Christine Korsgaard argues in this book that we humans have obligations to other animals because life can go well or badly for them: they are the subjects of their lives, and they therefore have an interest in how those lives go. Those facts about them give them a moral claim on us. Korsgaard, as the Kantian she is, makes this claim by saying that we ought to treat animals—all of them, severally and collectively—as ends in themselves and never merely as means to our ends. The burden of Fellow Creatures is to explain the underpinnings of this thesis, and to show some of its practical implications.
Philosophers have devoted considerable attention to these questions during the past forty years or so. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which makes a case similar to Korsgaard’s though from a utilitarian rather than a Kantian point of view, was published in 1975 and has been the subject of passionate debate ever since—it’s the kind of book that causes people to change their lives. There have also been distinguished contributions by Wittgensteinians such as Stanley Cavell. Tom Regan’s Case for Animal Rights dates from 1983, and went into a second edition in 2004. Lori Gruen, Clare Palmer, Jeff McMahon, and many others have made substantial and serious contributions to the developing anglophone discussion. Korsgaard herself, perhaps the most distinguished Kantian of her generation, began to write on the topic about fifteen years ago, and this book organizes and develops positions sketched in various essays published during that time.
Novelists, too, notably J. M. Coetzee, especially in Disgrace (1999) and Elizabeth Costello (2003), have shown, grimly and unforgettably, what the relations between human and non-human animals look like when they’re ordered around industrial-scale slaughter, and what our apparent insouciance about that arrangement suggests about us. Margaret Atwood, in her dystopian MaddAddam trilogy (2003–2013), dramatizes our genetic manipulation of non-human animals and how this contributes to the descent of our world into chaos. Anthropologists, ethnologists, and primatologists, notably Frans de Waal, have explored similarities between us and other primates, with an eye to reordering our sense of ourselves. There’s a massive literature from almost every angle on the question of human exceptionalism—what, if anything, is unique to our species, and does it, whatever it may be, justify the way we relate to members of other species? There are activists, lobbyists, and political pressure groups attempting to transform law, policy, and public opinion on matters having to do with the relations between human and non-human animals. And, perhaps most pressing at the moment, it’s increasingly evident that our current methods of producing and consuming animal protein are, in addition to the slaughter they involve, contributing to the rapidity of climate change and to the concomitant extinction of species. These are matters that exercise many people, and questions about how we humans should treat non-human animals are by now unavoidably implicated with them.
And it’s not only people who write books and make laws and engage in political activism. Everyone, in one way or another, has to do with non-human animals, whether by eating them, hunting them, farming them, living with them as pets, killing them when they appear where they’re not wanted (a mosquito on your skin, a cockroach in your kitchen). Among the middle classes, reliably lively dinner-table conversations can be had about meat-eating, factory farming, pet-keeping, and so on. And among the things Christians seem to care most deeply about, at least in Europe and the United States, is the eternal destiny of their pets. That’s a feature of our time and place and mode of social organization.
Korsgaard’s topic, then, has purchase and relevance. And her book is a very good one. It can be instructive to professionals in the field, and to anyone prepared to give it time and patience even without being knowledgeable about the interpretation of Kant and Aristotle. She writes, mostly, in such a way as to make each chapter capable of being read as an independent essay, and when this isn’t the case she clearly indicates where to turn in the book for further elucidation. And she writes, above all, with clarity and care. As every philosopher knows, to get your readers to see what your distinctions come to and what work they do is just about the whole game. Korsgaard is very good at that. She also shows enough of herself to readers to make them, or at least this one, like her: she dedicates her book to the five cats (named) with whom she’s lived during the past thirty-five years; and she includes, surprisingly for the kind of philosopher she is, occasional confessions of moral failure and moral compromise on her part.