If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:58

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