lives of humans and of other animals are very different. But does that mean that human lives are more important or more valuable than the lives of animals? Korsgaard asks, in keeping with her skepticism about untethered absolute value, 'More important or valuable to whom?' Your life is more valuable to you than it is to a rabbit, but the rabbit’s life is more valuable to the rabbit than it is to you.

THOMAS NAGEL: ‘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.

Christine Korsgaard, a distinguished philosopher who has taught at Harvard for most of her career, 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… Whether we should kill animals for food is one of the deepest disagreements of our time; but we should not be surprised if the issue is rendered moot within the next few decades, when cultured meat (also called clean meat, synthetic meat, or in vitro meat) becomes less expensive to produce than meat from slaughtered animals, and equally palatable…

In her book ‘Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals’, 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…

Korsgaard believes that “life itself is a good for almost any animal who is in reasonably good shape”… So the lives of humans and of other animals are very different. But does that mean that human lives are more important or more valuable than the lives of animals? Korsgaard asks, in keeping with her skepticism about untethered absolute value, “More important or valuable to whom?” Your life is more valuable to you than it is to a rabbit, but the rabbit’s life is more valuable to the rabbit than it is to you. And if you protest that the rabbit’s life is not as important to the rabbit as your life is to you, Korsgaard’s response is that even though you have a conception of your life as a whole that the rabbit lacks, this does not show that your life is more valuable…

Korsgaard also notes the curious fact that many people are much more concerned with the preservation of species from extinction than they are with the welfare of individual animals, and she thinks this makes no moral sense. Species don’t have a point of view, and their survival doesn’t have value for them… Her claim is that species have no value in themselves. They may have value for individuals, but only individuals have value in themselves. (This leaves aside aesthetic value, which I suspect plays a part in many people’s attachment to species as such.) Korsgaard’s position is undeniably powerful, and if it prevailed it would be one of the largest moral transformations in the history of humanity’. SOURCE…

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