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.

Claims about moral status are worthless because:

(1)   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.

(2)   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;

(3)  the term “moral status” is one that’s only used by philosophers
a.    as far as I can tell, it is not part of any kind of common talk. Since I don’t want to create more confusion among 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.

P.S. Another bad thing about moral status talk is that people can say, "I just think the moral status of X is low, and that's a legitimate view, and so my view is reasonable." That's not great.  

For further reading, with arguments similar to above (but developed independently):

Ben Sachs: The Status of Moral Status

Benjamin Sachs
Publication date

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly
Abstract This paper investigates whether moral status talk gets us anywhere in our search
for answers to questions in the ethics of marginal cases. I consider the usefulness of moral
status talk first on the assumption that an individual's possession of moral status is not a
further fact about that individual, and then on the assumption that it is. Finally, I offer an
expressivistic interpretation of moral status talk. In each case, I argue that such talk conveys
nothing that cannot be conveyed more clearly in other words. My conclusion is that we
should stop using moral status and its cognates.

Oscar Horta: Why the Concept of Moral Status Should be Abandoned
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (4):899-910 (2017)
The use of the concept of moral status is commonplace today in debates about the moral consideration of entities lacking certain special capacities, such as nonhuman animals. This concept has been typically used to defend the view that adult human beings have a status higher than all those entities. However, even those who disagree with this claim have often accepted the idea of moral status as if it were part of an undisputed received way of thinking in ethics. This paper argues that the use of this concept, however common, distorts our understanding of how to behave towards different individuals in different circumstances. When moral status is identified with the interest in living or the capacity for well-being, it becomes an arbitrary and irrelevant criterion. When it is used as a synonym of moral consideration or considerability, in a way that is compatible with the principle of equal consideration, it becomes trivial and confusing. When used, instead, to defend the unequal moral consideration of interests of equal weight, it has several implausible implications. In particular, the claim that unequal status is justified because of the value of cognitive capacities implausibly entails that our exercising those capacities should have priority over the promotion of our wellbeing. The idea of full moral status is also problematic as it implies the possibility of status monsters. In addition, its use is based in a misconceived way of what it would really entail to have a full status by virtue of having rational capacities. The paper concludes that we have strong reasons to abandon the concept of moral status altogether.

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