- Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self by Natalie Thomas
Thomas presents a refreshing position in her book-length defense of animals' possession of autonomy and its distinctive moral value. Making good use of both the empirical literature and recent philosophical argument, Thomas presents us with an intuitive central claim: Many animals act on reasons and make choices and thus should be treated as ends in themselves. Thomas makes her claims seem so straightforward that it makes one wonder why an in-depth treatment of this idea has taken so long, especially considering that it has been claimed by many animal ethicists that animals are autonomous in some sense and the value of autonomy in humans is widely accepted.
Thomas argues for the autonomy of animals based on the possession of two other capacities: the capacity for agency and the capacity of self-awareness. Animals possess the ability to act on the basis of their own desires and choose their own path, Thomas suggests, while animals lack the ability to reflect upon and evaluate reasons in the way neurotypical adult humans do, they are motivated reasons. Further, since they are aware of their bodily feelings and mental states as their own, they must have at least some level of self-awareness, too. The possession of these two capacities grants one the capacity for autonomy. This autonomy is not autonomy in the "rich" sense [End Page 250] of the term that humans usually possess, but the capacity to freely act on their own reasons. Beholders of this weaker form of autonomy, Thomas argues, warrant direct moral concern.
Thomas is to be commended for making use of some central concepts of Kantian moral theory without getting bogged down by the overarching Kantian machinery. This is certainly to her advantage, making her account more appealing to those skeptical about endorsing the Kantian system as a whole. Previously through and through, Kantian accounts have failed to gain the widespread popularity of other accounts of moral status, such as Singer's or Regan's. More specifically, it is surely correct that one doesn't need the ability to reflect upon and evaluate one's reasons in order to be an agent. What is more, I think Thomas is right to focus on animals' capacity to act and their selfhood to ground their moral value. In so doing, her account recognizes that animals are unique individuals and not mere tokens of their kinds. This being said, I have some concerns, chiefly among them is the value of weak autonomy in her argument as well as the nature of the duty of noninterference that Thomas believes we owe animals in light of their autonomy.
Autonomy is uncontroversially taken as valuable, perhaps most of all by those who argue against the claim that we have strong moral obligations toward animals. Thus there is motivation to show that such a property isn't uniquely possessed by humans. However, while freedom to choose or make one's own decisions may be considered autonomous under some description, this capacity is clearly different from a capacity to act authentically or reflect upon and revise one's desires. One may worry that these capacities appear so different that referring to them as rich and weak forms of the same capacity stretches the notion of autonomy a little too thinly.
At bottom, it doesn't seem to be particularly important that being able to act for reasons is considered to be "autonomy" under some description, since this is not the understanding we are usually interested in when we discuss the value of autonomy under normal circumstances. What is more important is showing that acting for reasons is what underpins moral status. One way to do this is to argue that acting for reasons is a form of autonomy and that autonomy is valuable, as Thomas does. However, following this route requires one to show not just that acting for reasons is a form of autonomy...