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Ethics: Moral Status

Jeff discusses the nature of moral status. What does it take for someone to be a subject of moral concern? Do they have to be human? Rational? Sentient? Alive? And how does our answer to this question affect how we should act in everyday life?

Speaker: Dr. Jeff Sebo, Research Fellow, Department of Bioethics, The National Institutes of Health.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    Moral status? What difference does it make? Let's take the example of kicking a mouse down the street.

    By mass, a mouse is an infinitesimally tiny part of the universe. If I'm offending part of the universe by maltreating this mouse, how big an offense could it really be seeing as how I leave most of the universe unoffended.

    Further, the mouse is not going to live very long whether I kick it or leave it alone. Even if this mouse would live a hundred years, that's nothing compared to the billions of years the universe exists.

    Also, the universe is unimaginably large. For an observer in most places in the universe, a person kicking a mouse is simply too far away to even bother with a passing thought. If I told you that somebody on planet Zagar 100,000,000 light years away is kicking a sentient being, would you or anybody really care?

    Lastly, a mouse is really just a particular set of chemical reactions. Temporarily animated meat. In this video here, Hank Green argues that biologically speaking we're just tubes. https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/crash-course1/crash-course-biology/v/crash-course-biology-115 Why should I care any more about a mouse than I do about a drinking straw, both of them being tubes?

    Indeed, why should I care about fellow humans.

    As a religious believer myself, I can answer that gratuitous cruelty to animals is against my religion, as is cruelty to human beings. But from the non-theistic perspective offered in these videos, the question, "why should I even care?" goes unanswered.

    Does atheism force me to nihilism?
    (7 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Pavlos Kanellakis
      “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion. So now people assume that religion and morality have a necessary connection. But the basis of morality is really very simple and doesn't require religion at all.”
      ― Arthur C. Clarke

      Ari, you're making the point that your religion is the reason why you are not cruel to people and animals. By extension this implies that you don't have an intrinsic sense of morality or compassion, but rather that you act and feel as you are told. Another commentator a few videos ago suggested that he doesn't kill, steal, or cheat, simply because he believes in Jesus. The implication being that if Jesus was proven a myth (or your religion false) that you would finally feel free to act upon your true desires to be cruel and generally immoral.
      (13 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Sp00ns
    Sentience is good qualifying trait for moral obligation.
    How could life be the sole way of determining moral status? If you do that you have to say you have a moral obligation to viruses, bacteria or parasites who's sole purpose may be to damage you. You have to draw the line somewhere or you're entering a realm of madness. Unless you explicitly state that viruses and the like are outside the purview of the definition of life.
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Nicolas Posunko
      I realise this doesn't make much difference in the end (clarifies the reasoning, maybe), but from the standpoint of all life having moral status, the purpose of parasites is not to destroy you but to survive, just like ours. It just so happened that our paths with some organisms cross in a way we have a very tough time granting them moral status. But that's probably just due to a coincidence. If mice functioned in a different way that made them more dangerous to us, we'd feel the same way about them. Well, many people do : )

      So, much as we like, we can't make a pretty definition of "living organisms minus viruses and parasites and stuff," because those guys are nothing special, they just happen to be our natural enemies (which is the real reason). And if some "pretty" animal suddenly became dangerous, well. I read somewhere, kangaroos were mass-hunted at some point in Australia, because they were interfering with the traffic or something.

      All I mean to say is that, if we're honest—at least when it comes to animals—we definitely refuse moral status not basing on some fancy ideas, and not because parasites are bad guys, but based on purely pragmatic reasons.
      (4 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Jeff
    Why does it have to be rationality, or language, or whatever measurement you could choose? Why is it not the case that morality is a human invention? Does anyone think morality would exist independent of humanity? Why is it not the case that being considered part of the moral community is dependent upon understanding what morality is? Do animals understand morality?

    This would probably still exclude children but they're not part of the moral community yet because they haven't learned what morality is. We assume they will as they grow up and so we consider them as future members who will understand morality.

    I don't have a justification for this against the mentally handicapped. We seem to treat them as having moral status even though many of them don't fully understand what morality is and perhaps that is species-ism, but there's just something about this line of argument that doesn't seem right to me. I can't exactly suss it out.

    If all this is really getting at is we shouldn't needlessly torture animals I can get behind that, but I'm not of the mind that we can see plants and animals as moral agents and maintain living. We have to eat something , right?

    I also find the comparison of white men justifying slavery/racism ~100 years ago to eating animals a bit farcical. They weren't eating the black population. Yes their life would be harder if they treated the black populace equally, but that's not comparable to not eating animals.
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Rickard von Wowern
      I believe the hardcore dualistic moral philosophers would believe that morality would exist independently from us humans. However I doubt that it is a common stance now a days. Neuroscience for instance suggests that morality is not as much a human invention as it is a human instinct of sorts :)
      You would probably find the works of Jonathan Haidt and Joshua D Greene, two neuroscientists, interesting to read , especially Joshua D Greene. We share many moral aspects with other animals, for instance the sense of justice and compassion. Thus morality is more of a function honed through natural selection to increase the fitness of the species possessing it. We humans have extended this function with our ability to think :) Which have also lead us to various moral dilemmas - who should or should not have moral status for example. Hope you got some useful information from me :D take care!
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Kurtis Farthing
    Could it be that our moral standing is based on the fact that, as far as we know, we are the only beings with an idea of morality? No other animal has moral awareness as far as we can tell.
    (5 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user b3hr057
      That's an awesome question! So if that is the qualification, then do we not have a moral obligation to humans who do don't have an idea of morality? (Such as mentally or emotionally underdeveloped humans, babies, sociopaths, kindergartners)

      I wonder, perhaps there are some members of some species that do have ideas of morality. Gorillas, dolphins, elephants... another aspect might be that human morals are not the same as dolphin morals.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf yellow style avatar for user turtleshell
    How is speciesism different from racism? In this way: I am capable of treating animals or plants with respect. They are not capable of reciprocating, except in the case of individual animals, mostly of the domesticated species, that have bonded in some way with individual humans. Let us say I am walking my dog at the park when I badly sprain an ankle. My own dog might care for my suffering. The other dogs at the park will not. The birds and squirrels and trees will not even notice. However, the nearest humans, of whatever race, will almost certainly come to my aid, even though I am a stranger to them. In another example, suppose it is my dog that is hurt. Again, the other dogs will not find themselves troubled, but other humans will offer to help me treat my dog or take it to the vet.

    In this way, it is not the ability to perceive their own suffering that affords moral status, but the ability to recognize the suffering of others and seek to alleviate it that does this. Infants do not have this ability, but acquire it quickly. An eighteen month old toddler is capable of recognizing that they've hurt their infant sibling, and will seek to comfort the baby. Learning disabled people also have this ability (and as I said in another comment, comparing them to animals is the vilest form of ableism!) Only in the case of a disability so profound that it nearly equates to brain death is a human not able to interact with other humans.
    (6 votes)
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    • mr pants teal style avatar for user monkey77
      But there are people who have mental disorders that disallow them from recognizing the suffering of others and seeking to alleviate it - sociopaths come to mind. According to your reasoning, they have the same moral status as non-human animals. Isn't it a form of ableism to deny sociopaths human status simply because mental defects keep them from having the same amount of empathy that ordinary people have?
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user silk23p98
    Is Euthanasia morally right or wrong? Should it be allowed?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ziming Lan
    I think it may be that can you feel the other suffer? If I kick a mouse down the street, I could clearly see or feel her pain, however when I step on countless bacterias, ants, grass as I go to school, I may not be able to feel the pain and torture they are receiving..
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Stuart W
    Asking the question of moral status presupposes that there is a groundwork for how we define moral value. I am not even tempted to pretend that we (humans, namely) have a unified view of morality. What makes something moral? I always liked the utilitarian approach that it's about the maximum amount of happiness. I also don't reject the Kantian approach that the only true moral value stems from good will, thought of more objectively with universalizability -- that is, a maxim is only valid if those actions could be willed as universal law without a contradiction, or everyone could do the same action without it becoming impossible.

    The way I see it, these moral value theories permit -- though do not necessarily support -- limiting moral status to our social, or life, in-group. If I want to squash a mouse with my foot as a utilitarian, the only necessary condition to do so is that my happiness from killing that mouse will be of greater value than the mouse's suffering; furthermore, if that mouse was living in someone's basement, that family will be happy that I killed the rodent, providing further support for my actions if I'm using felicific calculus. As a Kantian thinker, it would not be impossible or un-will-able for everyone to kill mice they find in their basement because society has for ages tried to mitigate rodents to no avail.

    I just find it odd to discuss moral status without properly understanding how we derive moral value first. Because how we treat people and non-human animals is dependent on both how we categorize them, and how we treat said categories. ...For a question, how does my proposition to consider your moral value philosophy influence your existing thoughts on moral status?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user JoeMcDo
    I feel like intelligence is still the deciding factor. I know this was answered in the video by pointing to infants and the disabled, but I don't feel like that really counters the argument. Infants will soon learn to be rational, and there is no way to say that one disabled person lacks consciousness, while another slightly less disabled person has it. Good video though.
    (2 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Genet Friess
    Humans are not mere animals. Not only are we sentient, reasoning, and alive, but we are children of God. Animals were created for our purposes. While we should respect the gifts God has given us, they are not on our same moral plane. "Moral status" is only possessed by us and God.
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Agent Smith
      Who says so?
      Buddhists and Jains think all life has equal moral status.
      Who should I believe?
      I accept there is a hierarchy of moral status but to say that ALL animals are without moral status just doesn't seem right. What about the ability to feel pain and suffer? Doesn't that give animals some moral status?
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

(intro music) My name is Jeff Sebo, and I teach animal and[br]environmental studies at New York University. Today, I'm going to talk[br]to you about moral status. In other words, I'm going[br]to talk to you about who we have moral obligations to, and why. Let me start with a quick example to show you what I mean. Imagine that you broke into my room and you ripped the head off my teddy bear. Most people would think[br]that you acted wrongly. But why? Who did you wrong? Not my teddy bear, right? My teddy bear is a bunch of cloth. Instead, most people would[br]say that you acted wrongly because you wronged me, as somebody who cares about this teddy bear. So the question is, what[br]marks the difference between me and my teddy bear? What makes it the case that you have moral obligations to me,[br]but not to my teddy bear? This is the question of moral status. Now historically, most[br]philosophers have thought that the difference between[br]me and my teddy bear is that I am a human being[br]and my teddy bear is not. In other words, most[br]philosophers have thought that all and only human[br]beings have moral status. But why? What makes us so special? Well many people, like Rene Descartes, answered this question by saying that we have rationality, or language, or self-awareness, or some other very sophisticated cognitive capacity. This is what makes us special, and this is what gives us moral status. But recently, many people[br]have started to question the idea that all and only human beings have these capacities. For example, Peter Singer argues that no matter which capacity we pick, we can always find some nonhuman animal, like say a chimpanzee,[br]who has that capacity more than some human being, like say an infant or a[br]severely disabled human being. In fact, it turns out[br]that the only property that all and only humans seem to have is membership in the species Homo sapien. But if we say that all[br]and only human beings have moral status for that reason, then how are we any different at all from racists or sexists or anybody else who discriminate against others solely on the basis of membership in a particular biological category. For that reason, Richard[br]Ryder, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and many other philosophers have argued that speciesism is wrong for the same reason that[br]racism and sexism are. They are all forms of prejudice, in favor of one group over another group, solely on the basis of membership in a particular biological category. Dale Jamieson puts the point this way, to see why speciesism is wrong, imagine an alternate history, where Neanderthal survived as a distinct, reproductively isolated species. So in this world, human[br]beings and Neanderthals live together, and work together, and play together, and are[br]exactly alike in every respect, except that they happen[br]to be different species. Now imagine that in this world, you discover that your roommate, or your best friend, is a Neanderthal instead of a human being. Would this mean that you lose all of your moral[br]obligations to this person? Would you now be morally permitted to use them for food, or clothing, or research, or whatever[br]purpose you had in mind? Intuitively, the answer is "No." You would still have moral obligations to your roommate or best friend. And what this shows is that membership in the species Homo sapien is not in and of itself[br]what gives us moral status. So then what is? What does give us moral status? Well, one option is to[br]say that rationality, or language, or self awareness[br]gives us moral status. But this view would imply[br]that many human beings, like infants and severely[br]disabled human beings, lack moral status because[br]they lack these capacities, and that view seems deeply[br]implausible to many people. So for that reason, many[br]philosophers have argued that we should expand the[br]circle of moral concern by saying that sentience,[br]or in other words, the capacity for conscious experiences like pleasure and pain, is[br]what gives us moral status. This view would imply[br]that the vast majority of human beings, and[br]many nonhuman animals, have moral status. And many people find this view plausible because they say you need to be sentient in order for it to matter to you how your life goes for you. So Peter Singer uses the example of kicking a rock versus[br]kicking a mouse down the street. He says a rock is not sentient, and so a rock will not suffer if you kick it down the street. So you have no moral obligation at all not to kick a rock down the street. On the other hand, a mouse is sentient. So a mouse will suffer if you[br]kick them down the street, and so you do have a moral obligation not to kick the mouse down the street. Other philosophers think that we should expand the circle of[br]moral concern even farther by saying that life itself[br]is what gives us moral status. So this view would imply[br]that all living organisms have moral status. That includes human[br]beings, nonhuman animals, plants, even maybe species or ecosystems, if we decide that those things are alive. And many people think that[br]this view is plausible, because they say that our[br]preference for sentience is no different from a[br]preference for human beings, or say white people, or men. These are all forms of prejudice for one group over another[br]based solely on membership in a particular biological category. As Kenneth Goodpaster puts the point, "Sentience, or the capacity[br]to have conscious experiences, "is only one tool that evolution "gave us in order to survive and reproduce. "So why should morality[br]privilege those of us "who happened to survive and reproduce "by experiencing pleasures and pains, "over other living organisms[br]who happen to survive "and reproduce in other ways." Now obviously, which of these[br]theories of moral status we accept is going to[br]have profound implications for how we live our lives. For example, if we decide[br]that animals or plants have moral status, then[br]it will turn out that a lot of what we currently[br]do in everyday life is deeply morally problematic, including, but not remotely[br]limited to, the fact that we currently kill over sixty billion nonhuman animals a year for food alone. Now at this point, it might[br]be very tempting to say, "OK, maybe all and only humans[br]have a moral status after all, "because our lives would be[br]much easier if this were true." But keep in mind that[br]a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, it might[br]have been very tempting for white men to say,[br]"OK, maybe all and only white men have moral status after all, "because their lives would be[br]much easier if that were true." And what that shows is that[br]which theory of moral status we accept has to depend on which theory of moral status seems most plausible, and not on which theory of[br]moral status happens to be most convenient for us. It may be that we end up deciding that morality is much more demanding[br]than we might have hoped. But, as my college ethics professor Richard Galvin used to say, no one ever said this stuff was easy. So, what do you think? Which theory of moral status[br]seems most plausible to you? Do you think that all[br]and only human beings have moral status, and we can[br]kick animals down the street if we want to? Do you think that all sentient[br]animals have moral status, so at least we can kick plants down the street if we want to? Or do you think that all living[br]organisms have moral status, so you can kick rocks, but pretty much nothing else, down the street? And finally, and most importantly, how would you have to change[br]your everyday behavior, based on which of these theories[br]of moral status you accept? Subtitles by the Amara.org community