Animals are not Machines

The way in which humans interact with animals seems to closely relate to how we treat fellow human beings. In order for our ethics to be carried out to the fullest, we must treat animals as if they were humans. Descartes and Kant had differing opinions on the role of animals in the world, and how we ought to treat them. The progression of compassion and fairness toward animals demonstrates the same compassion and fairness toward other humans over history.

            Rene Descartes had one of the more sinister outlooks on animals. Although he was in no way an advocate of animal cruelty, he believed animals were “automata”, or small robots. He did not believe that animals had a thinking mind separate from their instincts, and therefore believed animals were made for human use. Descartes did not believe in regarding animals as compassionately as we do humans, however, as Kant did. Unlike Kant, Descartes believed in some animals being better than others, “within a single species some of them are more perfect than others, as men are too. This can be seen in horses and dogs, some of whom learn what they are taught much better than others” (Descartes, 4).  This greatly contradicts many animal rights ideals of the present, however very much supports those in Descartes’ day.  Although animals were not seen as completely at human disposal, they were certainly seen as a possible means to an end. By looking at anything in this manner, the chances for abuse are very high. In Descartes’ era, animals were primarily used for farming, hunting, and meat, and this what Descartes believed; humans could use animals for what they deemed necessary or suitable.

            Kant has perhaps the most liberal view on the treatment of animals, especially considering he wrote about two hundred years ago. Contrary to Descartes, Kant believed in treating animals the way humans ought to be treated, with respect, dignity, and surely without violence. Kant’s main argument for this was that while hurting an animal may not be the absolute worst thing in the world, it is a gateway that allows for much worse and more evil thoughts and actions to brew. Kant even went so far to extend the right to grubs, “Leibniz put the grub he had been observing back on the tree with its leaf, lest he should be guilty of doing any harm to it. It upsets a man to destroy such a creature for no reason, and this tenderness is subsequently transferred to man” (Kant, 213).  Though it seems that Kant may have gone a bit overboard with using a tiny grub as an example, it demonstrates his point very well. What he is attempting to get across is that people need to stay sensitized to the harm of any person or animal, even if it is as small as a grub.  By staying in touch with this side of oneself, it is extremely hard to be involved in a violent act, as one does not want the guilt of doing harm to another living being. While Kant did believe that humans were superior to animals in many ways, he believed that by recognizing they too have feelings and to some extent, emotions, we could relate to them, and therefore better understand why we must treat them humanely.

            Descartes and Kant had differing views on the treatment of animals by humans. Though Descartes was not an advocate of animal cruelty, he was an advocate of using animals as he saw fit, as he believed they were automata, and to be used by the discretion of humans. Kant, on the other hand, believed in treating animals in a peaceful and kind manner, as it would better benefit humans as a whole. Kant’s ideology of animals is much more sough after, however, as it truly promotes the compassionate treatment of animals, and greatly coincides with the most accepted animal rights views today.

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3 comments
  1. nineteenthirteen said:

    Well said, I commonly share a notion made obvious by the experimental social psychologist Sheldon Solomon that “the human animal is no more significant or enduring than a lizard or a potato” and indeed I believe we ought to start acting like it.

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