Feb 13, 2020 in Case Studies

Personhood: Animal vs. Humanity Liberation

Animal versus Human Personhood

The argument over equating animals to humans rages with Kant, Norton-Smith, and Singer taking separate paths. While some authors such as Peter Singer support the personhood of animals, others such as Kant disagree with the concept. Kant argues that self-consciousness, rationality, and morality are the key attributes of personhood, all of which animals lack whereas humans possess. Singer differs with this assertion by stating that animals are sentimental, just like humans, and that they deserve liberation like women and black people. Norton-Smith’s argument is close to Kant’s although he uses morality as his benchmark for personhood. However, the author argues that being a human does not equate to being a thinker. This paper explores the concept of personhood concerning the perspectives of Kant, Singer, and Norton-Smith, especially as they relate to humans and animals.

Kant offers an insightful argument as to the suitability of treating animals as “ends-in-themselves.”Kant claims that only humans can be “ends-in-themselves” because they are rational beings. Animals do not possess rationality, and they can be used as a “means” of achieving human objectives. The moral value that human beings possess is inherent, which makes them self-conscious. However, Kant dissociates animals from persons because he firmly believes that animals lack self-consciousness and rationality. The implication of the claim is that animals cannot fathom moral law like humans do, which makes animals remain as animals and not become persons. For Kant, self-consciousness, rationality, and moral worth and the key values that warrant humans special consideration. The implication of this statement is that animals do not owe humans anything and that they do not deserve equal rights as humans do. However, some scholars developed a counterargument for this narrative.


In a strong support for animal liberty, Singer differs significantly with Kant’s argument on personhood. The author argues from philosophical and political dimensions in that he insists on the recognition and preservation of animal rights. According to him, animal rights and justice for all animals is the next big frontier, just as the rights of black people and women were a few decades ago. Using the analogy of animal liberation and racial/gender justice, the author argues for equal consideration as human beings. This view clearly contradicts Kant’s assumption that human beings relate to other animals through indirect duties. In essence, Singer would respond to Kant’s claim that humans have indirect duties to animals by stating that the equality desired among all humans is achieved through a democratic process that fosters justice for all. Similarly, animals play a significant role in the society, and they should be treated like human beings, given that they do most of the things that humans do even if they lack a sense of morality. Besides, not all human beings subscribe to the conventional moral law, their self-consciousness notwithstanding. The ambiguity between the perceptions created by the two authors elicits the question as to whether equal consideration should be offered to all rational creatures. In essence, Kant argues that humans are the only sentient creatures.

When it comes to Norton-Smith’s perception of personhood, both animals and human beings are persons because they can participate in various memberships of moral relationships.

According to Kant, Norton-Smith’s view on personhood contradicts Kant’s view significantly. In essence, Kant suggests that morality is at the core of personhood and an entity that does not possess moral values does not constitute a person. The perspective presupposes that a man is a human animal and that he/she is distinct from a person. It means that all rational beings who can self-reflect are persons. Animals do not constitute people because they cannot self-reflect, neither are they rational.

Kant differs sharply with Norton-Smith in connection to the idea of personhood. While Kant believes firmly the thinking attribute is an intrinsic nature of human beings that warrant them the name persons, Norton-Smith opinionates that the value of human beings remains the same as the value of other creatures appreciate. This notion corresponds to the argument by Singer that human beings occupy an important position in personhood although animals are catching up fast. In Norton-Smith’s view, the requirements for personhood include common sense, science, and religion. These attributes distinguish humans from non-humans although some native cultures do not notice the difference.

Norton-Smith’s impression of an animate being conflicts with Singer’s idea of sentience with regard to the issue of morality. Fundamentally, Norton-Smith believes that a being that exists and participates in a set-up of moral relationships is an animate being. It implies that man is an animal in the political sense and that some animals may have a certain sense of morality. When it comes to Singer, the perspective of sentience encompasses the capacity to suffer under various tribulations. Both humans and animals undergo suffering that in some way affect them emotionally. For that reason, speciesism is unjustified because the concept assumes that one species is more important than the other is. As opposed to Norton-Smith, who focuses on the moral relationships that various beings develop, Singer bases his arguments on rationality and the emotional sense of beings.

According to Singer, people often justify the practices that promote the interests of the dominant groups. Such justification anchors on the hierarchical orders that term the practices as unavoidable and natural. However, such natural hierarchical orders promote the existing state of affairs through specialism and other forms of prejudice. More often than not, the practices advance gender, species, race, and class discrimination. The creation of dominant groups in humans is detrimental to the fair and equal treatment of all humans, as it is to animals. In essence, people who treat all humans fairly and equally without discrimination will treat all animals in like manner. The gender parity in a patriarchal society is analogous to the perceptions of entitlements to the flesh of the non-human animals. The same discriminatory attitude of killing or injuring non-human animals exists in patriarchal societies where male chauvinism predominates. The creation of masculine identity entrenches male chauvinism in that the male species of human beings tend to believe they have rights over the flesh of animals and women. For that reason, animal liberation ought to take the same course as the fight for justice and equality in humans because both people and animals are humans capable of being sentimental.

In summary, Norton-Smith, Kant, and Singer take distinct dimensions with regard to the personhood of people and animals. However, it is understandable that all of them argue from the context of their areas of interests in as much as their arguments appear convincing. According to Kant, rationality rules in that human deserve dignity and respect because of their inherent moral value. Conversely, he argues animals lack self-consciousness, moral sense, and rationality, which makes them less valuable although they deserve kindness. Singer disagrees with this claim by arguing that animals deserve justice and freedom just as the minority groups within humanity. The sentience of human and non-human animals puts both on the same pedestal. In essence, the modern animal liberation movement is synonymous with the past struggles against gender and racial discriminations. Norton-Smith’s argument is close to Kant’s although he uses morality as his benchmark for personhood. However, the author argues that being a human does not equate to being a thinker.


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