Saturday, 20 March 2010

Animal Suffering, Conditioned Goodness and Rational Willing

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there is another set of questions raised concerning Kant, this time from Michael Cholbi. These questions are meant, though, to follow partly from the arguments raised against the view that the only unconditional good is the good will. The question Cholbi raises is not specifically one that involves objection to this argument concerning the good will but, instead to the apparent exclusive disjunction between the unconditioned goodness of the good will compared to other goods that are taken to be only conditionally good. Cholbi wants to suggest that there are some goods that don't fit this exclusive disjunction.

The example concerns the pleasures and pains of animals. Cholbi wants us to think that the pleasures and pains of non-human animals are in themselves normatively significant regardless of their relationship to questions of rational willing. When presenting this case Cholbi moves on slightly from the understanding of the state of animals in terms of pleasure and pain and speaks instead about animal flourishing suggesting that the flourishing of animals is good regardless of relation to the will. In presenting this claim for an intrinsic value Cholbi neglects to ask what would be involved in making this claim concerning the flourishing of the animal. Are all non-human animals here in the same situation? If so, then an animal that best flourished through feeding on and destroying many other animals would presumably manifest this good in the same way as an animal that had lesser effect on the general bio-sphere in which case there would be no normative grounds for producing conditions that led more easily to the reproduction of one than the other. But this seems wrong so presumably there is something involved in the normative state which doesn't just attach to states of inclination of the animal in question. Again, the bio-sphere itself could evolve in directions that ensured the survival of the more destructive creature so if the normative value belongs to the bio-sphere itself then this should still be regarded as a good outcome.

If, by contrast, the normative value of the flourishing of the animals is taken to be one that resides in some kind of "balance" of the bio-sphere and a way to ensure that destructive predators are not the life-forms that have the greatest potential of survival are in question then this comes back to the conditions under which there can be willing to ensure this outcome as more likely than the opposite. But whilst we might want to claim this is due to the conditions of the animals themselves it is important to point out that these conditions are ones that we have to take to prefer in some situations rather than others and that this taking is one that has to be justified to us not merely in relation to the animals but also in regard to rationales as to why we should particularly interest ourselves in them. Since the latter has to address rational wills generally and not merely ones that might have a predisposition to think there is value in the conditions of the animals then the best strategy to persuade others should be to adopt a position that conforms to conditions of universally possible willing which would be the Kantian argument.

The reason why Cholbi seems unwilling to follow the argument in this direction is due to his commitment to the view that willing cannot be the source of the goodness or badness of the state of the animal. But this needn't be the claim concerning the animal itself it would be the claim concerning our relation to it. And that is sufficient for us to adopt the point in question in Kantian terms.

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