Friday, July 22, 2016

On "Moral Status"


What is the moral status of animals? What’s the moral status of fetuses? What’s the moral status of the permanently comatose? While questions like these are sometimes asked (also about ‘moral standing’), I have written a few paragraphs where I argue that the term “moral status” shouldn’t be used.


In 2010, I wrote that claims about moral status are worthless because:

(a)   anything anyone wants to say or ask involving the term “moral status” can more clearly be said or asked using clearer terms about moral obligations (and permissions):

a.       e.g., sometimes to ask about animals’ or fetuses’ “moral status” seems to be to ask what obligations we have toward them, what are permissible ways to treat them, etc.;
b.      to ask what their “moral status” is compared to our “moral status” is to ask how obligations toward each kind of beings differ, whether it’s better or worse to treat one some way, compared to the other, etc.;

These concrete questions about how an individual can be treated, morally, are clearer than any claims about moral status.

(b)   the idea of moral status is un-explanatory and/or a needless level of explanation:

a.       e.g., suppose someone says it’s not wrong to kill animals because their moral status is less than our’s, or at some low level, or whatever. We can then ask why their status is that and, with luck, we’ll get some real answers, ones that don't mention moral status (e.g., “animals are stupid” or “animals are hairy” or “animals aren’t moral agents” or “there are no moral agents who are not human”). If we do get these answers, then we can just think about the possible relevance of those characteristics of the individual directly and forget about “moral status” again;

(c)    the term “moral status” is one that’s only used by philosophersas far as I can tell, it is not part of any kind of common talk. Since I don’t want to create more confusion amongst lay folk, I don't want to push a new concept on them that does not do any work.  

In 2014, in “A Moral Argument for Veganism,” we didn’t base our argument on any claims about the “moral status” of animals because, I argued, “appeals to ‘moral status’ (or ‘moral standing’) typically are either question begging or circular (e.g., ‘It is wrong to harm animals because they have a moral status such that it is wrong to harm them’) or dispensable (e.g., ‘Animals are wrong to harm because they have the moral status or standing of conscious, sentient beings,’ which could have just been said as, ‘Animals are wrong to harm because they are conscious, sentient beings,’ without mentioning ‘moral status’ or ‘standing.’).”[1]

Thus, it seems that claims involving moral status are “worthless”: we can always say something clearer that directly addresses any moral questions and so we shouldn’t use the term.



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