On Animals' Morality

Essay, 2019

16 Pages, Grade: 1









In this paper, I will reject the Kantian claim that animals’ behaviour can’t be morally assessed. On the contrary, I will show how animals’ behaviour can indeed be morally assessed, even if we can’t ascribe a sort of human-like normative morality to them, since they don’t use language and thus have no concept of morality.

Before stating my argument, I want to avoid any misunderstanding by specifying some central notions, i.e. “humans”, “animals” and “moral sensitivities”.

The reader will often be confronted with the terms “humans” and “animals”. Here I want to clarify that a mental division between us, as human animals, and animals, as non-human animals should be avoided. Such a separation usually leads to an overestimation and the assessment of humans being the only ones capable of morality on earth, mainly because of their advanced minds and intellect. Therefore, when considering the problem of moral assessment to animals, an imaginary hierarchical classification should be avoided in order to see what the essence of morality lies in, namely an innate moral sensitivity which humans share with some (or many) animals.

Moreover, the thesis which I defend appeals to the concept of “moral sensitivities”. Whenever the term is used in the paper, I mean feelings which can proceed under two categories:

“[…] (a) of pleasure, as determined by what is good for the organism; (b) of pain, determined by what is bad for the organism. Along with the sense of pleasure […] follows the desire that the object of that pleasure should continue to exist; and in turn the feeling that threatens dissolution of pleasure gives uneasiness or pain. That is, pain at the lost of a certain pleasurable feeling that has been good for one in the past, gives, at the same time, increased feeling for life, which in its very tone as pain (or pleasure) is the beginning of the moral sense.” (See Lester 1895: 523)

Moreover, moral sensitivities can be divided into arising from either altruistic or egoistic feelings. Both of these motivations “[…] rise in the desire for increased life, they rather differ in the nature of their object. The Egocentric are […] individualistic. The Altruistic find meaning in reference to an object world as such; while from the standpoint of the Egoistic feelings it is possible to show how [one] might have developed moral feeling in perfect isolation, yet, as a matter of fact, man has from the first displayed social impulses which give moral [sensitivities] their other aspect as altruistic.” (See Lester 1895: 523) Altruistic feelings in this context are derived from the feeling of sympathy, which is “[…] the capacity to reproduce by oneself feelings experienced by another. […] [Here,] two specific forms must be distinguished: a. Organic sympathy arises from pure physiological peculiarities of similar organisms […]. [And] b. Condolence or Co-suffering, as a specific form of sympathy, is the capacity of reproducing in oneself, the pain experienced by another of like constitution.” (See Lester 1895: 523 f.)

Thus, every sensitivity and every feeling which can be assigned to either (a) or (b) and additionally, to a. or b. is a moral one. Considering the present paper, the moral sensitivities empathy, love, reciprocity, compassion, caring, toleration, malice, jealousy, cheating, grief, justice and the keeping/not-keeping of covenants and obligations are of concern.

In section 2, I will present my key argument. In section 3, I will explain the Kantian approach of morality which I reject. In section 4, I will justify the premises of my argument in detail and conclude that animals’ behaviour can be morally assessed. The conclusion, section 5, represents a brief overview of my results.


The following key argument is defended in the present paper:

(P1) If a being is capable of feeling and acting on moral sensitivities, then the behaviour of that being is able to be morally assessed.
(P2) Some animals are capable of feeling and acting on moral sensitivities.

(C) Therefore, the behaviour of some animals is able to be morally assessed.

This argument shows why Kant is wrong with his conclusion that animals’ behaviour can’t be morally assessed.


When we speak about morality from a Kantian point of view, only we as humans are able to act morally, based on our capacity for language and our ability to be aware of what are morally wrong and right actions. In this context, Kant formulates moral principles of what one ought to do, i.e. his categorial imperative. It is about the prudent or justified conduct as such, that is to act on a maxim whose generalization one can only will. Based on these principles one needs to be capable of deliberating on the basis of what one takes to be moral reasons, acting on the basis of such deliberation and justifying ones’ decision with an argument appealing to moral reasons. According to Kant, these requirements for moral behaviour imply the capacity of normative self- government and intentional agency which is unique to humans. Additionally, only humans form and act on judgements of what one ought to do. This is, according to Kant, where the essence of morality lies in. (DeGrazia 1996: 200f)

In order to be able to reflect on ones’ thoughts, motivations and actions, one needs to be capable of self-consciousness which, put in the Kantian way, entails the ability to make thoughts or judgements about another entities’ state of mind and about oneself and based on that, understand the principles upon which one is inclined to act. Humans possess this ability, this special form of self-consciousness, and thus are able to critically scrutinize their motivations and the relation between their motivations and their actions. That is, they can rationally judge and resist on acts they’re intuitively drawn to after thinking about their motivations and intentions and that is what is a required quality for control over one’s motivations. For a behaviour to be assessable according to moral normativity, the agent has to have a choice between at least two options. Having options implies being in control about one’s decision of resisting or embracing the motivations behind it. (Korsgaard 2004: 148 f.) In this context, normative morality means a moral concept which can be expressed by saying (using language, respectively), to someone that it concerns, that one ought to do A.

Animals seem to lack the ability of making such deliberations. Their acts are seen to be derived merely from instincts, that is, the animal is conscious about the object it fears or desires, and conscious of it as fearful or desirable. Animals can conceive objects as to be avoided or to be sought, but they can’t take the next step and challenge the grounds of the feeling of desire or fear. Lacking this, animals can’t gain the moral value in their actions through rationality, reasoning or following a concept and thus are not capable of being an “animale rationale”, which is according to Aristotle, characterized by the capacity of thinking. Summarizing, the essence of the Kantian way to grasp morality lies in having the ability to follow a merely normative moral principle about whose values one knows. Being capable of doing so, a creature qualifies as a moral agent, thus as an object of moral concern and as an animale rationale. Since animals lack the capacity of self-consciousness, as well as the ability to make judgements, their behaviour can’t be morally assessed. (Korsgaard 2004: 140 f.)

To make the justification of my argument reasonable, I will raise doubts on the Kantian approach regarding the denial of the capacity of self-consciousness below and at first elaborate on the ability of making judgements of what one ought to do to animals.

Regarding the ability to pass judgements which are grounded on rational and reasoned thoughts and conclusions as uniquely to human, I can’t find reasons to disagree with this point of the Kantian approach. Animals don’t have a human-like language and thus, can’t understand our normative concept of morality, neither do they seem to be able to formulate or grasp such judgements. Obviously, some animals do communicate with each other, but it is communication on another level than the one which is of importance for the discussed issue. Even if some animals do not only communicate by simply affecting other animals’ behaviours to get another one to do something and to share information by communicating (like humans), there is still a lack of complexity and deepness in comparison to human language and its function. They use language in some other way and neither communicate in complex words, nor are capable of it - because they don’t have to.

So, animals might not be able to pass such judgements. But are they capable of self- consciousness? According to Kant, the essence of self-consciousness lies in the ability to distinguish between oneself and (an)other entities’ mind. To Kant it is like intentionality about objects for a subject. There are many evidences of how animals do show the ability to separate their own mind from others and act intentionally towards subjects. Chimpanzees do avoid hurting fellow monkeys though electro shocks by refusing food after having grasped that acceptance of food hurts the fellow monkey on the other side of the window. Scrub jays return alone to caches they had hidden in the presence of others and recache them in new places, which suggests that they know that others know where the food is cached and thus, in order to avoid having their food stolen they recache it. (See Gennaro 2009: 193) These observations of animals’ behaviour can surely be seen as evidence for a form of self-consciousness. A different form of self-consciousness than that of humans including the capacity of reasoning and rational judging for sure, but still self-consciousness – the only self- consciousness non-members of human mankind seem to need.

After having raised doubts and rejection on the Kantian premises about the capability of morality, we can conclude that the inference of seeing the capability of morality as uniquely to humans is thus wrong: Because there is more than one concept and principles of morality, there is the sensitivity of morality, and this is what some animals are capable of.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


On Animals' Morality
University of Leipzig
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tiere, Moral, Kant, animals
Quote paper
Julia Held (Author), 2019, On Animals' Morality, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464960


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