June Book of the Month: ‘Fellow Creatures – Our Obligations to the Other Animals’ by Christine M. Korsgaard

Each month we will be featuring a ‘Book of the month.’ We will be selecting from books about animals that our readership finds interesting and informative. If you come across an interesting animal related book (science, law, ethics, policy or simply general interest) please send us your nomination along with the reasons for your choice.

This month’s book is Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, by Christine M. Korsgaard, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.

In Fellow Creatures, Korsgaard examines the relationships between humans and other animals, but from a purely philosophical perspective. By considering all aspects of the Kantian argument that animals are ‘ends-in-themselves’ to humans, Korsgaard provides a guide on how to approach the weighty subject matter of animal advocacy fully and rationally, and without appeals to emotion.

In doing so, Korsgaard has written a veritable treatise in philosophy in this area, and like equally well-researched and well-founded philosophical works, it can get a bit tedious as she covers all the bases and ticks all the boxes. To make a statement in philosophy, academics have to ensure that they’ve established the relevant history of thought on that statement, no matter how minor; consequently, a lot of foundational material must be reviewed and retold before they feel ready to make more substantial statements. While lawyers will find this approach somewhat familiar, this textbook-like framework may not be accessible to all readers, but it’s worth pushing through to hear Korsgaard’s own insightful arguments.

One of her first conclusions is the well-founded thought that, for an animal that functions by taking her own well-functioning as an end, life can be considered a good for her. When an animal’s life is considered a good – and more so when an animal herself considers her own life a good – that raises philosophical and moral questions on what it means to take that good away. Since it can reasonably be argued that “life itself is a good for any animal who is in reasonably good shape”, who acts and does actions to retain good health and well-being and to live a good life, Korsgaard leaves little room for those who would deny the worth of animals’ lives. These cogent and rational arguments in this section can serve those of us who advocate for animals.

In order to get the most out of this book, it’s important to understand what is meant by basic terms. When talking about animal’s lives being a good, it’s not in the sense that life is made of good and bad things; it’s that life itself is ‘a good’, existence is a good. This difference between things that are good as in not bad versus things that are good in the so-called ‘final sense’ gets confusing, not to mention the entire province of ‘good-for’ and ‘bad-for’ as another discrete way of thinking. But if you stick with Korsgaard’s weaving through her thoughts and the thoughts she has to reference in order to move forward, and if you can keep all the different definitions of ‘good’ straight, it pays off. Let’s go through one such argument. The final sense of good means a good that constitutes or contributes to the well-functioning of an entity, who experiences her own functional condition in a valenced way and pursues functional goods through her own actions. An animal, she states, looks at things worth pursuing or doing as good or bad for their own sake. And because creatures exist that can look at life this way, creatures that things can be good or bad for, then final goods have to exist. “Having a final good,” Korsgaard states, “is the ground of moral standing.” With these solid philosophical foundations that Korsgaard establishes, we are given bold statements like this with the confidence of support.

As often happens in academic works, one of the most interesting thoughts was hidden in a footnote. Korsgaard noted that most people associate empathy with our emotional nature, but she feels that’s a mistake – it should come from our rational side. While it does involve both, empathy can only be achieved in higher degrees by rational creatures, showing that it’s a rational skill and not purely emotional. I also appreciated when she stated that, despite the ‘sort of right’ humans have to try to secure the long-term future of our species, the Kantian view that she advocates says it’s the kind of right we can forfeit by ‘failing to deserve’ it, and we fail to deserve it if we continue abusing the animals we share the world with.

If you can stick with the plodding through the history of philosophy, Korsgaard eventually makes her way through several interesting subjects, such as the welfare vs. abolitionist views on pet-keeping, a subject difficult to keep emotional arguments from seeping into, yet Korsgaard keeps the focus on rational thought. Still, it is useful throughout to have at least a familiarity with Kantian philosophy, and while the average layperson and the average animal advocate will find much to celebrate, this book will be best appreciated by those in academia.

– Review written by Randi Milgram, A-law’s Blog Editor. You can purchase Fellow Creatures here

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