Kant and Applied Ethics: The Uses and Limits of Kant's Practical Philosophy

By Matthew C. Altman | Go to book overview

2
Kant’s Strategic Importance for
Environmental Ethics

Kant’s concern for animal welfare depends on animals’ similarity to human beings. Because animals feel pain as we do, harming them will desensitize us to others’ pain, corrupt our character, and impact our treatment of other people. We have no direct duties to animals because they are incapable of autonomous self-determination, and so they lack the humanity that would give them intrinsic value.

Like animal behavior, the course of nonsentient nature is also causally determined; plants and ecosystems do not set their ends. More importantly, plants and ecosystems do not experience pain, so we cannot use the same reasoning as we did in chapter 1 to justify indirect duties to nature. Singer has been criticized because his sole focus on sentient beings seems to preclude a larger environmental ethic. An anthropocentric theory has even stricter limitations.

Many environmental philosophers claim that animal welfare ethics and ecocentric ethics have incompatible justificatory strategies. The individualistic focus on particular sentient beings contradicts a holistic concern for species, ecosystems, or nature in general, and the latter is thought to be the hallmark of an environmental ethic.1 Kant’s philosophy seems like it would be especially unhelpful in understanding our obligations to nature as a whole, since it is not only anthropocentric but individualistic, in that it focuses on autonomous agents each of whom must be treated as an end in himself. This kind of atomistic view of human nature supports a political theory that treats people as individual rights-bearers, a view that, according to people such as Garrett Hardin, leads to the exploitation of nature held in common: resources are depleted as individuals seek to enlarge their personal claims on them, polluted waterways distribute harm to others, the population increases unsustainably, and so on.2

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