By Nicolas Delon
I first want to thank Marcus and the Cocoon for hosting me in the next couple weeks. I'm glad, after years following the Cocoon, to get the opportunity to write from the other side. Much of what follows draws from relatively recent work but much of it is also prospective work-in-progress.
In my first post I would like to map the territory of moral status*. I will not talk much about the grounds of moral status. Here I'm interested in the notion itself, how it is variably used by philosophers and others, and whether we should keep talking about moral status at all.
I would like to address a challenge raised by what I think is a plausible understanding of the notion of moral status, namely that is has no desirable use in moral discourse. I will start by introducing the central features of my account and why I think it is plausible. I then consider the objection that the account is not normatively neutral. Let me first note that, while my account is to some extent idiosyncratic, it reflects essential features commonly cited in ethics in the last decades: final value, welfare, and obligations.
My view is that we should conceive of moral status as a set of obligations and use the term as a placeholder for such obligations. Moral status, in this sense, is not an further moral property that things have in addition to their non-moral properties and their moral value.
Things have value (or are valuable) in virtue of their non-moral properties, and this (supervenience) relation exhausts the non-moral properties in virtue of which further moral properties could be had. Moral status does imply final value, or being valuable for one's own sake, although not everything that has final value has moral status. But moral status is not a moral property that things have in themselves, independently of contexts of potential harms and benefits. In my view, moral status describes a relation between agents and other entities. It is of course a relational property of agents and entities that they are so related, so in some sense they have the moral relational property that moral status describes. But, the property is deontic rather than ontological.
Similar things could be said of value, of course: that final value describes a valuation relation rather than what the thing valued is in itself. Yet this would not be a deontic property, and at the same time this framing of the kind of property that value is explicates the idea that moral status implies final value. Moreover, this analysis of value and moral status remains compatible with the claim that the supervenience of value exhausts the non-moral properties on which moral properties could supervene. Moral status re-describes a particular type of value that certain things have in virtue of, for instance, having a welfare: a painting could have final value but no moral status, a bird has final value and moral status, and this is just in virtue of having non-moral properties (an experiential welfare) that the painting does not have. We're not saying something more in this case by saying it has moral status, we're just saying which properties give rise to the bird's distinctive value, which happens to be best (re-)described by the idea of moral status. While this is a minimal notion of moral status, I do not think it should be abandoned.
My understanding of moral status is in some way pragmatic. The notion involves patterns of use in both philosophical and ordinary discourse, including moral discourse, such that appeals to moral status are meant to elicit practical deliberation, inform decision-making, and motivate action.
Why does this raise a challenge? If moral status is not a moral property, if it only has a pragmatic role, there is room for disagreement about whether it should be used at all. For we may well have notions that fulfill the same roles equally well if not better. It may even be that the idea of moral status has detrimental impacts in ethical discourse, e.g., when speaking about so-called "marginal cases." And for sure some discussions of the moral status of humans and non-humans may inspire the thought that whatever victories had been achieved by advocates of the rights of vulnerable human beings were likely to be swept away in the wake of comparisons of persons with severe cognitive disabilities and, say, dogs, pigs, or chimps. The problem is that the notion of moral status resonates in a way, and supports types of discourse, that may be harmful (or reasonably deemed so), e.g., by appearing to downgrade the value of particular human beings. So, if other notions co-refer to the exact same properties (including relations) or describe them equally well, and such notions don't have the same practical consequences, then the idea of moral status may be both conceptually redundant and pragmatically undesirable.
My own analysis seems to give way to such an objection, since I argue that moral status just is the set of obligations moral agents owe entities – more precisely, that the specific moral status any given entity has consists of all and only the direct obligations the relevant moral agents (possibly all moral agents) have towards it (or owe it). Such obligations stem from the specific kind of value an entity has, which it has in virtue of its natural properties. To put it differently, no entity has moral status (at all or any specific one) unless at least some agent has at least some obligation to it, and no agent has any obligation (or any specific obligations) to an entity unless it has moral status (or a specific moral status). Insofar as moral status fulfills its placeholder role by specifying the content and addressees of said obligations, moral status and direct obligations coincide. This account appears to imply that we just have no use for the notion of moral status.
Well, not so fast. The notion and term of moral status have a pragmatic role (placeholder). It would be, in many circumstances, cumbersome to refer to explanations in terms of obligations instead of moral status when, for instance, claiming one shouldn't keep gestating sows in crates. Sometimes, it is more useful and efficient to just say: this is wrong because of the sow's moral status. When pressed, one may say that it's wrong because the sow is sentient, has a wide array of complex physiological, emotional, and behavioral needs the fulfillment of which gestation crates prevent. Gestation crates cause suffering, anxiety, boredom, and frustration. And we have obligations not to cause the sow to experience such things (which are, on many views, obligations to the sow). Granted, but whatever way agents come up with to grasp, sum up and weave into a coherent set their obligations to/regarding sows is precisely what the notion of moral status captures. By working as a placeholder, moral status reminds agents that they should inquire about what they ought to do: it does offer answers in terms of obligations, but only when asked. That is, the placeholder triggers moral deliberation, because having moral status is being the kind of entity to which others have obligations (including when such obligations result from purely consequentialist calculations). Thus, appeals to moral status emphasize the fact that given entities have value in virtue of some of their features (e.g., their ability to suffer), which provides an explanation of the obligations we have to or regarding them.
I understand that this may not be enough to outweigh the drawbacks of moral status. Several authors have argued that we should simply do without it. Sachs (2011) argues it is redundant and detrimental (also see Silvers 2012), while Rachels (2004) finds it useless and too rigid. I think the concern of redundancy can be assuaged. As for detrimental effects, they arise both from substantive, normative discussions (e.g. about marginal cases) that do not depend on moral status per se, and from overly narrow meta-normative conceptions of moral status. Since the former is not a direct consideration against the notion, let me set it aside here. The latter concern, I have argued elsewhere, is undercut once we accept that moral status can depend on relations and is, rather than a further axiological statement, just a pragmatically warranted placeholder for obligations.
One other possible worry is that my account introduces substantive commitments into what is meant to be a normatively neutral picture. Does an animal's moral status mean that agents have obligations to the animal, or just ought to do things that happen to involve an animal, in either case in virtue of its capacity for welfare? My relational account takes into account what it means for an animal to be wronged, but consequentialism may not need it. On the contrary, consequentialists want to claim that harms matter, but what is right or wrong is not so much a matter of what one owes to particular sentient beings than a matter of one ought to do given the circumstances. In other words, the deontic concepts consequentialists need are monadic rather than dyadic (see Thompson 2004 for a fascinating analysis). My account, therefore, seems biased against consequentialism.
I could, of course, revise it and conceive of moral status as the property of things whose welfare matters from the consequentialist standpoint. There would still be something relational about it, namely, a capacity to be harmed by agents' acts. But this would be at odds with my assumption that moral status implies final value – or in any case with the particular view of final value that I think we should have, namely that it supervenes on concrete objects rather than states of affairs.
There is, however, common ground to accommodate the pragmatic notion of moral status I am defending. Here's one way in which it could be justified by a rule- or two-level utilitarian theory. Act-utilitarianism has theoretically little use for the notion of moral status. This is simply because act-utilitarianism does not centrally rely on the notion of obligations as I understand it beyond the overall obligation to maximize the good, which is instantiated by different decisive reasons to do whatever is the right thing to do, namely what is impartially best, in the circumstances. Rule-utilitarianism or Harean two-level utilitarianism, on the other hand, may take obligations to be among the rules that would have, if they were (or assuming they would be) generally followed, the overall best consequences. For instance, these utilitarians may claim that a general moral rule against eating animal products would have better consequences than specifying, for every particular act, the right thing to do, assuming eating animal products tends to decrease overall welfare. Or it could be that encouraging meatless Mondays as a rule actually has better overall consequences. Either way, the rule is chosen because it is easier to internalize and enforce, and therefore more likely to produce the best outcome. While in some circumstances an act-utilitarian may argue that eating animal products is morally neutral or in fact maximizes overall welfare, enforcing a general rule against such behavior may ultimately have better consequences given facts about expected compliance, the social context, human psychology, etc.
Of course, it's arguable that the best version of rule-utilitarianism coincides with the correct verdicts of a fully informed act-utilitarian, but this just goes to show that even act-utilitarians should accept a notion of moral status because it turns out to maximize welfare. By analogy with rules, moral statuses encapsulate the various restrictions and requirements that will maximize welfare. (The status of a particular category can be seen as a cluster of obligations and a range property for all members of the category.) Thus, act- or rule-utilitarianism can accept that talk of moral status is in most circumstances the most effective way to minimize suffering and/or maximize happiness, by facilitating compliance with the rules stating what is best for those who can suffer.
Acceptance of this general claim does not commit one to rule out the possibility that, in context, protections granted in the form of moral status can be released or overridden, nor does it imply that specific moral status should not be sensitive to circumstances in the way utilitarianism requires (Hare's distinction between an "intuitive" and a "critical" level of moral reasoning captures this flexibility of utilitarian moral status – see Hare 1981 and Varner 2012 for a recent defense). Over time and across context, moral status can evolve to respond to changing circumstances. After all, this makes sense given a definition of moral status as a deontic relation between agents and entities. This possibility was acknowledged by Rachels, who noted that moral status, like rights, could have a limited use in practical (e.g., legal) contexts, although fundamentally whatever treatment is owed to particular individuals is a function of their individual features rather than their membership in any specific category. The reciprocal relations between the intuitive and critical levels, I believe, address Rachels' concern of rigidity, while reflecting the pragmatic strengths of rule- or two-level utilitarianism.
My account is thus not meant to be tied to any particular moral theory. The above considerations apply to other theories (deontologism, contractualism, virtue ethics, care ethics...), and I would be happy to elaborate.
Further work needs to be done in support of the notion of moral status, including more empirical approaches to its actual patterns of use. Something along the lines of "pragmatic experimental philosophy" (Fisher 2015)** would help refine our understanding of moral status in philosophical discourse. Just like intrinsic value has gained traction in ordinary language among environmentalists and in constitutional texts and international organizations, there is an ordinary use of moral status that responds to pragmatic goals in advocacy and public policy. These patterns of use reflect both practical concerns and widespread attitudes, on one hand, and philosophical tropes flowing from applied ethics, on the other hand. They help people achieve goals that may, in turn, be grounded in specific moral beliefs. Regardless of the latter, this is a fact to be reckoned with, and one that should give philosophers pause. If I am correct about the pragmatic role of moral status in moral deliberation, there is all the more reason to pursue such empirical efforts.
* The expressions moral status and moral standing can be used interchangeably for present purposes.
** Interestingly, recent work on the idea moral status in experimental philosophy (e.g., Sytsma and Machery 2012) has relied on an influential model of moral cognition that analyses morality in terms of "Agency" and "Experience" and a corresponding dyadic relation between responsible agents and patients susceptible to harms. Assuming the idea moral status correctly describes what the model is meant to account for, it would imply that it is a core feature of folk morality.