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
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