For those of us who are curious about philosophy and keep studying it,
we are often part of events that put us to the test. A common scenario
can be described more or less as follows.
Imagine you are at a dinner table, having fun with some friends on a
Saturday night, and the topic of violence in human beings is brought up.
Maybe you are discussing a crime that came up in the news recently, when
one of your buddies makes the following pronouncement:
“Last week I watched ‘March of the Penguins’ and, to my utter
surprise (spoiler ahead!), these animals are very violent! To the point
that, when an infant penguin loses her parents, who are in charge of
nourishing her, other adult penguins will come along and kill her simply
because there’s nobody left to do the journey to get food for her.
Isn’t that unfair? There’s a good amount of violence in the animal
kingdom. I watch documentaries all the time and this is a common theme.
Then… since we humans are animals, we are bound to be violent, as
You reason with yourself for a while and come to the conclusion that
something must have gone wrong in your friend’s last statement. You
search for clarification in the wealthy mass of philosophical knowledge
that you have patiently acquired throughout the years, to realize that it
may be worth pointing out that your friend’s conclusion may not be the
case depending on how you look at it.
You wait until dessert time to bring up the topic again, you turn around
to your dinner friend and say:
“Kant would disagree with your statement about violence in human
Now all eyes are on you and you have no choice but to perform your
philosophical mission to the best of your abilities. You start
explaining that treating humans as animals means for Kant to take away
their humanity, which is their dignity since it is based on rationality.
“We humans are endowed with a gift from nature that gives us the freedom
to act rightly. Penguins may not be able to decide what’s best from an
ethical standpoint, but we have this freedom that is underlying all of
We humans are endowed with a gift from nature that gives us the freedom to act rightly.
We wouldn’t be able to talk about ethics at all if we couldn’t see us
as free beings who are capable of deciding. Think about how Aristotle
classified our actions as voluntary and involuntary. You can only be
held accountable for something that you’ve done because you are
expected to have performed it in a voluntary way. You can pick up the
information that surrounds a given affair, weigh all the facts and make
a decision, which will lead to your action.
For Kant, penguins are not built like that. They belong exclusively to
the world of nature, since they are not rational beings, for which all
of their actions are done involuntarily because they are subject to
predetermined laws. A penguin cannot decide if it’s right or wrong to
kill the baby: they are programmed to do it! There is, for Kant, no
freedom in nature: all of its happenings are based on physical
However, human beings can escape these preordained behaviors by reaching
out to their rationality, which is a gift from mother nature. Kant
believed that we are imperfect in the sense that we are lazy, we tend to
do what benefits us (most of the time) and we have double standards, but
he also maintained that humanity based on rationality gives us the
chance to improve towards a future in which all human beings will act
So even if penguins kill each other, that doesn’t mean that we must do
At this point, you have certainly piqued everybody’s curiosity and they
want to know more. Your friend asks you in a sardonic tone of voice:
“That’s very nice, but how about emotions? I’m certainly not rational
all of the time. For instance, this morning I got really upset at
someone when they cut me off in traffic. Does it mean that I am supposed
to override my emotions and pretend that I’m always rational?”
“Certainly not,” you answer with a smirk, “but that is not the point.
Being upset at someone is not the same as trying to hurt them. In fact,
I am pretty sure you let the person who cut you off go their way safely
because you must have thought something to the extent that you are not
supposed to injure someone just because they are rude to you. And in
that decision, you, my friend, acted rationally.”
Kudos to you! But things got a bit complicated by now and you need more
assistance from other philosophers to round up your point.
“Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher, based her description
of political action on this Kantian position. Animals cannot be
political because they are only worried about their survival. This is
probably why the penguins in the movie killed the baby: they are unable
to feed her and, if they try to do so, more of them may perish.
We human beings, instead, have three types of activity: labor, work and political action.
We human beings, instead, have three types of activity: labor, work
and political action. Labor relates to our everyday hustle and bustle that lets us be alive, while work helps us build the world we live in through the tools and artefacts that we create. At the same time, we are also rational beings capable of spontaneous actions: we can stop normal and typical business as required by our labor and work activities and engage in ways that lead to our freedom, such as going to demonstrations or congregating to make a decision that affects our civil rights. We are not predetermined in our actions, as the penguins are, but instead, we are a plurality of individuals that can bring to the table all sorts of possibilities that are open to us because we can act upon them without notice. This ability is
given to us by the freedom underlying all of our voluntary actions, which are based on our rationality.”
At this point, the whole table has taken their hats off to you and you
have officially become the group’s philosophy guru… and all thanks
◊ ◊ ◊
Yamile Abdala Rioja
is an advanced student in a 5-year philosophy
program at Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Argentina, and an
independent researcher. She began her lifelong journey in philosophy at
a very early age by reading and studying with her father works on
medieval authors, classical literature and religious texts. She has
always been mesmerized by the polymathy in many of the philosophers in
history and enjoys finding ways to escape Platonic specialization. At
this time, her main areas of interest are aesthetics and metaphysics.
Yamile Abdala Rioja on Daily Philosophy:
Cover image by Ian Parker on Unsplash.