Ethics in Focus: The Moral Status of Animals

Do animals have the moral status? If so, what does it reveal about our rational nature? Discussions on the moral status of animals seem predominantly to assume that humans and animals are separate species. Based on this assumption, we tend to focus on how we should treat animals, but not so much on how animals have something analogous to rational nature. Two philosophers, Immanuel Kant and the greatest influencer on him, Alexander Baumgarten, take completely opposite approaches to the issue of the moral status of animals. Offering tools for philosophising for yourself, this course casts a fresh light on animal ethics.


  • Baumgarten, A. G.: Ethica philosophica [Philosophical Ethics], 3rd ed. (Halle, 1763) [As there is no translation of this work into a modern language, I will provide my own].
  • Kant, I.: Universal Natural History and Theory of Heavens. In Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  • Kant, I.: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Kant, I.: Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Kant, I.: Critique of the Power of Judgment. (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Kant, I.: Critique of Pure Reason. (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Kant, I.: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Kant, I.: Lectures on Ethics. (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
  • Kant, I.: Metaphysics of Morals. (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  • Kant, I.: Lectures on Philosophical Theology. (Cornell University Press, 1978)


  • Share your own views on the moral status of animals: Do you think animals have the moral status? Or, do you think whether animals have the moral status does not matter too much, but what matters is how we treat animals, i.e. how the treatment of animals reflects the moral status of human beings? Do animals have rational nature? Does whether animals have rational nature or something analogous to it affect your attitude towards animals? For example, do you treat dolphins and cockroaches differently, and if so, why and how do you justify the difference in your treatment of them?
  • Can animals suffer? Jeremy Bentham famously said: “The question is not, Can they [animals] reason? Nor Can they talk? But Can they suffer?” But is this a valid question? Does whether animals suffer or not, i.e. their sentience, determine their moral status? Does rational nature of animals, or something analogous to it, not affect our treatment of them? In other words, are animals not just beings with the capacity to have pleasure and displeasure, but also beings with the capacity to undertake rational activities of some sort, such as having purposes and caring their own and other species?
  • Are animals persons? What are the criteria for a being to be qualified as a person? Do those criteria include rationality? Do animals have rational nature of some sort? If so, why aren’t animals usually considered as persons? Is it meaningful to distinguish between a person and a thing in the first place?
  • Duties towards animals: Do we have duties ‘towards’ animals? Kant thinks that there are only our duties ‘regarding’ animals and that these duties are subsumed under our duties towards ourselves. What does he mean by these claims? Baumgarten, on the other hand, thinks that there are duties towards other beings, both human and non-human, and that other human beings and animals are equally qualified as things, not persons. Does treating humans as things sound controversial? Which of these views do you agree with, Kant or Baumgarten?
  • Experiments on animals: We sometimes tolerate experiments on animals, such as those on mice, for we tend to think that they should be justified because they would help us solve problems such as diseases that had not been cured before. Kant clearly says that you should not use other human beings ‘merely’ as a means. But does this apply to animals as well? What does using animals as ‘mere’ means imply? Is it bad because it hurts animals, or because it damages our humanity, damage that is reflected in our treatment of animals? After all, do animals have the equal moral status as that of human beings?
  • Reflect on your views on the moral status of animals: Have you changed your views on the moral status of animals since the beginning of the course? Why or why not?

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand some of the major theories and debates in philosophical accounts of the moral status of animals.
  2. Understand and analyse arguments in the relevant literatures.
  3. Evaluate these theories and arguments critically.
  4. Develop their own views and arguments through consideration and analysis of the views and arguments presented in the course.
  5. Engage constructively and respectfully with the views and arguments of others, even if they disagree with them.

This course has no current classes. Please the waiting list.