Alexander Bonham (KCL) - 2018-19 Students

Animal Ethics as Metaphilosophy

In my thesis I argue that whether a first-order normative theory can accommodate moral concern for animals dramatically depends on its metaphilosophical starting point, where a ‘metaphilosophical starting point’ is a collection of assumptions, beliefs and attitudes held towards the nature of ethics, e.g. what the goal of ethical theory is, whether ethics should involve theory building at all, whether the aim of ethics is to posit supreme principles of morality etc. This view runs contrary to standard thought, which holds that metaphilosophical positions in ethics are autonomous from specific ethical disputes. In other words, it has been thought that our metaphilosophy of ethics is neutral, such that any metaphilosophical position is compatible, at least in principle, with any position regarding a practical ethical dispute. I want to argue that this isn’t so, at least with regards to animal ethics.My specific focus will be on Kantian ethics, and the views inspired by Kant’s project more broadly (e.g., various contractualist views). According to these views, animals do not matter from a moral perspective, at least on the standard interpretation of what that would mean. Whilst Kantians are aware of this problem, they have tended to think that it doesn’t arise from any deep or fundamental feature of Kant’s project, but instead relies on a subtle misunderstanding of the argument for the Formula of Humanity. These accounts overlook the severity of the problem and, more importantly, are looking in the wrong place. I investigate what metaphilosophical starting point we would have to start off from if we want to build an ethical theory according to which animals do matter from a moral perspective. I also consider the extent to which we should allow our strongest first-order moral beliefs influence our metaphilosophical views regarding the nature of ethics, and whether we should expect a single ethical theory to accommodate our moral obligations towards both humans and non-human animals.

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