Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Direct & Indirect Duties: Climate Change & the Left


Ever wondered about the difference between direct and indirect duties? When Kant says that duties to non-human animals are indirect, he means that any duties we owe to non-human animals are in fact duties owed to humans. If you take more than a passing interest animal ethics, you will often see research linking animal cruelty with domestic abuse or other forms of violent behaviour. This is what Kant was getting at – being cruel to non-human animals makes us cruel to humans, and that is what makes animal cruelty wrong. The animal itself doesn’t matter for its own sake in this argument. If the evidence showed that being cruel to animals provided an outlet for aggression that made individuals less likely to harm other humans, then Kant would have had to conclude that being cruel to animals was therefore good.

You might think that this argument is not really relevant to contemporary thought. Not so. In fact, it’s very similar to ethical arguments in contemporary climate change and conservation debates. I was reminded of this fact by a post today by the new Climate Change Editor at the New Left Project: Climate Change and the Left [the original post is gone, but it’s archived here]. The argument is interesting, and provides good reasons for people on the left to care about climate change. However, it’s also interesting to me for two further reasons: 1) because it highlights that the reason many people on the left care about the environment is not because the environment is considered valuable for its own sake, and 2) because it makes use of the strange argument that one cannot or should not care about both animals and humans at the same time.

The first of those reasons is interesting because it suggests that a whole lot of people professing to care about the environment might be quite willing to destroy it completely if benefits to humans could be accrued. It follows from the post that the same is true of the treatment of animals – so long as humans benefit, the interests of animals are not really considered.

The second reason is interesting because it’s one of those ubiquitous claims that is often made, but rarely carries an argument with it. The author of the post linked to gives a reason why the argument is flawed – much like the Kantian position – but it also seems very much mistaken if you think that non-human animals or the environment have final value of their own. At the most very basic level, the decision to become a vegan doesn’t exactly require us to stop caring about humans, or divert any significant energy away from doing so.

Truly caring about the environment, or about non-human animals requires thinking about more than the interests of just our own species. The indirect duty view is right in that it shows us that it’s in our interests to care about non-humans. But, to avoid the charge of specieism, there also needs to be an acknowledgement that we may also have direct duties, and that these may on occasion trump the indirect ones.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Direct & Indirect Duties: Climate Change & the Left

  1. Ok, it took me a while to get around to reading this, but I generally agree. We have duties to things that are not human. Certainly to things that can feel, and possibly other kinds of things. I do wonder if cruelty to animals is a cause of cruelty to people. It seems more likely that the same kinds of people who tend to be cruel to animals also tend to be cruel to people. Otherwise, I generally agree that the environment, animals, and people should be considered valuable for their own sakes, although the duties owed to these groups may differ from each other.

    • Thanks for the comment Karen. There is a considerable research body arguing that there’s a link between violent behaviour towards non-human animals and violent behaviour towards humans, but you’re right -whether that’s correlation or causation is a matter for debate. It seems to me that the pragmatic argument for not being cruel to animals is weak in any case, so I don’t think we should focus on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s