Some Thoughts on Moral Status

John Doris suggested to me that the concept of “moral status” is probably more complicated than many realize. A common framework for understanding what it means to have moral status is the two-fold moral agent/moral patient framework. Like most concepts, this framework is best illustrated via example. The paradigm moral agent is the adult human. The paradigm moral patient is a newborn baby. The moral agent is capable of thinking morally and acting morally. When a moral agent acts morally, they usually do so with a patient in mind. Moral agents typically do not act morally towards bits of garbage. We simply toss them in the trash because they are mere material objects. They lack moral status for they are not moral patients. Other instances of moral patients are arguably chimpanzees. It would be wrong to toss a chimp in a giant garbage compactor because the chimp is a moral patient towards whom moral agents have duties e.g. the duty not to needlessly or purposely harm patients. If a psychopath were to stab a chimp for the fun of it, this would be wrong. The psychopath is a defective moral agent, an agent that is failing to do his or her moral duty towards moral patients.

The moral agent/patient distinction is a fine one but as a philosopher my job is to often to expand or elaborate on the hidden complexity a seemingly simple concept affords. So here goes.

The problem with an overly simplistic moral agent/patient distinction is that it tends to classify all moral patients as sentient beings, which on Earth most people think includes the entire Mammalian family. All mammals are moral patients because all (normal) mammals can feel pain and moral agents have a duty to not needlessly inflict pain on moral patients, unless they have a compelling reason to do so. However, I tentatively propose a new taxonomy of moral status which I formulated haphazardly last night. It’s rough, so bear with me.

First, I propose there are two types of moral agents: reflective agents and sentient agents. An example of a reflective agent is a normal adult human. An example of a sentient agent is a cat. If you are capable of reflective thinking, you are a reflective agent. Typically, reflective agents are also sentient agents.

Second, I propose there are two types of moral patients: reflective patients and sentient patients. Again, an example of a reflective patient is a normal adult human. Adult humans are often in need of help from other moral agents so they are both agents and patients at the same time. An example of a sentient patient is a cat. If you can feel pain or pleasure then you are a sentient patient. A cat is not capable of reflective thinking yet it can feel pain and pleasure so moral agents have a duty to not needlessly harm cats without a compelling reason to do otherwise.

Arguably the weirdest category is a sentient agent. How can a cat be a moral agent if it cannot reflectively think? Well, the answer is that you can do a lot of good in the world without being able to reflect. Consider a mamma cat’s relationship to its newborn kittens. The kittens are sentient patients but not sentient agents. The kittens need help from mamma cat and the mamma cat normally has responsibilities towards her kittens although in the real world the mamma cat like other animals with litters will by necessity focus her powers on helping a subset of her litter.

From our new taxonomy of moral status we can now discuss different kinds of value. I propose there are two main types of value associated with each of the above types of agents. For reflective agents, there are two types of value: intrinsic reflective value and derived reflective value. An example of something with intrinsic reflective value is the act of reflective thought itself – it is valuable because reflective thought can potentially lead to a lot of good actions not possible otherwise. It would be wrong to needlessly destroy an adult human brain because that brain is the seat of reflective thinking.

An example of something with derived reflective value is a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. This baseball, though a mere physical object, has derived value because it is valued by some reflective agents, namely, baseball fans. It would be wrong to throw that baseball into the trash (without good reason) because this would cause harm to some reflective agents.

Turning to sentient agents, there are also two corresponding types of value: intrinsic sentiential value and derived sentiential value. An example of something with intrinsic sentiential value is the pleasure a dog feels as it is chewing on its favorite chew toy. My favorite category is derived sentiential value because it creates interesting overlaps. That very same baseball signed by Babe Ruth has the potential to possess derived sentiential value. Suppose a rich baseball fan has ten baseballs signed by Babe Ruth and decides to give one to his dog, Spike, to be used as a chewtoy. The baseball becomes Spike’s favorite chewtoy. It would be wrong to needlessly destroy that baseball not because of its derived reflective value because Spike cannot reflect and cannot appreciate how much it would be valued by other, not-so-rich baseball fans. What Spike can do however is value that baseball as a chewtoy. Thus, the baseball has derived sentiential value because it is valued by a sentient creature.

From the above, we can generate two new types of patients: derived reflective patients and derived sentiential patients. The Babe Ruth baseball can be an example of both. If the baseball was the property of a normal, reflective baseball fan it would be wrong to destroy it because it is highly valued by a reflective agent/patient. If the baseball was the property of Spike the dog then it would be wrong to destroy it because it is highly valued as a chewtoy by a sentient agent/patient.

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1 Comment

Filed under Moral Philosophy, Philosophy

One response to “Some Thoughts on Moral Status

  1. Very interesting. Context changes the entire… apperception… of the situation. Hmm…

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