Monday, November 11, 2013

Borrowing from Singer to Help Out Kant

Here are two standard criticisms of Kant's ethics:

(i) Kant thought that humans have intrinsic value and dignity in virtue of their autonomy, and that this, in turn, requires libertarian freedom. But if so, then to the extent that we have reason to doubt that we have such freedom, then to that extent we have reason to doubt that Kant's ethics can account for the intrinsic value of humans.

(ii) Kant thought that only beings with the kind of autonomy of the sort gestured to above have intrinsic value. But if so, then since infants, the severely mentally disabled, and animals lack such autonomy, they thereby lack intrinsic value. But if this is what his account of ethics implies, then so much the worse for Kant's ethics.

These two criticisms clearly stem from Kant's thesis that

(IVA) Intrinsic value is grounded in the capacity for autonomy (which in turn is grounded in libertarian freedom and rational agency).

 It seems to me that there is a natural way to revise Kantian ethics so as to avoid at least the aforementioned criticisms, viz. by replacing IVA with

(IVI) Intrinsic value is grounded in the capacity for having interests.

On this account, the scope of the moral community can be expanded so as to encompass not just autonomous agents, but also infants, the severely mentally disabled, and non-human animals. For as Peter Singer has put it, all such beings have, at a minimum, the capacity for suffering and enjoyment, which in turn grounds the capacity for the minimal interests of pursuing enjoyment and avoiding suffering.[1]

I'm not claiming that such a revision to Kant's ethics is novel. All I'm saying is that it seems to be a natural revision to Kant's ethics that accounts for a large swath of widespread moral intuitions, and in a way that avoids at least the two powerful criticisms to Kant's ethics sketched above.

[1] It's of course ironic to find the seeds of a Kantian theory in the ideas of an arch-consequentialist of the likes of Peter Singer!

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