[This post is the seventh 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. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays … or at least that’s the plan.]
In the short clip I’ve chosen, Jeff McMahan asks what I think is the central question from which all of his, and Peter Singer’s, arguments concerning the disabled flow. He asks: “What is the basis of our higher moral status that’s shared by the radically cognitively limited, but not shared by higher non-human animals?” I want to talk a bit about potential answers to this question and invite others to either respond to the question or to say why the question is unimportant or unnecessary. A transcript of the clip is available beneath the fold below.
During the question and answer portion of this presentation, someone invites McMahan to ask a slightly different question than that mentioned above. He suggests McMahan instead ask: What makes it more wrong to kill a human than an animal? I think we should keep both the broader and the more focused question in mind.
I admit I’m assuming that people do believe it is worse to kill a human than an animal. I know of some religious traditions that condemn the killing of animals, and probably many vegetarians think that killing animals is wrong, but I think even Buddhists, Hindus, and vegetarians think that it is more wrong to kill a human than an animal. So even those who say that killing animals is wrong can’t avoid the questions posed above.
Another answer that doesn’t seem to be an option is to say that human life is sacred. We can’t say that humans are made in the image of God, or that humans have an immortal soul. I actually do think that it is a feeling that human life is sacred that underpins our belief in the higher moral status of humans, but the religious answer just isn’t an acceptable answer in an “academic” debate.
Singer and McMahan think that the most plausible answer is found by considering psychological capacities or cognitive abilities. However, this answer, as they admit, requires that we deny a small number of human beings the same moral status that readers of this blog possess. I’ve heard people raise serious doubts about the plausibility of the Singer/McMahan answer — for example that there is no reliable way to assess cognitive abilities, that comparisons of psychological capacities across species don’t make sense, that it is dangerous to base moral status on psychological capacities — and while I agree with these criticisms of an answer based on cognitive ability, this simply serves to undermine another answer to the question. The question itself remains.
So if it is more wrong to kill a human than an animal, and this is not because human life is sacred, nor is it because most humans possess unique psychological capacities, then what makes it more wrong? I don’t have an answer to this question, but the question does seem to matter. McMahan, at least, thinks that “we don’t understand our own moral status unless we can give some kind of good answer to that question”. It seems to me that if we want to say something is wrong, we ought to be able to say why it is wrong, and we certainly want to say that killing is wrong.
Many people strongly disagree with McMahan and Singer. Rather than trying to show why the answer they rely on (psychological capacities) is the wrong answer, it might prove more effective to come up with a better answer, or show why the question being asked is the wrong question. If we did that, then, as McMahan puts it, we could “shut Peter Singer up for good”.
Transcript of clip
All of us who think that we, that is, those of us in this room, have a higher moral status than any animal accept what I call a two-tear morality. That is, we think that we have rights that animals don’t, and that we are owed forms of respect that aren’t owed to animals. Yet most people think that radically cognitively limited human beings are above that threshold that animals fall below. Most people think that the radically cognitively limited have rights that animals don’t have, and that they have what Martha Nussbaum, in her talk the other night, called “equal human dignity”. That is, they have some kind of exalted status that they share with us, but that animals don’t have. But of course if it’s psychological capacity that differentiates us morally from animals, that can’t be true. So if the common view, the view that most people believe is right, psychological capacity and potential can’t be what matters — they can’t be what give us the status that we have but think that animals don’t. So the question we have to ask is: What is it that matters? What is the basis of our higher moral status that is supposedly shared by radically cognitively limited human beings but not by comparably psychologically endowed animals? Now, this challenge typically provokes some derision and some indignation, but I think the best way to respond to the challenge is to give a really good, clear, decisive answer to it, and then that would… that would shut Peter Singer up for good… and me. We wouldn’t have to go on with this anymore. We’re waiting for that… waiting for that really good answer to that question. What is the basis of our higher moral status that’s shared by the radically cognitively limited, but not shared by higher non-human animals? Now, I think that that challenge remains unanswered, and I think that’s a real problem; we don’t understand our own moral status unless we can give some kind of good answer to that question.