What are the deep facts about our moral status?

[This post is the third in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]

What are the deep facts about our moral status? Have your say in a poll at the end of this post!!

Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer have posed the following question, both in their talks for the Cognitive Disability conference, and in their past work: In virtue of what does human life have moral value and significance? They have been especially interested in answers to this question, which are easy to elicit from common sense, that appeal to the properties that human lives embody (e.g., human beings have certain cognitive capacities). They are also both interested in challenging those who would give such answers to think harder about the ways in which we disvalue non-human animal life. More specifically, both Singer and McMahan are skeptical of the coherence of views, including property-based views, that value all forms of human life more highly than all forms of animal life. This is chiefly because not all non-human animal life lacks value-conferring properties, and because not all human life comes with those properties.

There were several especially interesting questions that arose in the question period following McMahan’s talk, one from Naomi Scheman, the other from Adrienne Asch; I’ll comment on just the Scheman one here, and on the Asch question, and the following interchange with McMahan, separately. Here’s the Scheman question (a full transcript of what she says is available beneath the fold):

The clip can be found in podcast #36, the question and answer to Jeff McMahan’s talk (and final podcast on the page), from around 35.45 – 39.00 at the conference website. You can also view it directly at Youtube if you are having trouble playing the video clip above by clicking right here.

Scheman is saying many things here (including things about thought experiments and analogies that I found confusing), but I want to focus on just two of them. First, that it is an assumption of not just property-based answers to the “in virtue of what …” question, including those that appeal to certain kinds of cognitive capacities, but of the very question itself, that only an individual’s intrinsic properties are relevant to its moral status. That is, the question itself, as it is typically asked, pushes us to identify something about a given human being in and of itself that imbues it with a particular moral value. Second, that in fact what gives human beings their moral value are relational facts about them, rather than what intrinsic properties they have. Facts about a particular human being–such as being formed in the body of, or having been born to, or having been loved by, another particular person—imbue that human being with moral value. These are the grounds we have for caring for one another, and (so?) the basis for the moral value we ascribe to human beings.

I think that Scheman is right about how the “in virtue of what” question is usually asked, the kind of answer that it is typically taken to demand. I also agree with her about the importance of the kinds of relational facts that she identifies in accounting for what motivates human caring and connection. Relational facts about human beings are deep facts about them as moral beings, and are at least partially (not wholly, as Scheman seems to imply) determinative of their moral status. If this is correct, then the kind of parity considerations that lead Singer, McMahan, and others to focus on the same (intrinsic) property across cases where the relevant relational facts vary—comparisons between humans with limited cognitive capacities, and non-human animals with cognitive capacities at least as rich as these—are misplaced. (This may be what Scheman is getting at with her talk of analogies and thought experimental comparisons, and so maybe that’s not as confusing as I initially found it.)

It’s true in general that relational properties have a hard time getting due time across the board in analytic philosophy, in metaphysics as much as in ethics. This is in part because philosophers take as their paradigmatic relational properties those like being three miles from a burning barn (in metaphysics) or being a member of the same species as (in ethics). In my view, neither of these particular relational properties invokes a relation that is relevant in the respective domain. But not all relations are like this, just as not all intrinsic properties are themselves causally or morally relevant.

In ethics, appeals to the kinds of relational properties that Scheman seems to have in mind, ones that appeal to relations to particular people, to particular histories of involvement and connection, are also often thought to compromise the impartiality or even the objectivity of fundamental moral principles insofar as they hold only of some (fairly small) subset of people, let alone non-human animals. It offers up a kind of me-and-my-buddies morality, an account of moral status that makes moral status sound more like club membership than like an objective feature of the world that makes demands on us independent of our own particular place in the world.

For some, such appeals also make it sound as though a person’s moral status depends on that person’s connection to me (or my community, nation, ethnic group, species), and so has only some kind of instrumental or derivative value. Whatever one thinks of the claim above—that an appeal to (human) relations as an answer to the “in virtue of what” question conflicts with the impartiality that morality should have—this further claim about the resulting instrumental value of persons rests on a confusion. For a property (such as having a determinate moral status) could be relational in nature but still itself have intrinsic value, just as an aesthetic object could have its beauty or complexity determined relationally (e.g., in virtue of its history of production) yet its beauty still be an intrinsic value that it possesses.

If one thought that accepting the two points that I have attributed to Scheman provided reason for thinking that that “in virtue of what” question is a bad question to ask, then one might well ask something like the question that Adrienne Asch follows up with, although that can’t be Asch’s own reason for asking it, since she distances herself from the second of the points that Scheman makes, as we’ll see. Something on this in the next Thinking in Action post.

Transcript of video clip:

Naomi Scheman

There’s so much that has been going on at this incredibly wonderful conference, and I think one of the things that, at least for me is emerging, is just how deep these problems go and how fundamental they are, not just to moral thinking, moral theorizing, but to ontology. I mean what kinds of things there are.

And I think we’re trapped in overly simply pictures, or we demand overly simple pictures, that moral considerability is going to be determined by what kind of thing one is, as though that’s a fact about this thing taken in abstraction or isolation. And I think if we pick up the strands that have been running through the conference, and most recently in Eva’s remarks about how deep relationship goes. I mean, my, it isn’t just that Eva cares about Sesha differently than about an animal; I care about Sesha. I’ve never met Sesha. Sesha is Eva’s daughter. Everybody is somebody’s son or daughter.

It’s a deep and important fact about human beings that they start out inside the body of another human being. Our moral lives would be utterly different if people were created in test tubes and raised in laboratories. I can’t speculate about how they’d be different. I’m a Wittgensteinian, I don’t do that kind of thing. But I don’t think we should do that kind of thing because our moral imaginations need to be enlarged by the lives that we actually live, the relationships we actually enter into, and the kind of enlargement of moral imagination that leads us to take non-human animals more seriously, to care about their pain and their suffering. It’s extraordinary. And it’s deeply important. And there are people who are helping to push me in that direction. As a carnivore, it’s hard but I’m being pushed, but I’m not being pushed by people who analogize cognitive capacities. I’m being pushed by pictures, by images, by stories, by the enlargement of sympathies.

The other thing about relationship is I’ve adopted a feral cat. The ontological status of that animal has changed. It’s not just that you can’t do things to her now that you could perhaps when she was ferral because it would hurt me. She’s a different kind of being because of that. When Duchamp took a urinal and stuck it on the wall, he changed the ontological status of that urinal. I mean, the ontological status of things does not inhere in them as separable individuals. It’s all of it relational. And that means that we live in a world of relationship, of stories, of enlargement of moral imagination. And the idea that we can replace that hard, embodied, relational work with thought experiments I think doesn’t …, it just leads us astray.

One thought on “What are the deep facts about our moral status?

  1. Here’s a comment from Naomi Scheman, sent to me privately but with her permission to post at the site, expanding on her comments criticizing analogizing and thought experiments that are under discussion here:

    in both cases [analogizing and thought experiments], there’s an abstracting and decontextualizing of what are taken to be the morally relevant features of the situation. I think that move is in general problematic–bypassing the difficult work of discernment, which requires attention to particularities–but it also fits with the preference for intrinsic, over relational, properties.

    My thoughts about how to avoid noxious preferences for those we take ourselves to be closely related to (or, worse, stigmatizing of those we take ourselves not to be related to) are two-fold: one is historical/material–recognizing our interdependencies on and vulnerabilities to those quite distant from us, i.e., the relationships in which we’re enmeshed even w/out our knowledge: we have morally important relationships to those in poorer countries on whom we are dependent for cheap labor and resources, and with everyone on earth, given problems with pollution and global climate change–neither of these was the case a thousand years ago. The second is normative: an imperative to attend to relationships of that sort and an imperative to expand our moral imagination and sense of connection. So it’s not just that moral considerability follows actual relationship, but acknowledging and fostering relationship is a moral good, one that I’d argue extends even to non-animate, even non-live aspects of the world.

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