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Aug 6, 2021

Is There Moral Equality between Humans and Animals?

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Claus Dierksmeier

University of Tubingen

Claus Dierksmeier researches and publishes on the idea of freedom, political and economic philosophy, business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and globalization ethics.

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Is There Moral Equality between Humans and Animals?

Dierksmeier Moral Equality

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, ca. 1830–40

The public discussion about the adequate treatment of animals is as heated as it is polarized. On one extreme, some defend the industrial use of animals for human food consumption, based on an alleged radical inequality between humans and animals, and supposing that animals can be held in private possession and treated in whichever way their owners see fit. On the other extreme, people contend that to admit of any ethical prerogatives of humans over animals is sheer speciesism, an illegitimate rationalization of vested human interests. Adherents of the former position typically follow an anthropocentric worldview, in which only human valuations bestow moral or legal status onto animals. The latter typically embrace a biocentric position, according to which all life-forms are of equal value.

In our search for a healthy middle ground between these polar opposites, the writings of a largely forgotten philosopher, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832), may give us welcome pointers. At the outset of the eighteenth century, Krause was already tackling the question of to what extent, if any, there is a moral equality between humans and animals, and his lessons prove instructive still. Krause applied the concept of personhood, and granted rights, also to animals. For him, (some) animals were to be regarded and respected as persons whose rights must be protected by law.1

Human Freedom and Equality

For Krause, as for most classical German philosophers, liberty was not license. Krause linked individual freedom to cosmopolitan responsibility and sought to harmonize the liberties of each person with the freedom of all world citizens. Against the suggestion that human discretion alone confers moral value on the world, Krause argued that the idea of freedom is inherently committed to values intrinsic to the world it shapes. Freedom is indispensable for realizing values and virtues, certainly. But from this premise, one must not conclude, Krause held, that freedom is the only good. Instead, in his view, freedom can only be fulfilled through a relationship with context and through pursuing moral ends.

Obviously, Krause felt, people should maintain the natural preconditions2 of their own life if—in using their freedom—they do not want to destroy its biological preconditions. As our freedom always depends on a natural context, everyone should engage on behalf of the “protection, maintenance, and support of nature.”3 For each and everything, there always remains the possibility of serving somehow, someone, at some time, as a means toward freedom.4 As a consequence, nothing in nature must ever be regarded or treated as absolutely worthless.5

Yet this instrumental way of looking at sustainability was only a first step in the direction of what Krause considered the appropriate appreciation of nature. We should not merely view nature as a means and material for human freedom but also value it according to its own laws and “in its inner freedom and absoluteness.”6 Krause’s criterion for adjudicating nonhuman interests as morally pertinent was the variegated levels of freedom realized throughout nature. Far from classifying nature as the “other” of freedom, as a realm of sheer necessity—as the conventional wisdom of his days had it—Krause thought that certain forms of freedom were germane to nature itself.

Since freedom cannot be observed from the outside, Krause looked inward to the natural side of human life and our internal awareness of it to gain a sense for the internality and freedoms of other life-forms. In particular, he distinguished “three essentially different levels of finite reasonable personality” and their attendant grades of freedom. The lowest form describes beings only capable of physical self-direction. The next level incorporates individuals directing their behavior mentally but only in a (pragmatically) rational, not yet (morally) reasonable manner. The third level of freedom is reached by those who can critically evaluate as well as alter their preferences: “As to these three levels of reasonableness, we find all three of them presented in certain ways by the human beings upon this earth.”7

Not all human beings are actualizing the full range of their species-bound potential all of the time. In childhood, individuals first pass through “certain periods” of vegetative and animalistic life, which they later transcend, however, unless hampered by lack of education or disability.8 Most reach the second level of consciousness of freedom (self-assertive finality) and strive toward the third level of freedom (self-critical moral consciousness). Part and parcel of their species-nature is that human beings are open to all three levels of autonomy: “However deformed and deficient, however stunted, however mentally or physically ill, however immersed in misery”9 they may be, humans cannot, therefore, lose the moral status—the inherent dignity and adherent rights—germane to that species-nature.10 Society is consequently obligated to take particular care of persons with disabilities to help them realize the utmost degree of their species-based freedoms.11

Different levels of freedom involve distinct forms of responsibility.12 Individual life begins with “sensory freedom,” taking its cues for appropriate behavior from context, habits, and customs.13 On the next level of “rational freedom,” individuals acquire more independence in their personal conduct—a move that, if unbalanced, can lead to excesses and isolation. Through “reasonable freedom” (the highest level of human freedom), the requisite balance can be found via ethical self-commitments. All human beings, Krause held, should be granted the conditions needed to develop this moral capacity.


Wurundjeri/Woiwurung peoples, William Barak, 1895

Krause did not, however, demand identical rights for everyone. Rather, he declared that a “formal sameness” of rights should be materially adapted, in each case, to the respective conditions and “to the stage of development” of freedom of a given individual and society.14 This right to a suitably differentiated equality should be determined with two goals in mind. On one hand, the law is to facilitate, never obstruct, the highest humanly possible exercise of freedom for all; this norm forever remains a regulative idea limiting the scope of all subsequent, more particular regulations regarding civic and civil equality. On the other hand, regarding the specific and divergent capacities for freedom of different individuals, Krause stated, “Equality does not mean uniformity of size according to absolute size..., but it means uniformity with regard to the determination of the legal sphere of each person.”15 Fair procedures must be found to specify the general principle of equality through particular means that aim not for uniformity but for the quantitative proportionality and qualitative adequacy of the legal entitlements of each.16

Krause opposed an abstract and downright material equality because he acknowledged the equal right of all to realize their respective individuality. Thus, the freedom to be—or make—oneself unequal results, for Krause, from the foundational equality of the right to individual expression and self-realization.17 To be sure, the legitimacy of such inequalities is limited to areas individuals can voluntarily influence. The legal equality of people must permit, for example, economic differences resulting from personal decisions and individual effort, but the law must never itself create material inequalities or cement iniquitous allocations of goods, contrary to the common destination of all goods to enable personal capabilities for autonomy.18

Are Animals Equal to Humans?

In late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century philosophy, if animals were seen as worthy of protection at all, then typically they were seen as objects, not as subjects, of the law. Philosophers showed why it might be in the interest of humanity to treat animals decently and reasoned that people had obligations against animals, though not to them. Krause demurred. From the outset, he integrated a theory of animal rights into his philosophy of freedom.

This move stood in deliberate contrast with the anthropocentric take on nature predominant in his time and era.19 Even so, Krause’s argument was not biocentric. Natural entities do not make their axiological status explicit. Instead, Krause opted for an anthropo-relational approach. This is, however, theoretically demanding: While striving to understand nature according to its own laws, an external and absolute perspective (a God’s-eye view) cannot be attained; we are always situated within nature. Nature must, that is to say, be reflected on from the particularly human perspective and, at the same time, with critical awareness of the limits this very perspective entails. We are to regard and respect other life-forms as living according to their own freedoms, while keeping in mind that, as far as we know, the human being is the only creature on earth aiming at such unbiased conceptions of other beings.20

Having derived his ethics from a phenomenology of human freedom, Krause probed whether the categories for the moral evaluation of animal life could be gleaned likewise. Certainly, we cannot enter directly into the mental horizon of animals.21 Yet, indirectly, we may infer that what is true of our own body as a self-recursive physical entity might also hold for animals.22 Just as our body has faculties for self-awareness (e.g., proprio-perception) and self-determination (e.g., spatial self-direction) that function independently of higher forms of cognition, likewise animals appear to display such incorporated forms of self-determination (i.e., bodily freedoms) and “we assume that they know themselves in certain ways, sense themselves, and strive to maintain and perfect their selfhood according to sensory ends.”23

The Cat  Gwen John

Cat, Gwen John, ca. 1904–1908

A glance at our own pets teaches us, according to Krause:

That these beings show all those idiosyncrasies which express the lowest level of the spiritual personality; they feel themselves, feel pleasure and pain, they have representations and fantasy, as is well known they determine themselves according to social concepts, since within various individuals of the same species they nevertheless recognize the same species, e.g., just as every man distinguishes himself as man, so every animal accordingly discerns its own species. They are therefore spiritual beings.24

And this suffices, for Krause, to justify calling animals persons.25

Krause’s concept of personality deviates from the stern standards of Kantian moral philosophy, whereby only subjects capable of directing themselves via the moral law are considered persons.26 Krause instead preferred to lower the bar for the ascription of personhood, as he believed “everyone will agree that rights instantly must be expanded and extended to each life-form with whom we cohabitate which we recognize as a self-centered being capable to relate to itself in cognitive, emotional, and volitional acts.”27 As a consequence, Krause expressly recognized animals not only as objects of human law but, due to their inherent capacity for self-determination, also as subjects of germane right: “Right exists without regard to the person. No person has a privilege (no one anticipates the right of another), but every person has his or her right. This is just as true… of the simplest (qui capere valet, capiat!) animals.”28

The Kantian distinction is, however, not obliterated. In Krause’s thinking, it resurfaces as a discrimination between higher and lower types of persons. Animals rank as persons of a lower status because they do not display the human ability to recognize self-transcending rules and norms, since “they determine themselves only according to finite sensory impulses and not according to eternally infinite concepts.”29 Fully developed human beings can relate reflectively to their basic faculties (i.e., they are capable of feeling their feelings, willing their willing, thinking their thinking, but also feeling their thinking, willing their feeling, and reasoning their willing). Thus, human beings can autonomously criticize and (re-)direct themselves, according to moral laws.30 Within “the sphere of our experience” we thus legitimately regard the human being as the only form of life to whom belongs freedom in that most elevated sense.31

To be clear, the difference between humans and animals is not grounded upon actual mental accomplishments. In contrast, Krause thought that quite often there is not such a huge empirical difference between the accomplishments of intelligent animals and those of certain human beings who, willingly or not, live reduced to the realm of mere sensuality. What counts for the species difference is, however, rather the potential form of reflective self-determination—an ethical freedom, toward which only human beings (can) develop. Accordingly, humans and animals are not only gradually different from one another but categorically so, “in their entire essence.”32 Unlike animals, mentally and/or physically limited human beings belong to a species of reflectively autonomous beings; disability may inhibit the articulation of parts of their human nature, but it does not amount to a privation of said nature.33

Since animals are, as far as we know, incapable of self-reflective and ethical freedom, they lack rights that adhere to this particular level of freedom:34

As soon as one considers the animal as a self-inward being possessing self-consciousness and self-feeling, one demands that man should also be just towards animals. But no one will talk about an animal justice which animals themselves practice. That is because one does not consider the animal capable of grasping the idea of justice in order to make justice its end. Thus, one says: Man should be the guardian of all animals and man considers the entire animal kingdom as in need of legal representation and rightly so.35

The legal subordination arises, to be sure, not because animals cannot demand their rights; children, minors, and the mentally ill are also often unable to do so.36 Animals possess rights distinct from those of humans. Yet their rights are not any weaker. Just as with human beings whose autonomy is limited (e.g., children, disabled, and senile persons), legal guardianship is required for animals so that “the contingent conditions of the completion of their purely animalistic life are guaranteed.”37

In Krause’s view, animals possess a right to a self-determined life that deserves protection insofar as they (unlike predators, at times) do not violate higher-level (i.e., human) rights.38 Which obligations does this right impose upon humanity? Krause answered: whatever humans may enforce upon others of their kind (e.g., the elimination of unlawful violence) may also be done to every being on a lower level of freedom. If we are allowed to limit and regulate by law the use of our shared environs, then we are also allowed to limit the habitat of animals, as long as their rightful interests are also respected. As humans may recycle their own organic waste products (e.g., hair, nails), they are entitled to do the same with animal offal. Krause also thought it might be possible to use animal labor “for reasonable purposes” and, in the process, curtail animals’ natural freedom of movement.39 Such a use, he contended, does not automatically impinge upon the respective animal’s right to freedom if it serves acceptable ends and does not distress the animal, since we are wont to make similar use of human labor.40

More far-reaching rights, however, appear problematic. Does the inequality between animals and humans in terms of freedom also entail unequal rights? Are humans, for instance, who must not kill one another for the purpose of nourishment, allowed to eat animals? Only insofar, stated Krause, as “without such killing humanity on earth could not exist, unless some other form of nourishment were found.”41 Krause believed this justification rarely applied. Most people, he held, already had access to vegetarian food of adequate quantity and quality.

While animals “have a right to bodily well-being, to absence of pain, and to requisite nutrition,” Krause did not say humanity must constantly strive to assure a most comfortable existence for every life-form on earth.42 As a general rule, animals are quite capable of taking care of their own well-being, obtaining their own food, avoiding pain, etc. But if one takes animals out of their original habitat, or if one limits them and so impairs their capacity for self-care, the obligation to provide species-appropriate treatment and nutrition ensues.43 This conclusion, Krause hoped, would concur with a pervasive “feeling of justice towards animals” that “cannot be eradicated” from the human mind.44

Last, we need to consider: Is there moral equality within the animal kingdom? Are all animals to be treated alike? In his later writings, Krause modified his initial, strictly egalitarian stance and introduced a distinction between higher and lower developed animal species and listed only the former as legal persons.45 He did not, though, go into detail about what animals are to fall under which rubric. While it might be feasible to work with the criteria he previously employed to mark the (lower versus higher) status of the personhood of animals (individual conception of self, capacity of conscious self-direction), based on empirical insights about the capabilities of given animal species, such an endeavor was not made by Krause. 

What Follows?

For Krause, human beings are persons, each and all, because the potential to act like a person is bound up with the nature of the human species. Consequently, human beings should treat one another with respect for the dignity inherent to their own life-form. This is a personalist, not a speciesist argument, as long as the inclusion of all of humanity into the class of persons does not entail an exclusion of others from that status solely because they belong to different species. Krause’s theory passes this bar, as he holds that when and wherein animals are equal to us, then and therein we should also treat them equally. Animals are roughly equal to us in bodily autonomy and, at least in some species, in instrumental rationality and basic self-awareness. Since, for Krause, these faculties suffice to constitute personhood (of an albeit lower-than-human type), the members of species featuring such faculties deserve to be treated as genuine subjects of rights. Animals are accordingly to be protected not only on anthropocentric grounds but also based on the intrinsic value of their capacities for freedom. At the same time, animals are unequal to us insofar as they cannot attain the highest level of freedom: self-reflexive, moral autonomy; human prerogatives tied to this capacity can consequently be legitimated.