SOPhiA 2022

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

The Role of Minds and Mites in Korsgaard_s Account of Duties to Animals
(Ethics, English)

In Fellow Creatures (2018) Christine Korsgaard develops a Kantian account of duties to non-human animals. I point out a weakness in her conception of moral patienthood and present a possible solution.

Korsgaard__s conception of moral patienthood relies heavily on a sophisticated notion of sentience. She considers animals as moral patients __ i.e. fellow creatures we have duties to __ if they possess a level of sentience, henceforth sentience*, that (i) goes beyond mere physiological sensation and involves both (ii) action tendencies and (iii) a minimal sense of self. While one might think these cognitively demanding requirements would set the bar for moral patienthood rather high, Korsgaard assumes that most animals, including various invertebrates and presumably even dust mites, possess sentience*. I claim this conception of moral patienthood is both empirically implausible and theoretically undesirable.

First, I argue that treating invertebrates, all the way down to microscopically small mites, as moral patients on the grounds of their sentience* lacks empirical support. No empirical measure of sentience meets Korsgaard__s requirements for sentience* and yields the broad class of moral patients she wants. Surveying different operationalisations of sentience in biology and neuroscience, I show there is a mismatch between Korsgaard__s conception of sentience* and the creatures she attributes it to. Indicators of sentience most akin to Korsgaard__s description of sentience* are found in far fewer species than Korsgaard assumes. Indicators of sentience that are indeed shared by most animals and even dust mites, in turn, provide a much more primitive sentience than sentience*. This suggests that Korsgaard__s sentience*, understood as a cognitively demanding yet widespread capacity, lacks a real-world analogue.

Second, I show that Korsgaard__s willingness to include even dust mites in the realm of moral patients leads to a further theoretical problem. Duties towards creatures invisible to the naked eye conflict with the ethical principle Ought Implies Can (OIC). The principle absolves moral agents from duties they cannot fulfil, and it seems duties not to harm dust mites are, because unfulfillable, such that OIC would annul them. Korsgaard acknowledges this tension but jettisons OIC, insisting on duties to dust mites. I suggest that her reasons for doing so are defeasible. She rejects OIC because of its dubious religious underpinnings in Kantian philosophy. But OIC might well stand on secular footing, or so I argue. It is thus not necessary to abandon OIC and it is not desirable either, for an account of duties to animals without this principle might lead to a proliferation of unrealisable duties and consequently cease to be action-guiding.

In light of these two problems, I suggest an amendment to Korsgaard__s conception of moral patienthood: in line with empirical evidence for sophisticated sentience*, Korsgaard should accept a narrower category of moral patients and keep OIC. Doing so would rule out duties towards dust mites as well as to some, though importantly not all, other invertebrates. It would nonetheless allow her to defend a remarkably demanding account of duties to animals.

Time: 14:00-14:30, 07 September 2022 (Wednesday)
Location: SR 1.005

Lia Nordmann 
(Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Germany)

Testability and Meaning deco