Last month the New York Times Magazine ran a gut-wrenching article exploring the relationship between animal cruelty and human-on-human violence. A taste:
The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors. In Illinois and several other states, new laws mandate that veterinarians notify the police if their suspicions are aroused by the condition of the animals they treat. The state of California recently added Humane Society and animal-control officers to the list of professionals bound by law to report suspected child abuse and is now considering a bill in the State Legislature that would list animal abusers on the same type of online registry as sex offenders and arsonists.
This story made the rounds on philosophy blogs because its thesis echoes an embarrassing aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy. Brian Leiter quotes Lori Watson’s gloss to remind us of Kant’s view:
Kant says that we shouldn’t harm (torture) animals because it increases the chances that we will harm humans (rational agents). Since non-rational agents have no moral value in themselves, he can’t explain why it is wrong to harm them in themselves and so the best he can do is to point to a potential harm to those with moral value.
Leiter headlines this item “A Triumph for the Kantian View of Animal Cruelty?” Ben Hale links to the same story with the headline “Kant Was Right.” I’ll ignore the tongues in these philosophers’ cheeks and take a moment to belabor the obvious: no, Kant wasn’t right.
Kant’s view of the wrongness of animal cruelty includes two claims: 1) mistreating animals increases the likelihood of mistreating people. And 2) this is why its wrong to mistreat animals. The first claim, though it remains controversial, is perfectly plausible and always has been. It’s the second claim that is embarrassing to some defenders of Kant. He’s just totally wrong about what makes torturing animals wrong. The problem with causing needless suffering to animals is that it causes needless suffering… to animals. The problem with cruelty to animals is that it’s cruel… to animals. But the NYT Magazine article bolsters claim 1– which has always been plausible– and not claim 2– which has always been laughable.
Imagine a racist abolitionist in the 1850s giving an analogous reason for outlawing slavery: the wrong-making feature of black slavery (says the racist abolitionist) is that it reduces the wages of white laborers. This is an odious view– it fails to capture what’s wrong with slavery. And it continues to fail no matter how many magazine articles present evidence confirming the racist abolitionist’s economic views. No matter how much racial slavery depresses white wages, that’s not what makes slavery wrong.
By Anne Margaret Baxley, Washington University in St. Louis (April 2007)