Altruism and Animals

Annie Baril, University of Arizona

From whence are our moral obligations to others derived? If we accept Thomas Nagel’s argument, some degree of altruism, some ?willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons?, is demanded of us, on pain of irrationality. (The Possibility of Altruism, 79) If I am properly conceiving of myself as just one individual among other, equally real individuals, then another’s attitudes towards her own needs, interests, and desires (hereafter, welfare) ought to be, prima facie, reason-providing for me. I propose, contra Nagel, that altruism, in this sense, imposes on moral agents demands of equal force whether the potential recipient of moral action is capable of reciprocation or not. Nagel’s argument depends on second-order attitudes: another’s attitudes toward’s her own welfare is what ought to motivate us to act on her behalf. But it is ultimately the attitudes of someone towards her self and her own experiences, not her reflection upon these attitudes, that gives us prima facie reason to act on her behalf. What we see as the motivational force of reasons comes from the attitudes of the subject (which needn’t be second-order) from which these reasons are derived. Therefore the differences between humans and many non-humans (and between the rational and the non-rational generally) are not relevant to the establishment of claims on us as agents.

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