Kant, the vegan ?

Marie-Claude Sawerschel
8 min readApr 27, 2019
Illustration : Nelly Damas for Foliosophy

Kant was an omnivore, he enjoyed meat and his biographers were clear about that. Jachmann, one such biographer, states — all joking aside — that “his meals were simple: three dishes, cheese and butter.” It’s a known fact that his midday meals, lingering on until four or five in the afternoon, depending on conversations with the guests who shared his table on a given day, were the only daily meal he consumed. We know he was a fan of veal broth, and that his troublemaking valet, Lampe, served him roast meats, though game meats never graced his table. His preference was for fish — especially cod, which he said he “could eat a full plate of, even right after a full meal” — he chewed meat thoroughly to extract the juice, and discretely left the remnants under breadcrusts on the side of his plate. An appreciable gesture. Other times, other customs. It’s not, however, for his peculiar masticatory habits that Kant has remained etches in our minds, though his philosophical genius did give us knowledge of the condition of his teeth, said to have been “very poor and caused him many problems.” No post-mortem personal makeovers for the stars of philosophy. And no smoothed out and photoshopped selfies of nobodies with nothing more to offer than their glimmering white smile. A relief to us all.

Students diving into Kant’s moral philosophy, sometimes by obligation, first see a wall standing before them like the North face of a mountain peak ever-awaiting its conqueror. Several hours of reading and a few weeks’ digestion later, once things have clicked and maybe even a wow effect has occurred, they can scarcely fathom the morality process other than through Immanuel, and there’s an art to making them taste the beauties of utilitarianism. But the fruits make the effort worthwhile, as it’s broadly between the bosoms of these two philosophies that people come to naturally gauge what is moral and what is not.

Let’s keep it simple. First, we must make a distinction between what is good and the Good (bonum), or what is good in relation to something and what is good in itself. If I want to help a sick person get better, I must choose the right remedy. A remedy is good in relation to the targeted effect: healing the ill. Similarly, as any Agatha Christie reader knows, if I want to poison someone, I need to find the poison best suited to the desired effect: slow or fast-acting, deadly, paralysing, that leaves traces or is entirely imperceptible to the very most meticulous of autopsies. The chosen poison is good in relation to my goal, exactly like the above-mentioned remedy. In both cases, we are dealing with what Kant calls hypothetical imperatives, or in other words, a command (imperative) that orders me to do something because I seek a specific result (hypothetical). To make an omelet, I must break eggs. It is absolutely necessary. But it’s hard to imagine why I would break eggs if not to make an omelet, exactly like it is not wrong not to break eggs if I do not wish to make an omelet. No need to expand. Surely we haven’t lost anyone thus far.

Regarding the Good or what is good in itself, things are less straightforward. Take a good person who may portray unconditional good. What makes up the list of a good person’s qualities? Calm and controlled? Naturally mindful of others? Composed in all circumstances? Do they seek the best for others? We could easily agree that those traits are good in themselves and not in relation to something else, yet we’re perfectly aware that bloodthirsty criminals can very well share these same qualities. And they appear all the more vile when the intent behind their use is considered to be malicious. The French film With a Friend like Harry… blatantly displayed the terrifying potentialities of those who wish us the best.

Can there be a Good other than good will?

The fundamental issue here is: why do we judge certain actions as being good or bad in themselves, without considering the end goal or the consequences they imply? It’s an important point: we all know someone with a clumsy streak, someone with a lack of luck whose actions turn to brazen catastrophes — but you just can’t blame them. Why? Because their intention was good. And how can you identify (theoretically) a good intention? In that you could wish for that intention, and the command that ordered the action to achieve it, to be repeated by any person in any place, or, more plainly, that the maxim of the action, the principle subjectively experienced by the concerned person when the desire appeared, could become a law of nature, as though all human beings or other reasonable beings (like E.T. the extra-terrestrial for example) could supplement pre-existing laws of physical nature by establishing a law of nature from a moral standpoint. And provisionally, we could conclude (hoping we haven’t lost too many readers along the way) that a command that issues an order with no regard whatsoever to goal or consequence is a categorical imperative. Only one such imperative has been expressed by Kant, in the devout phrase :

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

With Kant, we have the most rigorous (some say rigid) moral posture one could imagine, more demanding than the Law of Talion advising not to do unto others what you don’t want not unto you, to the extent that with the categorical imperative, you do not use your subjective personal preferences as a benchmark for establishing what is good.

Now we ask how such considerations can shed light on some major issues currently under debate about the fate of animals, antispecist contentions and invitations to veganism, a movement built on the following statement from the Statute of the Vegan Society of 20 November 1979:

“[Veganism] is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment […]”

Resolutely, veganism grew more radical in subsequent decades, excluding all use of animal-derived products or ensuing from their activities.

As we saw -one- Kant was not vegan. And -two- Kant reserves the enablement of the categorical imperative to reasonable beings alone, meaning beings who not only act according to laws (which, for example, a stone can do when falling from a cliff face into the valley below), but that also have the ability to act in accordance with representations of laws. This means being capable of subjecting their own will to principles. No rocks, no plants, and, in his mind, no animals.

Drawing : Guy Mérat

Thus, in essence and to be pragmatic, the perimeter of his ethical circle encompasses the human race alone.

Given that Kant has, as stated, designed the most stringent moral system imaginable, we should be able to test it on living beings which, in post-Kantian societies, have been gradually admitted into our ethical circle. After all, the Ganges does have the same legal status as a person.

Back to the categorical imperative:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”

We can further develop by adding the consequence that, to Kant, stemmed from his categorical imperative, expressing it in other words. For our purpose, let’s extended it to the animals, plants and bodies of water on our planet.

“Act in such a way that you treat <humanity>, whether in your own <person> or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”

This wording of the categorical imperative summons us to consider our dentist or the bus driver “always at the same time as an end, and not simply as a means to get my tooth fixed or reach a destination on time,” which means I must respect their persons, who, like my own, are potential legislators capable of enabling the moral imperative in their minds. I am not supposed to clob a dentist who does a poor job on my tooth, or insult a driver dawdling down the road . You are not supposed to clobber a dentist who does a poor job on your tooth, or insult a driver dawdling down the road. The implication here is that the social contract binding me to these people makes me sometimes view them as a means, in the very same way as I sometimes view myself as a means for my children to be raised, fed and cared for, for instance.

This wording allows for a solid balance between the sacred dimension of a person (for Kant) or living thing (for our demonstration) and the economical dimension arising from life in society. Following a portion of her life farming sheep, sociologist and zoo-technician Jocelyne Porcher makes a similar statement about the relationship between humans and animals:

“Working with animals means producing, but also living together, growing and thriving. There’s an economic rationale to the work, but also one of relationships and identities.”

In today’s most radical vegan debate, the moral demand is greater still than that of the Kantian view as it excludes even the possibility of using animals as a means. When veganism condemns a horseback ride in the forest, or sharing one’s life with a domestic animal, it is more restrictive than Kant himself with his fellow human beings. However, in line with the usual symptoms of the vegan context, nothing is said about humans for the plain and simple reason that if people cannot be used as a means, there is no society.

And no previous civilisation would have been possible either if mankind had not formed alliances with domestic animals. To believe that domesticating animals is a monstrosity against nature, a person must never have been close to one. “Because domestic animals are primarily prey,” reminds Jocelyne Porcher, “When you’re a sheep, the most obvious freedom belongs to the wolves, not to yourself. Shepherds did not reduce sheep to slavery. They built an alliance capable of reassuring the animals and allowing them to live free from the fear of predators.”


Michel Onfray: Le ventre des philosophes

Jean Mistler: Kant intime, Grasset.

Thomas de Quincey: Les derniers jours d’Emmanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

Jocelyne Porcher (2014): Vivre avec les animaux : une utopie pour le XXIe siècle

Jocelyne Porcher (2007): Ne libérez pas les animaux !

Jean-François Braustein (2018): La philosophie devenue folle

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass