Bioethics Blogs

Christine Korsgaard: Fellow Creatures (Lecture 1)

We are delighted that Christine Korsgaard, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, has accepted our invitation to deliver the Uehiro Lectures in Oxford. The title of the series is Fellow Creatures, and this first fascinating and suggestive lecture – delivered on 1 December 2014 — is called ‘Animals, Human Beings, and Persons’. One primary purpose of this lecture is to clarify the similarities and differences between those three kinds of creature, and to clear the ground of some misunderstandings.

Korsgaard begins with the question of whether people are more important than other animals. She notes the common claim that we can, for example, test medicines on non-human animals because they are ‘less important’ than people, in the sense that they have less ‘moral standing’. But this claim, she plausibly suggests, is mistaken. Imagine (to adapt an example of Peter Singer’s) I have one dose of pain-killer, and have to choose between giving it to either a person in severe pain, or a person in moderate pain. If I choose to give it to the person in severe pain, that doesn’t mean that their moral standing is lower. I am treating these people as equals, and that involves, in this case, treating them equally. (Of course, as Korsgaard allows, one can avoid this error and still claim that even our trivial interests override the important interests of animals. Further, as she goes on to note, we may be permitted to be partial to our own species in certain cases, without denying that humans and animals possess moral standing to the same degree.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.