Moral Agency and Autonomy

While both psychological and non-psychological organisms can, on my view, be the objects of our moral responsibilities, and psychological organisms can be the holders of rights, only moral agents can be the bearers of moral obligations, duties, and responsibilities. Since moral responsibilities presuppose there being a moral agent who is capable of being ascribed moral obligations, it follows that if there were no moral agents in the universe, then there would be no moral obligations.

Kant thought that moral agency, or rational moral agency, was the sole basis for moral status. He wrote "Two things find the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me" [I. Kant.
Critique of Practical Reason. trans Lewis White Beck, 1956, p. 166]. Rational moral agency is what makes moral autonomy possible, for Kant. Moral autonomy is the highest known form of psychological agency. A morally autonomous individual is one who directs his or her own voluntary behavior in accordance with an internalized conception of the moral law. The term "autonomy" literally means "living by ones own law" or "giving law to oneself." The autonomous individual is one who is capable of independent moral judgment and decision-making and whose will is directed by their own moral conceptions and rational judgments, not by the will of another or by instinct or emotion. As John Christman writes, "Put most simply, to be autonomous is to be one's own person, to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one's authentic self." ("Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy"). The concept of moral autonomy plays a central role in liberal social and political philosophy as well as in normative ethics. One must, however, distinguish among various senses in which the term "autonomy" is commonly used, for instance, between basic autonomy which is the moral status in which the individual has the capacity to make their own decisions and speak for themselves, and be held morally accountable for their actions, and ideal autonomy in which a person is maximally authentic and free from all forms of distorting influences on their judgment. For this discussion, I will be using the term "autonomy" in the basic sense, though I want to emphasize that even in this sense, autonomy is a personal achievement.

As Warren points out, Kant held that moral agency is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for full moral status, while she, and many other philosophers, including myself, who have thought about this question, strongly doubt that it is a necessary condition. On the view I have been discussing, there are at least three levels of moral standing: one for living, non-psychological organisms, another for living psychological organisms, and a third for living rational moral agents. So on my view, while moral agency is not necessary for a being to have moral standing, it is sufficient.

Additionally, on my view, being a moral agent or rationally autonomous is not a necessary condition for being capable of holding rights; some moral patients who are not also moral agents, are capable of being ascribed rights based upon their psychological agency. But while moral agents can also function as the objects of obligations, and can also be the holders of rights, moral obligations can only be meaningfully ascribed to moral agents. Only autonomous moral agents, those with full moral agency, are ascribed full moral responsibility for their behavior.

There is a problem, though, in deciding when something qualifies as a moral agent. Predictably, philosophical opinion on this question divides between those who favor a minimalist and a maximalist view. Kant and Locke were minimalists who argued that moral agents must be capable of being held morally and legally accountable for their actions, and that therefore, only normal human adults qualified as moral agents with full moral status. Human infants and young children, persons with some kinds of severe mental disorders or disabilities, the comatose, and sentient non-human animals, would, on this view, be excluded from the category of moral agents.

Other philosophers have noticed that even some animals seem to know the difference between "right" and "wrong" and exhibit some of the psychological capacities necessary for moral agency. Your dog probably know that it is not supposed to urinate on the carpet. While not, strictly speaking, a moral wrong, the fact that dogs can be trained to avoid behaviors which their human masters find distasteful, seems to indicate that they are capable of at least some limited form of moral agency. Research on primates, by Franz de Waal, and others, strongly suggests that some apes possess a sense of justice. Many animals exhibit behaviors like caring for their young and defending them against predators that seem to us to be moral responses indicative of some degree of moral agency.

For instance there is a documentary film about a group of African elephants that adopted an orphaned calf (as described in Ingfei Chen,"The Social Brain" Smithsonian Magazine June 2009, pp. 38-43):

When the baby elephant falls into a water hole, the matriarch quickly marches in, followed by the others. Together she and a second female use their tusks, trunks and legs to free the calf from the muck. Another animal paws at the steep bank with its foot, building a ramp the youngster uses to climb to safety. "It's really remarkable...," how the elephants rapidly sized up the crisis and worked together to save the baby. "It's a very high sort of functioning that very few animals are able to do....humans can do it only on good days."
The case is reminiscent of the famous example from Peter Singer in which a small child falls into a shallow lake and a passerby must decide whether it is worth ruining his good shoes to wade into the water to rescue him. On good days, presumably, the answer is he should.

John Rawls attempted to solve the problem of defining the range of moral agency by proposing that we think of moral agency is a "range property," that is, being capable of having a sense of justice or a conception of moral obligation or being accountable for one's voluntary actions, is a complex set of psychological capacities which different individuals may possess in differing degrees. This allows for us to use the term "moral agent" in a maximalist way to describe young children and some non-human animals, who possess some, but not all, of the psychological capacities necessary for full moral agency at least to some degree.

While I am comfortable with this suggestion, I think we will still need to have another concept, that of "full moral agency" or "moral autonomy" to designate those kinds of individuals which have these capacities in sufficient measure as to make them fully accountable and morally responsible for their behavior. Full moral agency, moral autonomy, is a moral status that not all moral agents, nor all human beings, ever achieve. Only those individuals who have attained full moral agency can be held strictly accountable, morally speaking, for their behavior.

Young children are generally not accorded full moral status because the degree with which they are in control of their moral faculties is insufficiently developed. We exempt young children from criminal liability for certain kinds of moral or legal wrongs they may commit, or if we do hold them accountable for them, do so with their immaturity functioning as a mitigating factor in ascriptions of blame and punishment. Children are not yet morally autonomous moral agents, and one way to understand this is to recognize that paternalism is justified when children are concerned. Parents should sometime override their children's wills when doing so is in the child's best interests. Children cannot give consent for medical procedures in their own names; they cannot be parties to contracts, and they cannot vote. Children develop moral competence though the process of socialization, and if all goes well, they do eventually attain adulthood and so achieve the moral status of full moral agency and become autonomous moral agents. Children grow in moral stature as they acquire the complex set of psychological capacities necessary for full moral agency or basic moral autonomy, but they can be considered to be moral agents, albeit novice or immature ones, before that time, at least once they have sufficiently developed linguistic capacities so as to allow them to be capable of "giving an account" of their actions. Thus, I agree with Warren when she writes, "Without a language that is capable of representing moral concepts and principles, real moral agency is not possible" (p. 161).

By "real" here I think she must mean "full", since elsewhere she suggests that some non-linguistic animals exhibit some of the characteristics of moral agency. In any case, I see no problem in using the term "moral agency" in both the maximalist sense and in the more restricted minimalist sense of individuals who have attained full moral agency or moral autonomy, so long as it is clear which sense is being employed.

But, on my theory, being a moral agent, to any degree, is not a necessary condition of being capable of holding rights, so even infants, and probably also human fetuses who have developed to the point of psychological awareness, can be ascribed meaningful rights, whether or not they are also considered to be moral agents. So can intelligent social animals such as elephants, whales, chimpanzees, dolphins and other categories of psychologically complex animals.
Even sentient non-human animals who are not capable of moral agency, for instance, the baby bunny nibbling on the grass in my backyard, can also be considered possible right-holders as well as the objects of the moral obligations of moral agents. Thus, for instance, one thing one should teach one's children is not to set baby bunnies on fire for fun. On Warren's view this is due to the Anti-Cruelty principle. On my view, moral agents do have non-optional moral responsibilities to avoid and prevent needless pain to psychological organisms, and these duties can be enforced by means of rights ascribed to the object of those responsibilities. Even non-psychological but living entities, such as bacteria and plants, can be the objects of the moral responsibilities of moral agents, but they cannot be the holders of rights and the duties towards them cannot be demanded and coercively enforced.

Another noteworthy feature of my view is that some kinds of organizations, such as corporations and governments, can be ascribed full moral agency, even though they are not living beings. Corporations can have both rights and obligations even though they are not alive and do not die. Organizations which have centralized internal decision-making structures, operated by human moral agents, can be ascribed a kind of moral agency which is not reducible to the agency of their human operators. Corporations and governments can be held morally and legally accountable for their actions. I will discuss this matter in greater detail at a latter stage in the argument, but for the time being, I wish to indicate that moral agency, even full moral agency, is not in my view a grade of moral status that is reserved only to living normal human adults. It is also conceivable that alien creatures, such as E.T. or the Vulcans from Star Trek, should be regarded as possessing full moral agency, and similarly, advanced intelligent robots and androids, such as "Data" will be considered to qualify for full moral agency, where this means that they can be treated as the bearers moral obligations for whose fulfillment they can be held fully morally and legally accountable.

Entities that have the moral status of full moral agency, or autonomous moral agents will also by that token be the holders of rights. Full moral status is a sufficient condition of being a right-holder on my view, because as I will demonstrate later on, being the bearer of moral obligations, such as the responsibility to protect the vulnerable, entails that those moral agents who have them must also have at least some rights. This conclusion will follow on the supposition, which I will also address later, that the status of full moral agency has moral content, that is, full moral agency or moral autonomy carries with it certain substantive moral responsibilities. Put another way, full moral agency functions as both a necessary and a sufficient condition for having certain kinds of moral obligations.

Moral agents that have attained full moral autonomy have also a kind of inherent value which is distinct from the inherent value of living things, and psychological organisms, though when the moral agent in question is a living adult human being, she or he also possesses these other kinds of inherent value. Kant thought this this was the only kind of intrinsic moral value, but, I have explained why I disagree with this view. However, I will continue to employ Kant's term "dignity" to refer to the specific kind of intrinsic moral value that living, sentient, moral agents that have attained full moral agency or autonomy possess. Artificial moral agents, such as corporations and robots, do not have "dignity" in this sense. Living sentient alien species who are capable of being treated as full moral agents, will probably also have this kind of inherent value, but since we do not know of any such creatures, we can defer this question as speculative at this time.

Adult human beings who possess the usual complement of developed psychological capacities necessary for full moral agency or moral autonomy, and who have been sufficiently socialized so as to understand the concept of moral duty, have "dignity" because they are not only capable of having moral obligations, but because they actually do have them, and as a consequence of having moral obligations, also must have certain rights. Thus, having
dignity is a sufficient ground for having rights. But, as I have emphasized it is not a necessary condition for having rights. There can be, therefore, things whose moral standing makes them capable of being ascribed meaningful rights, but which do not have the status of fully competent moral agents.

Thus far in this discussion I have avoided using the terms "person" and "personhood." These terms have been the topics of extended philosophical controversy, as Warren's discussion in Chapter 4 of her book, attests. My use of the term "moral agency" tracks many of the key features of the ways in which philosophers have wanted to use the terms "person" and "personhood." On maximalist view of personhood, any entity that exhibits some of the capacities associated with moral agency to at least some degree, can be considered to be a "person," even though they may not have attained the standing of autonomous moral agents. On a minimalist view, only entities that have attained full moral agency or basic moral autonomy, can be called "persons." But this is too restrictive since it would imply that human individuals do not become persons until they graduate from high school.

Using the maximalist sense, a intelligent adult chimpanzee who has been taught to use signs to communicate with human beings, can be regarded as a person, and so can young children, and certain categories of human adults with impaired psychological abilities, such as those with advanced dementia. Corporations are also regarded as "legal persons" and should also, I believe, be regarded as moral persons with respect to their social responsibilities and other sorts of moral obligations which they can possess. Governments, and some other kinds of organizations with centralized internal decision-making structures, would also be legal and moral persons in this sense, albeit non-living, artificial ones.

However, corporations, governments, chimpanzees, dolphins, intelligent androids, and extra-terrestrial life forms, are not human. The question to which we must not turn our attention is whether or not being human confers upon an entity some additional moral stature.

The Human Moral Community

Several years ago the Australian utilitarian philosopher and advocate for the humane treatment of animals Peter Singer got himself into hot water by claiming that, given the necessity of making a choice, he might prefer to save the life of a normal healthy chimpanzee over that of an anencephalic human infant or a human adult in a vegetative coma. When questioned about this view in an interview with Psychology Today, he had this to say about the reasons for his position:
I want us to have a graduated moral approach to all sentient beings, related to their capacities to feel and suffer. If the being has self-awareness, we ought to give it even more rights. I'm not a biological egalitarian. I do not think that all nonhuman animals have the same claim to protection of their lives as humans do. I don't think it's as bad to kill a simple animal, like a frog or fish, as it is to kill a normal human being.

You have to ask yourself what actually makes it worse to kill one being rather than another, and the best answer I can come up with is one's sense of self, that you are alive and have a past and future. And apart from the great apes, I have made no claim that any other nonhuman animals are definitely capable of the self-awareness that I think gives humans, beyond the newborn stage, a more serious claim to protection of their life than other beings. But I would give animals of some other species the benefit of the doubt where that is possible.

I don't disagree with this general position, but I have a different way of accounting for the moral intuitions that underlie it, and also somewhat different intuitions.In terms of the graduated approach to moral status, I would say that psychological organisms have different degrees of moral stature depending on how developed their psychological capacities for sensory awareness and self-awareness are. So, for me, it is more acceptable to kill a mouse or a bird, than it is to kill a chimpanzee or an elephant, assuming that the reason why the animal is being killed are the same in each case, because although they are all sentient psychological creatures, the chimp and the elephant have more developed psychological capabilities and thus have greater moral stature,

Living entities that have some degree of moral agency, would have on my view an even higher moral stature than sentient organisms who are not moral agents. Living persons with full moral agency or moral autonomy, like you and me, occupy a different, higher level of moral standing because we can also be the bearers of moral obligations and can function as autonomous moral agents. On each level of intrinsic moral standing -- being a living thing, possessing psychological awareness, exhibiting some degree of moral agency, and achieving moral autonomy -- individuals can gain (or lose) moral stature depending on the complexity and power of their psychological faculties, so that, other things being equal, the moral value we assign to that entity will reflect its level of moral standing, plus (or minus) its moral stature at that level.

But it is still going to be difficult to make moral judgments about the relative moral statures of individuals with different levels of moral standing and different statures on those levels. The choice between saving the life of a normal adult chimpanzee and an anencephalic human newborn is a difficult case for many people because the latter will probably never attain full moral agency (if it survives at all). The choice between the healthy chimpanzee and the adult in a persistent vegetative coma is one between an individual who have some degree of moral agency but who will also never attain full moral autonomy (the chimp), and a human person who once attained that status but who has now irrevocably lost it (the comatose human adult).

These hard cases help to motivate the kind of intuitions that Singer thinks are important to attend to in order to overcome what he terms "speciesism" -- a preference for our own kind. Singer has suggested that "speciesism" is a form of prejudice, similar to racism and sexism, and that it ought to be rejected. But many people hold the view that human life is sacred, no matter what the psychological capacities of the individual are, while they believe that non-human animal life lacks this same "sacredness." For people who take this position, humanity, belonging to the human moral community, confers moral stature on an living individual apart from whatever intrinsic biological or psychological properties it has.

For her part, Warren agrees that species membership, per se, is not relevant to assigning individuals to the categories of psychological organisms or moral agents. She notes that, "some researchers who have worked with signing apes believe that there are apes who not only use language, but also employ moral concepts to guide their own behavior and evaluate and influence the behavior of others. If they are right, then a good case can be made that they ought to have the same basic moral rights as other novice moral agents;" and that similar arguments would apply to "other large-brained mammals, such as cetaceans, seals, and elephants." (p. 162).

But, unlike Singer, Warren argues that there is an additional principle that can and should be used to assign moral stature to sentient individual organisms:

The Human Rights Principle: Within the limits of their own capacities and of the Agent's Rights Principle, human beings who are capable of sentience but not of moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents.

It is important to understand that this principle is for Warren a relational one, rather than one based upon an entity's intrinsic properties, like the others we have discussed. As Warren explains it, "An entity's intrinsic properties are those which it has, and which it is logically possible for it to have had even if it were the only thing in existence. By contrast, its relational properties are those which it has, but which it is not logically possible for it to have were it the only thing in existence. Life, sentience, and the capacity for moral agency are in this sense intrinsic properties, whereas being a grandmother, or a recently naturalized citizen of Canada, are relational properties." (pp 122-3). This criterion is a logical, rather than an empirical one, because as she notes there is a sense in which even intrinsic properties are relational because of the chains of causation that produced entities having those properties. Nothing, except perhaps the universe as a whole, or God, can exist by itself.

The important point here, though, is that for Warren, whether an entity should be considered to be a "human being" or a member of the human moral community is seen as a relational, rather than an intrinsic property of things. The kind of moral value things acquire through their relational properties are derived from their relationships to other things which have moral value.

Warren explains the rationale for her Human Rights Principle as follows:

That all moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights does not imply that only moral agents have such rights. It is moral agents who shape and employ moral concepts, such as that of a moral right; and it is they who make rights operative, by establishing and maintaining social practices whereby respect for rights is taught and enforced. But the social, psychological, and biological realities of human existence require that basic rights not be restricted to human beings who are capable of moral agency. (164)

In this passage one should interpret the term "moral agency" in the minimalist sense of full moral agency or moral autonomy. She is saying that it highly counter-intuitive, and indeed morally abhorrent, to think that human infants and young children, and those human adults who have a diminished capacity for full moral agency, should not be regarded by us as having equal moral rights, the rights of persons, even though they do not qualify as fully competent moral agents.

The human rights principle is thus a kind of leveling principle; it creates a single status moral community among (sentient) human beings, irrespective of their individual differences in their psychological capacity. The human rights principle creates a moral plateau in which all those who qualify as "sentient" and "human" are considered to be "human persons" and are ascribed equal basic human rights. On the basis of this principle a severely retarded three year old has the same moral standing as Albert Einstein.

She notes that one reason for this additional principle of moral status becomes apparent when we consider how human beings become moral agents:

While we can imagine a moral agent coming into existence without the help of any other moral agent, in reality human beings become moral agents only through a long period of dependence upon human beings who are moral agents already. During this period of dependency we learn language, and all of the other mental and behavioral capacities that make moral agency possible. In Annette Baier's words, 'A person is best seen as one who was long enough dependent upon other persons to acquire the essential arts of personhood. Persons essentially are second persons, who grew up with other persons. (p.164).

But she offers a second, and I think more powerful reason for the Human Rights Principle, namely that "rational moral agency is unsatisfactory in practice as the sole criterion for full moral status, because it can too readily be used to deny moral status to persons whom others consider to be less than fully rational" (p. 103). She notes that historical experience shows that it has often been difficult for socially marginalized, stigmatized, and oppressed people to demonstrate their rationality to others who regard themselves as socially superior: "Women, slaves, servants, poor people, racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, colonized people, children past infancy, and people with mental and physical disabilities all experience such treatment. Thus to make rational moral agency the only basis for having moral rights is to risk rendering the rights of all but the most powerful persons perpetually vulnerable to challenge." (103).

The idea of human rights, rights which all human beings have irrespective of their individual differences, is a remedy to this historically important source of injustice, and for that reason, if for no other, should not be tossed aside glibly as reflecting only an unreasonable preference for our own kind. Humanity, that is being regarded as a human being, or as a member of the human moral community, is a moral status criterion that adds moral stature to an individual irrespective of its degree of biological or psychological development. It also treats other physical, psychological, and social differences among human beings as irrelevant to their moral standing, and creates a moral plateau in which all individuals on it are ascribed equal basic human rights.

But membership in the human moral community, like other forms of community, is defined by the recognition practices of existing members of that community. We become human by being recognized by other human beings as human. African culture has a word for it --
ubuntu -- a Bantu word which means, roughly, "a person becomes a person through other persons." This word has also now been appropriated as the name of a popular open source computer operating system, but this meaning has only a vague relationship to the original African meaning which emphasizes that "personhood" is a status that is assigned to individuals by other persons with whom they stand in a social relationship, as members of a human moral community. One practices ubuntu in this sense, by being open and friendly to strangers, caring about the improvement of one's community, and standing in solidarity with the oppressed. It is an inclusive moral value which inclines those who exercise it to respond to others as moral equals who occupy the same moral plateau as yourself.

If there is an antonym for the word
ubuntu then perhaps it is "dehumanization." Throughout history people have exhibited a nasty tendency to dehumanize other human beings: the Greeks called non-Greeks "barbarians" before they conquered and enslaved them; Spanish conquistadors described the Native Americans they encountered as "savages" and "heathen" before they tortured and killed them; the genocidaires in Rwanda referred to Tutsi as "cockroaches" before murdering them; and during the Holocaust, Jews in Romania were slaughtered and hung on hooks like cattle with signs saying "Kosher beef." Dehumanization has been a prelude to atrocity. There are many more such sad stories than just these few examples.

The history of atrocity is the reason why the Human Rights Principle, and its leveling effect, is so important as a principle of ethics: It instructs us not to dehumanize the "other" and to treat them with equal concern and respect, despite the fact that they may differ from us in regard to their race, sex, nationality, religion, ethnicity, language, birth, property, citizenship, sexual orientation, and other grounds for invidious discrimination. The principle of non-discrimination, which is a core element of the contemporary human rights paradigm, is deemed essential as a means of preventing atrocities which have been all too common in humanity's history, of helping us overcoming this tragic flaw in the human moral character.

On the other hand, human beings also have a tendency to "anthropomorphize" non-human animals. Warren notes that that Dyak people of Malaysia are said to "have traditionally regarded orangutans as persons of a wise older race, who are capable of speaking to human beings, but generally choose not to" (p, 163). Modern children are raised with images of anthropomorphized animal characters in cartoons, which may help teach them respect for animal lives. Science fiction characters such a Mr. Spock and Data, who are nonhuman life forms or androids, are also anthromorphized "others" who are depicted as possessing full moral agency, and hence are deserving of the status of "persons," and are indeed depicted as members of the human moral community.

So the philosophical question again becomes one of "line drawing". Where exactly do we draw the boundaries of humanity? Who is really a member of the human moral community and who isn't?

Like many of the other questions of this kind we have had to confront, this one is question of decision rather than discovery. That is, in the last analysis, those of us who are undoubted persons possessing full moral agency have to decide where we want to place the boundaries of humanity. We can attach this boundary to a natural biological feature of the world, or to a psychological one, or to a social one, but it is always we who are doing the attaching.

Before the advent of modern biology, the Roman Catholic Church, I am told, determined that "ensoulment" -- the entry of a human soul into a fetus -- occurred at the time of "quickening" the first time a women was able to feel the movements of the fetus in her womb. Because of this belief the Church did not consider early abortions a sin, and only revised its doctrine in 1869 (Warren, p. 208).

Moral boundaries like those of "personhood" and "humanity" are rather like political ones: we can, if we wish, choose a natural feature of the landscape, such as a river or a coastline, to mark a political boundary, for instance, the Delaware River has been chosen as marking the boundary between the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But in other cases, we just draw an arbitrary line across a map and separate Texas from Oklahoma. In both cases, it is a matter of decision-making by moral agents, not the discovery of some fact of the matter.

Warren considers a number of options, but in the end seems to opt for birth as "the most appropriate point at which to begin fully to enforce the moral rights that the Human Rights principle accords sentient human beings" (p.218). But, she notes, also that "Membership in the human species is highly relevant to the moral status of an individual who is already sentient, or who once was sentient and may someday return to sentience. However, prior to the initial occurrence of conscious experience, there is no being that suffers and enjoys, and thus has needs and interests that matter to it;" consequently, "the early fetus does not come under the protection of the Human Rights Principle" (pp. 204-205).

Her position is that sentient human fetuses, can have rights, and might therefore have a serious right to life, but that early fetuses (first trimester probably), an embryos, and zygotes, cannot have rights and therefore lie outside of the boundaries of any possible extension of the human moral community under her Human Rights Principle. Human embryos and early fetuses do, she allows, have moral status under the Respect for Life Principle, since, once the possibility of twinning is past, they are living individual organisms. Embryos and early fetuses may also gain additional status through her principle of Transitivity of Respect (which I will discuss shortly). She allows that people who feel empathy for vulnerable human embryos and early fetuses, and for whom abortion is a moral wrong, on her view, "are entitled not to harm them, and to seek in non-coercive ways to persuade others not to harm them," but they "cannot reasonably demand that others share their belief that first-semester fetuses are already sentient, or insist that others must accept the moral conclusions that might follow if this belief were true" (208).

This kind of position is very attractive for those, like myself, who would like both to reconcile the "pro-life" and the "pro-choice" positions on abortion, and to accord non-human species some kind of moral standing comparable, but not equal to, that accorded to human beings.

On my theory, however, I think it is preferable to extend the boundary of the concept "human" to embryos produced by combining human genetic material once the possibility of twinning has past. On this view, human embryos (past twinning) and early fetuses (pre-sentience) should be ascribed the status of human beings, and should therefore be regarded as members of the human moral community. Having this moral status adds to their moral stature over and above the moral standing they have based upon their intrinsic biological and psychological properties.

My reason for taking this view are some moral intuitions that I have and which I think are widely shared. The kinds of moral intuitions one can use here are ones which require a forced choice between saving the life of a human embryo and that of, say, a chimpanzee embryo. The genetic material, DNA, of chimpanzees and humans, is 99.9% identical. From the point of view of their intrinsic properties alone, both primate embryos have the same moral standing as individual living organisms. This means that they qualify as moral patients and can be the objects of the moral responsibilities of moral agents. We should not harm or kill them without good reason, but the moral responsibilities that direct us to protect them, are defeasible, that is, they can be overridden by stronger moral reasons, and non-peremptory, that is, they cannot demanded of autonomous moral agents. Autonmous moral agents, then, are at liberty to use their own moral discretion, their own conscientious moral judgment -- their moral autonomy -- to decide how they will treat such organisms, and society may not deny them that liberty by enforcing a particular policy by means of coercive judicial sanctions.

It follows that destroying human and chimpanzee embryos should not be illegal. However, it seems to me that, morally speaking, in a forced choice dilemma in which one can save only one of the embryos, my moral intuition tells me to prefer the human embryo over the chimpanzee because its humanity confers upon it greater moral stature. Test this yourself. Construct similar cases in which you compare a human being at some level of moral standing, living, sentient, or novice moral agent, with another organism belonging to a different species at the same level of moral standing and whose degree of biological and psychological development is roughly the same. If the two individuals in question have the same moral status, it should be a matter of indifference which one's life is preserved. But I do not think it is. In each case, I would morally prefer to human being to the nonhuman organism all other things being equal, and I think that most people would agree with this judgment. In these case, species membership does seem to matter to an individual's moral stature.

One the benefit of this view is that it enables one to have an ethics that is genuinely both "pro-life" and "pro-choice", and which makes it possible to assign moral standing to members of nonhuman species comparable, but not equal to, that which we assign to ourselves. Both of these objectives are critical if we are to create a truly biocentric ethics without abandoning the important insights into the human moral condition which motivate the principle of non-discrimination and the concept of human rights, while at the same time respecting the moral beliefs of a great number of our fellow human beings.

But some of my friends have told me that I need to be very careful about how I state this view because it is susceptible to obfuscation and distortion. So let me reiterate that human embryos and early fetuses, while I regard them as human beings and hence as members of the human moral community, do
not have human rights. They certainly do not have the same rights as autonomous moral agents, or persons, in the minimalist sense. But they don't even have the same moral standing as, say, your dog or cat. On my view, some psychologically complex nonhuman animals can have rights while human embryos and early fetuses and adults in irreversible comas cannot. Thus, in terms of their comparative moral standing based on their intrinsic properties alone, the family pets would have higher moral standing than the human beings in these cases. Similarly, organisms that are sentient to some degree have higher moral standing than organisms that are non-sentient. So then, psychological organisms of all species, will, certeris paribus, have higher moral standing that non-psychological organisms of all species. This implies that the brown bunny in my backyard has higher moral standing that an human embryo, again, other things being equal.

This will be, for many readers, a decisive objection to my view. Many people have been taught to believe that human rights belong to all human beings simply because they are human. This is a useful and emotionally powerful oversimplification. In terms of my (and Warren's) theories of moral status, only undoubted persons, that is individuals with full moral agency or moral autonomy, unquestionably have rights. Other kinds of moral agents who are also psychological organisms also can have rights. Most human beings qualify as psychological organisms and hence can have rights. The Human Rights Principle levels off the psychological differences among sentient human beings to create a single status moral community, a kind of moral plateau, on which all sentient human beings are accorded equal rights.

But some kinds of human beings are not or will never again be psychological organisms. These categories human beings cannot function as the bearers of rights, any more than plants can. Autonomous moral agents can still have moral responsibilities towards them which instruct us to protect them from harm because they have the moral status of valuable and vulnerable living beings. While human embryos and early fetuses are valuable and vulnerable human beings, they are not "persons"; they are not "children," and they do not have human rights, because they are not psychological organisms. While no one knows for sure when human fetuses gain sentience and become psychological organisms, it cannot be before they have brains and nervous systems. For such living organisms, while we moral agents can owe moral obligations towards them directly, these obligations are non-peremptory and should not be coercively enforced on moral agents out of respect for their moral autonomy. While being recognized as "human" gives human embryos and early fetuses greater moral stature than other non-sentient organisms, it does not alter their basic moral standing.

An alternative strategy to setting the boundary of humanity, is to deny that embryos and early fetuses are "human" and to instead describe them in some more neutral way, as products of conception, or as "genetic material." The problem with this strategy is that it does not settle the question of when products of conception attain the status of "human beings." Is it at sentience, viability, birth, or some other stage of ontogenesis? Modern biology has no place for concepts such as "ensoulment", which is unobservable, so where does the boundary of humanity fall? One can place it at birth, as Warren does, but that decision fails to account for the kinds of moral intuitions discussed above, which is why I prefer to "bite the bullet" and defend the position I do, even though it entails that some kinds of human beings do not have rights. This position is also more consistent with a biocentric axiology that considers other non-sentient life forms as having an intrinsic moral value, without also endowing them with rights.

After the point of sentience has been reached, human fetuses jump up to the next level of moral standing and become the kinds of things to which rights can be ascribed. Society may choose to ascribe certain rights to late-stage fetuses, the same as it would to protect the important interests of any psychological organism, and it may, for instance, enforce laws concerning their humane treatment that coercively constrain the behavior of autonomous moral agents towards them to protect their interests.

After birth, and here I agree with Warren, human infants should be accorded the status of "human persons" and should be ascribed equal basic human rights, even though they are still a long way from being autonomous moral agents. The Human Rights Principle, and ubuntu, require no less, and this is also consistent with our ethical and social traditions.

But philosophers are not legislators; we can only propose moral policies; we cannot legitimize them politically, socially, and legally. However, I believe that a public policy based upon the conception of moral status developed here has the potential of gaining widespread acceptance within global society, and becoming an element of a emerging biocentric ethics, one which values all life, but which also ascribes higher moral stature to human lives, other things being equal.

Biosocial Moral Communities

Several years ago my aunt spent $20,000 on chemotherapy for one of her cats, which, unfortunately, succumbed to cancer nevertheless. My own values would not permit me to do this; I would much rather spend that kind of money on humanitarian relief and medical assistance to endangered human beings living in other countries, with whom I have no personal relationship.

However, I do understand why people like my aunt feel so strongly about their pets. Her cat was her constant companion, and a source of joy to her. She regarded it as a member of her family and did not think that she could just let it die when treatment might have saved its life.

People who have such social relationships with domestic animals attach a kind of moral status to them that does not reflect their intrinsic biological properties. Warren proposes that there is a distinct principle of moral status, what she terms the Interspecific Principle, that accounts for these intuitions, under which "non-human members of mixed social communities have a stronger moral status than could be based upon their intrinsic properties alone" (168).

Pets and other domestic animals acquire greater moral stature because they are regarded as members of mixed moral communities comprised of individual entities with different kinds of moral status. This particular source of moral status is based upon an entity's relational properties to other members of these mixed moral communities. However, for Warren, the Interspecific Principle need not assign the same moral stature or the same rights to all domesticated animal and plant species.

She quotes Mary Midgley's observation that human social communities have throughout history included non-human species, but that different animals play different roles and have different moral statuses:
Pets, for example, are...surrogate family members and merit treatment not owed either to less intimately related animals, for example to barnyard animals, or, for that matter, to less intimately related human beings....The animal welfare ethic of the mixed community...would not censure using draft animals for work or even slaughtering animals for food so long as the keeping and using of such animals was not in violation...of a kind of evolved and unspoken social contract between man and beast. (129)
For Warren, wild animals, those which are not members of human social communities, "should not lie on the same spectrum of graded moral standing as family members, neighbors, fellow citizens, fellow human beings, pets, and other domestic animals. Wild animals, are, however, parts of natural biological communities, or ecosystems, and we may have moral obligations towards them derived from their relationship to these natural ecological communities. Separate treatment is also required for members of invasive species, whose presence degrades the ecosystems into which they are introduced, and also to endangered species, whose survival as a distinct life form is threatened, most often, by patterns of human activity. Some environmental ethicists have proposed that "wilderness areas" which remain essentially untouched by the hand of man, deserve special protection. Conflicts can arise, for instance, between protecting the integrity of natural ecosystems, and protecting the lives of members of certain species who are parts of them, as well, of course, between human interests, and the interests of members of various sentient animal species.

Warren proposes a distinct principle of moral status, the Ecological Principle, to handle cases involving wild animals, species, and ecosystems:
Living things that are not moral agents but that are important to the ecosystems of which they are a part, have, within the limits of principles 1-4, a stronger moral status that could be based on their intrinsic properties alone; ecologically important entities that are not themselves alive, such as species and habitats, may also legitimately be accorded a stronger moral status than their intrinsic properties would indicate (p. 166).
This is a principle for assigning moral stature to individual entities that is distinct from the level of moral standing that entity has based upon its intrinsic properties. It can be used to either add or to substract stature. So for instance, animal species that we call "vermin" and "pests" have less stature on their levels of moral standing than otherwise comparable organisms. Livestock that is raised for human food, such as cattle, pigs, and chickens, have lower stature than pets, and protected endangered wild species. So-called "charismatic species" such as panda bears and koalas (that have big eyes and are furry), are generally seen by humans as having higher moral statures than their not so cute and cuddly cousins.

The variability and (frankly) arbitrariness of these kinds of moral judgments, indicates that they are based on our perceptions of an entity's relational value, either to human beings, to other plant or animal species, or to an ecosystem, that is, to what J. Baird Callicott has termed "biosocial communities." Humans live in such biosocial communities, and so do many other plants and animals. All life forms are dependent on the biotic community as a whole, and the Earth's natural systems, for their survival and well-being. Biosocial moral communities are comprised of individuals and other entities having different kinds of moral standing and stature within them.

It may seem somewhat surprising that Warren takes the position that the Ecological Principle
can be (but she says need not be) extended to include "moral obligations towards water, air, plant and animal species, or other elements of the biosphere that are neither living organisms nor sentient beings." (167). It is surprising because, as she acknowledges, entities that are not alive, "cannot be harmed in the ways that living things and sentient beings can," and, "it is implausible to insist that our obligations regarding them must be understood as obligations towards them." Nevertheless, she insists that we should allow non-living entities, like natural ecosystems, to be the direct objects of our moral obligations, because "human beings may be more inclined to protect these vulnerable elements of the natural world it they accept moral obligations towards them."

This is a consequentialist argument that bases the claim to moral standing for non-living elements of natural ecosystems on the utility of this belief for modifying human behavior towards the Earth. It is, she thinks, a policy we might adopt "if we wish humanity to survive and flourish into the distant future" (168). The crucial point, however, is that "to say that these elements of the natural world may legitimately be accorded moral status is not to be committed to the claim that they have intrinsic value, i.e., a value that is entirely independent of the needs and desires of any living or sentient being" (167). Put differently, moral standing can be based entirely upon the derived rather than the intrinsic values of certain classes of moral patients.

On my theory of moral status, many non-living things will have various kinds of moral standing derived solely from their value to other entities that have intrinsic value in themselves. For instance, common artifacts such as my car or bicycle have the moral status of personal property, and on that account other people should not damage or destroy them. On a conventional way of thinking about such moral obligations, the obligations derived from something having the status of personal property are not owed to the bicycle or car, but to their owner. They are obligations "regarding" or "concerning" these objects, not obligations "towards" them. The moral (and legal) obligations in such cases are owed to me; I am the moral patient in the relationship, not my property. The bicycle and the car themselves cannot be moral patients or the objects of our moral responsibilities on this view.

The terminological distinctions I have drawn between "moral status," "moral standing," and "moral stature" and the additional idea of "moral plateaus" provide a more adequate theoretical vocabulary for talking about these issues than does Warren's single term "moral status." On my view, some inanimate objects can have
moral standing, and can function as the objects of moral responsibilities, even though they lack intrinsic value and should therefore not be regarded as "ends in themselves." Being alive, being sentient, and being capable of moral agency are intrinsic properties that provide sufficient conditions for moral standing. But they are not necessary conditions. Some kinds of entities that have none of these intrinsic properties can, on my theory, nevertheless function as moral patients.

As I have already mentioned, I am committed to the view that organizations such as corporations and governments, can be regarded as moral and legal "persons" and can be ascribed moral and legal rights and obligations. Corporations and governments are not alive and do not die, nor are they sentient, and have no intrinsic value in themselves. But nevertheless it is scarcely conceivable that we can understand the nature of rights and responsibilities within human moral communities without attributing a kind of moral agency to these kinds of organizations that is not reducible to the agency of their human operators.

If we grant moral standing to corporations, governments and other organizations, then there is no reason to withhold this moral status from wilderness areas, endangered species, and various non-living elements of complex ecosystems. In order to create the kind of global ethics that I envision, we will also have to ascribe moral statuses to deceased persons and to future persons, neither of which are presently alive. I see no principled reason why we cannot treat them as kinds of moral patients toward whom we can have responsibilities, although they will occupy different moral statuses within the overall framework of my axiology for a global ethics.

We can also have moral obligations towards certain kinds of "unowned" inanimate objects, such as rivers and streams, wetlands, marine reserves, even towards stones. This will perhaps become less counter-intuitive when we consider some examples that Warren relies upon to motivate her seventh (and last) principle of moral status, the Transitivity of Respect.

Derived Moral Status

I noted earlier Francis Kamm's observation that there is a broad sense of moral status in which the concept can be defined as "what it is permissible or impermissible to do to some entity. In this sense, rocks may have the moral status of entities to which, just considering them, it is morally permissible to do anything." This is certainly true of the great majority of rocks and stones. For instance, the pebble that I found walking along the beach the other day has the moral status of something I may do anything to. I can, if I wish, crush and pulverize it into dust. Or I can, if I find it aesthetically pleasing, take it home and put it on my coffee table. No one owns this pebble so I would be violating no one's interests or committing any wrong by doing with it as I please.

But consider another case. In 2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan dynamited and destroyed two mammoth statues carved out of sandstone cliffs known as the Buddhas of Bamyam. These statues dating from the sixth century were regarded by the Taliban as "idols" that violated shar'ia law, but UNESCO had designated them as a world cultural heritage site. People around the world were horrified that they were intentionally destroyed and efforts are now underway to rebuild them.

Warren's multi-criterial theory of moral status accounts for these kinds of intuitions by proposing a seventh principle of moral status The Transitivity of Respect Principle:
Within the limits of principles 1-6, and to the extent that it is feasible and morally permissible, moral agents should respect one another's attributions of moral status. (170)
As she explains it, the Transitivity of Respect Principle requires that "we give a fair hearing to other people's reasons for ascribing to certain entities either a stronger or weaker moral status than we think appropriate." But giving their reasons a fair hearing, she insists, "does not require us to accept other people's attributions of moral status -- at least, not without good reason. We are entitled to reject attributions of moral status that are irrational, disrespectful of life, cruel, incompatible with the moral rights of human or non-human beings, or inimical to the health of social or biotic communities." So what was the reason that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar gave for ordering the destruction of the Buddhas? According to the Wikipedia article on this topic:

On March 18, The New York Times reported that a Taliban envoy said the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works. The report also added, however, that other reports "have said the religious leaders were debating the move for months, and ultimately decided that the statues were idolatrous and should be obliterated."

Then Taliban ambassador-at-large, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, said that the destruction of the statues was carried out by the Head Council of Scholars after a single Swedish monuments expert proposed to restore the statues' heads. Hashimi is reported as saying: "When the Afghani head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, 'No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children'. Herein, they made the decision to destroy the statues". However, he did not comment on the fact that a foreign museum offered to "buy the Buddhist statues, the money from which could have been used to feed children."

This explanation does not strike me as providing a very convincing justification for destroying these stone statues. While it is certainly true that hungry children have greater moral standing than statues (and pet cats), and do have a right to receive food, there is no necessary incompatibility between feeding hungry children and restoring ancient statues. Their destruction could have been avoided had the Swedish expert offered to provide some food aid in order to work on the statues, or if the Taliban had agreed to let the museum buy them and then used the money received for food.

The second justification offered was that the statues were "idolatrous". This is an attribution of derived moral status and, according to the Principle of Transitivity of Respect, deserves some consideration. But while the Taliban may see these statues as sacreligious, millions of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have attributed to them the moral statuses of "sacred images" and "world cultural heritage site" which should be protected from damage and destruction.

So what is supposed to happen when attributions of moral stature are at odds with one another as they are in this case? Warren does not, as far as I can see, provide a satisfactory answer. to this question, or indeed, to a great number of other questions that require us to balance and decide the relative weights of competing moral obligations derived from different moral principles as applied to moral patients with different levels of moral standing and moral stature. These questions will occupy us shortly when we discuss defeasibility conditions on obligations.

A preference utilitarian, such as Peter Singer, would answer it by adding up everyone's preferences and determining which course of action would tend to produce the greatest happiness, or the least suffering, for everyone concerned. Using this as a criterion, one might decide that since those who wanted to preserve the statues outnumber those who wanted to destroy them, greater happiness would have been produced had the Taliban not done what they did. I see nothing wrong with using a utilitarian calculus in this case since there are no rights at stake. Using this principle, it was wrong for the Taliban to destroy the statues because their doing so disrespected the attribution of value of the greater number of stakeholders.

But, perhaps a better solution would have been for the Taliban to simply cover the statues rather than destroy them. This would allow both religious groups to achieve the satisfaction of their preferences and would be a way of respecting both value attributions.

But we need not dwell any longer on this case in order to make the theoretical point I want to make here, namely, that attributions of moral status derived from the Principle of Transitivity of Respect, can add to or subtract from an object's moral standing. Considered just in themselves, the Buddhas of Bamyam are just stones, and have no intrinsic moral value, (although they do have aesthetic, cultural, and historical value in relation to human valuers). The moral obligations to preserve (or destroy) them that different groups of moral agents have towards them are wholly derived from their value to those groups of moral agents. The statues can, therefore, acquire moral standing and become moral patients, and serve as the objects of moral responsibilities, even though they are not alive, not sentient, not owned, and are certainly not moral agents.

Conventionally we do not often speak of non-living, inanimate objects as things that are able to be "harmed." We say that they can be damaged or destroyed, but not harmed. This is a fine way of talking; it reminds us that the moral status of inanimate objects is wholly derived from the value that moral agents place on them, while on my account that of living things, psychological organisms, and moral agents, is not. When moral status is wholly derived, we are not respecting those things "in themselves" and "for themselves, but for the sake of something else that has a kind of intrinsic value.

But, nevertheless, it is still possible for there to be moral obligations towards things with wholly derived forms of moral standing. As Warren notes, "respecting people is difficult if one does not also, to some degree, respect those things or beings to which they accord strong moral status. Respect is, in this sense, transitive" (171). By respecting my property you indirectly respect me. By respecting the non-living elements of ecosystems, you are indirectly respecting the intrinsic value of the living beings who occupy it and who depend upon it for their survival.

The Transitivity of Respect Principle, then, proposes that moral responsibilities can be mediated such that A can have a responsibility towards C that is mediated by B. In the case of the Vulnerability Relationship, C would be a vulnerable moral patient, and A and moral agent. B could be anything of value to C which could be damaged or destroyed in a way that would harm C's interests or well-being. In such relationships, A's harming, destroying, or disrespecting, B indirectly harms C, so A can be said to be morally obligated not damage or destroy B.

I can see no deep theoretical reason why it should not be the case that inanimate objects such as statues and other works of art, ecosystems, wilderness preserves, artifacts, and organizations cannot function as objects of human responsibilities, so long as it is understood that this kind of moral standing is wholly derived from acts of valuing by moral agents. Such entities mediate moral relationships among moral agents and between moral agents and other classes of moral patients possessing intrinsic value in themselves. On this view, then, even stones can have moral standing as long as they are regarded by moral agents as having derived moral status.

It is tempting to think that all of Warren's other relational criteria of moral status, the Human Rights Principle, the Ecological principle, and the Interspecific principle, are variants of or derived from the Principle of Transitivity of Respect. In each of these cases, the moral stature of an entity or class of entities can be altered by means of the value attributions of moral agents who stand in some relationship to them and whose value attributions create in them a value that gives them moral standing or adds to their moral stature. Recognizing this simplifies the theory of moral status considerably by reducing the number of criteria for assigning moral status from seven basic principles to four: life, sentience, moral agency, and transitivity of respect. However, I think there is an important difference between the first three of her relational principles and the last one, the principle of transitivity of respect. The difference is that it is a matter of fact, either natural facts in the case of the ecological principle, or social facts in the cases of the Interspecific Principle and the Human rights principle, whether or not something is a member of a particular community, while Transitivity of Respect is a subjective notion. It is epistemically subjective in that whether or not someone "respects" something in this sense depends entirely upon that persons point of view, while in the case of the other three derived principles, there is a matter of fact, that is, the judgment is epistemically objective. This fact allows us to make mistakes about our personal attributions of moral status.

Derived attributions of moral status can be mistaken, irrational, or unwise. There there are going to be struggles within the community of human moral agents as to which derived moral status attributions should be accepted and respected, and which should not be. The practice of asking people to account for their moral valuations, and then examining their justifications for holding them, is part of the process by which such relational attributions of moral standing and stature become institutionalized as social facts.

For instance, it is a social fact that the personal property of others should be respected in various ways. We have elaborate conventions about this that require, for instance, that items of personal property should not be stolen, appropriated, or used in any way without their owner's consent. This is a settled social convention in most all human societies, so much so, that property rights are sometimes mistakenly taken for natural facts (see Locke).

But the moral status that we attribute to items of personal property is wholly derived; the objects are considered to be "property" only because of our conventional attribution of moral status to them. Native Americans were astonished when European settlers claimed to be able to own land. The thought that the Land could be privately owned seemed a sacrilege to them because the Land, in their view, was a sacred gift from God to all living things. Perhaps they were right, but history has moved in a different direction, and much of the habitable land of the planet has now been "enclosed" and designated as someone property. Efforts to protect the remaining wilderness areas from "development", and to protect the global commons, the seas and the atmosphere, are an effort to halt and perhaps reverse this historical process.

Questions about which sorts of thing have derived moral status and what sorts of moral obligations can be had towards them cannot be settled by means of philosophical theorizing and rational inquiry alone, but require processes of social dialogue and social legitimation for them to become institutionalized as social facts embodying our normative values and principles. These kinds of struggles, struggles that attempt to "revalue" society's values towards embracing a wider conception of the global biosocial moral community, one in which the moral standing of all living things and the natural ecosystems on which they depend should be taken into account, are at the core of the project to construct a global ethics.

Respecting Former Persons

Recent archaeological evidence excavated near Stonehenge suggests that the mammoth stone circle erected there in approximately 2500 B.C. was used at least in part as a monument to the dead. Another nearby neolithic site, Durrington Walls, was found to contain a profusion of pottery, animal bones, and other detritus suggesting that it was a feasting site. But few human remains have been found at Durrington Walls, while 52 cremations and numerous other human remains have been uncovered at Stonehenge, suggesting that it was used in Neolithic Britain as a cemetery, the stone circle representing the "domain of the ancestral dead." [Caroline Alexander. "If the Stones Could Speak: Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge," National Geographic Magazine. Vol 213, No.8 (June 2008): 35-59.]

Like the Buddhas of Bamyam, the stones at Stonehenge have a kind of moral status because they have value to human moral agents. For us they have historical, cultural, and perhaps aesthetic value. But they probably had a different value to the people who erected them. Like the tombstones in our present cemeteries and public memorials to soldiers who died in wars, the stone circle represented the domain of the ancestral dead, or former persons.
Monuments to the dead, to former persons, are the enduring symbols of people who did once have intrinsic value as living, sentient, moral agents. We humans often choose durable things like stones to memorialize the dead, because they persist in time longer than most things, and can thus serve as a continuous link between the past and the present. The stones remind us that the dead are still in some sense "with us", not in themselves, but in the flesh and blood of their living descendants, in the cultures they created, and in the material artifacts that they produced.

Do former persons have a moral status? Can moral agents have moral obligations towards former persons? If so, what can such moral obligations be based upon?

Former persons, the deceased, are not alive, not sentient, and are not agents in the sense we ordinarily assume since they cannot act in the present, so in terms of our theory, former persons do not have intrinsic moral value because they possess none of the intrinsic properties that things must have in order to have moral standing in themselves.

But former persons did at one time exist as persons, and acted on the world in various ways as moral agents. Among the things they may have done is to have created cultural artifacts such as Stonehenge, or the Buddha statues at Bamyam, or the Illiad, or the Mona Lisa. Some of them must have also procreated and produced progeny, who procreated, whose descendants in turn, by means of causal chains of "begetting", may have begotten us.

Great Chain of Being, as some ancient philosophical traditions called it, included spiritual beings, such as demons, angels, and gods, but the Great Chain of Begetting, does not. It is only the chain of biological inheritance that connects living generations of humans and other species with both their deceased ancestors, and their yet to be conceived biological descendants. While each of us, the living, has an intrinsic moral value in ourselves based upon the intrinsic properties and capabilities of our form of life, this intrinsic value is inherited from our ancestors and passed on by us to future generations of our species by means of biological procreation. There is nothing fancy or supernatural about this form of inheritance. If living things and sentient moral agent have intrinsic value, and they procreate and produce other living sentient moral agents, then those progeny inherit the kinds of moral value that was intrinsic in their ancestors. Our children, and their children, and their children's children, and so on, will inherit this same intrinsic moral value from us.

But from our present temporal vantage point former persons are nonexistent. Dead people cannot be affected or harmed in any way by our present actions. The dead are, in an important sense, invulnerable. If the dead cannot be harmed, as philosophers since Epicurus have thought, they are invulnerable and it would seem they cannot be objects of any moral responsibilities under the Vulnerability Principle, which normally presupposes that the moral patients to whom responsibilities of care and protection are directed must be vulnerable in some way to being harmed by our actions.

But the Vulnerability Principle is carefully stated: it says that moral agents have moral responsibilities to protect those moral patients who are specially vulnerable or in some way depending upon us. Can former persons, the deceased, be regarded as moral patients who are in some ways depending on us?

There is a sense in which they can. Former persons, our ancestors, are depending on us to preserve their genes by passing them onto future generations; they are depending on us to preserve the cultures that they created, their knowledge, their art, their moral and religious beliefs. Past generations are depending on us to preserve their best material artifacts, their monuments and cathedrals, their pyramids, aqueducts, and their sandstone Buddha images.

Many people feel the moral pull of tradition very strongly in their own lives. A great deal of human activity is directed towards the goal of preserving the cultural traditions and cultural achievements of the past and passing them on to future generations. Educators are culture carriers in this sense, and no human culture can persist without educators. In complex cultures such as our presently emerging global civilization, there are specific detailed roles, such as archaeologists, New Testament scholars, classicists, Asian antiquities experts, Florentine art restoration experts, Chicago historical architectural preservationists, and so forth, whose specific roles are to preserve cultural artifacts created by former persons. But, for whose sakes are they doing this? Is it for the sake of the deceased creators of these things or is it for us, the living, or is it for those who will come after us, future persons?

When people draw up their last will and testament that specifies what is to be done with their possessions when they have died, they are depending on others, the executors of their wills, to fulfill their wishes. Are we not obliged to keep our promises to the dead even though they will not be harmed by our betraying them? If we honor a trust placed upon us by another, we respect them, and conversely, by betraying a trust we disrespect them. So respecting the dead, means that we, the living, must honor the trust they have placed in us. They, the deceased, have placed their trust in us to preserve what was best in their life's work, the fruits of their labors, and the legacies they created as "gifts to the future." Think about your own legacy and how you would want it treated by those who come after you. It is the same for our ancestors: just as we are trusting future persons to preserve what was best in our present day culture, previous generations trusted us to preserve and protect what was best in theirs.

We can certainly harm the living descendants of the dead. If we fail to execute a person's last will, we can deprive a rightful heir of what they are entitled to. Most all human cultures have adopted burial practices that involve memorializing their ancestral dead. The physical remains of the ancestral dead, their bones, and the stone and concrete monuments that the living erect for the dead, can be damaged or destroyed, and to do so is usually regarded as a sacrilege, and as a way of disrespecting the departed.

But the remains of the dead, and the monuments erected to memorialize them, can only have derived moral status, a form of moral standing that is wholly derived from the value that moral agents place on them. So it is really the living descendants of the dead whom we respect when we respect the bones of their ancestors or respect the memorial stones erected over their graves, or the public monuments constructed to honor them. The moral standing these kinds of artifacts have is derived from their value to living moral agents, not their value to the deceased.

This way of looking at the question reduces all of our moral obligations to ones owed, directly or indirectly, towards actual, existing, moral patients. On this view, the only reason for honoring former persons' wills, or for fulfilling the promises we make to the dying, is that not doing so would harm some interest of present persons.

It is part of our conventional homocentric ethics to hold the belief all moral obligations are owed to presently existing moral patients. Our conventional way of thinking about ethical issues is highly "present-oriented"; we are inclined to consider only the short-term effects of our actions. It is also quite "localist" in that we mainly consider only those personal interests most directly affected by our actions.

I do not think these assumptions are correct. There is no theoretical barrier towards thinking of former persons as moral patients to whom moral agents can have moral obligations. As in the case of inanimate objects and aritifacts, all we have to do is to assign the status-function "moral patient" to the referents of the term "former persons," and presto-chango, they become moral patients, in the same way as pieces of metal become "coins" when we assign the status-function "money" to them. Like other derived forms or moral status, the moral status we assign to former persons is "observer-relative." it depends upon how intentional moral agents like ouselves assign status-functions to things. By assigning the status function "moral patient" to the term "former persons" we decide to include the referents of that term within the category of things towards which we can have moral obligations.

But former persons actually existed at one time as living, sentient moral agents, persons, who had intrinsic moral value in themselves. This is different than the pieces of metal that we make into coins, which have no moral or monetary value in themselves apart from that which observers like us assign to them. We do not respect inanimate objects in themselves, but we do, I believe, respect former persons in themselves, we respect them for what they were and for what they have bequeathed to us. So former persons have a distinct kind of moral standing. Although former persons cannot be harmed, they can be disrespected and the trust they place in us can be violated or dishonored. We present moral agents can have moral responsibilities towards former persons which are based upon the moral stature they once had as human persons, like us.

A global ethics, as I conceive it, alters our conventional assumptions about the boundaries of the moral community. In place of the homocentric bias of conventional ethics, it proposes a biocentric axiology in which living, sentient, non-human organisms can also function as moral patients and be the objects of human moral responsibilities. In place, of the "localist" bias of our conventional ethics, a global ethics proposes a "global" perspective in which our moral responsibilities extend beyond our own families and homes, our neighborhoods, and our own states and nations, to encompass all present persons and other living beings. So too, a global ethics must overcome the "present-oriented" bias of conventional ethics, and extend the boundaries of the moral community into the distant past, towards previous generations and former persons, and into the far future, towards future persons and future generations. On my theory, both former persons and future persons have moral standing as moral patients towards whom we, present persons, or actually existing moral agents, can owe moral responsibilities.

Protecting Future Persons

Like former persons, future persons, the individual members of future human generations, are, from our present temporal vantage point, nonexistent. They are not alive, not sentient, and are not agents in the usual sense because they cannot act in the present. But, like former persons, actual future persons, those human persons who will one day exist, form links in the great chain of begetting that from the evolutionary perspective stretches back in time to our ancient hominid ancestors, and before that, to those life forms that preceded them in the Earth's tree of life. We would like to believe that at least some actual future persons will exist, but we cannot know for sure.

It is curious, then, that we do not also construct monuments for future persons. Monuments to future persons would serve to symbolize our connection to those who will come after us, and who will inherit the kind of intrinsic moral value we presently have. Perhaps it would be a good thing if we invented this practice in order to remind ourselves that future generations of human beings, those human persons who are "yet to be", are also in some sense "with us now" as the future heirs to our civilization and to the particular kind of intrinsic moral value that human beings possess.

It is really even more important that we remind ourselves of our relationship to future people because, unlike the dead, future persons can be harmed by our present actions.

Future persons are vulnerable to us, but we are not vulnerable to them.

Joel Feinberg dreamt up a case that illustrates this rather strange asymmetrical relationship of vulnerability. Suppose, the story goes, Sam has the malevolent intention to commit the perfect crime. He decides that one way to do this is to construct a powerful bomb that is on a very long-delay timer and bury it deep underground. He constructs such a bomb and sets its timer to detonate in fifty years. Suppose that Sam dies 32 years before the bomb explodes. After his death an elementary school is built on the site over which Sam's bomb has been buried. Thirty-two years after Sam dies, the bomb explodes, and kills scores of innocent children, children who had not even been born when Sam constructed and armed the bomb and who Sam did not know would be harmed by his actions.

There is a straightforward sense in which is seems correct to say that Sam harmed those children, even though Sam was not alive at the time they were harmed, he was a former person. There is also a strong moral intuition that what Sam did was seriously morally wrong; it was in fact a crime. Forensic and police investigations might be able to determine that it was Sam who committed this crime, and to hold him responsible, in the liability sense, for this action. But as a deceased or former person Sam is beyond the reach of the law; Sam cannot be punished for his crime, since Sam is already dead and is, at the time the bomb explodes, therefore invulnerable. Sam, it appears, got away with the perfect crime.

Yet, despite this, our moral judgment about the wrongfulness of what Sam did seems secure. At the time he set the bomb to explode in fifty years Sam had a moral responsibility not to harm any future persons. He violated this responsibiliity even though he may not have known that an elementary school would be built over the site where he buried the bomb, and he did not know, in particular, which actual future children he would be harming when the bomb exploded. Sam acted recklessly with regard to the well-being of future persons who could be harmed by his actions, and so Sam committed a moral wrong. If future persons discover by forensic investigation that it was indeed Sam who set the bomb that killed the school children, they might assign to him the status function "murderer" because Sam was the moral agent who recklessly caused the children to be killed. That Sam constructed this bomb and set it to go off in fifty year is part of the causal chain leading to the children's deaths. It is a natural fact. But the status-function "murderer" is not; it is an observer-relative judgment we make in hindsight.

This story has obvious relevance to the environmental crisis of the twenty-first century. The present generation of living human beings is destroying natural ecosystems, polluting the air and the water, causing species extinctions, and warming the earth's atmosphere by continuing to pump greenhouse gases into it. We are recklessly setting bombs on long delay fuses that will one day harm future persons. We may not know which future persons will be harmed or killed by our present actions, but it is a pretty safe bet that there will be some actual future persons who we will harm. As the philosopher John Broome has noted,

Climate change will cause harm. Heat waves, storms and floods will kill many people and harm many others. Tropical diseases, which will increase their range as the climate warms, will exact their toll in human lives. Changing patterns of rainfall will lead to local shortages of food and safe drinking water. Large-scale human migrations in response to rising sea levels and other climate-induced stresses will impoverish many people. As yet, few experts have predicted specific numbers, but some statistics suggest the scale of the harm that climate change will cause. The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have killed 35,000 people. In 1998 floods in China adversely affected 240 million. The World Health Organization estimates that as long ago as 2000 the annual death toll from climate change had already reached more than 150,000. ["The Ethics of Climate Change." Scientific American, Vol. 298, No. 6 (June 2008): pp. 96-102.

But if this is true, then there is a good moral argument for not doing those things we are presently doing that will cause harm to future persons, and for compensating them for the harms that we are causing. The argument derives from an elementary moral principle that nearly everyone accepts, namely that, "you should not do something for your own benefit if it harms another person. Sometimes you cannot avoid harming someone, and sometimes you may do it accidentally without realizing it. But whenever you cause harm, you should normally compensate the victim." The kinds of harms likely to be brought about by global climate change are not intentional, and are the result of our collective rather than our individual actions, yet it seems that this elementary moral principle still applies.

In going about our daily lives, each of us causes greenhouse gases to be emitted. Driving a car, using electric power, buying anything whose manufacture or transport consumes energy--all those activities generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In that way, what we each do for our own benefit harms others. Perhaps at the moment we cannot help it, and in the past we did not realize we were doing it. But the elementary moral principle I mentioned tells us we should try to stop doing it and compensate the people we harm.

This same principle also tells us that what we should do about climate change is not just a matter of weighing benefits against costs--although it is partly that. Suppose you calculate that the benefit to you and your friends of partying until dawn exceeds the harm done to your neighbor by keeping her awake all night. It does not follow that you should hold your party. Similarly, think of an industrial project that brings benefits in the near future but emits greenhouse gases that will harm people decades hence. Again suppose the benefits exceed the costs. It does not follow that the project should go ahead; indeed it may be morally wrong. Those who benefit from it should not impose its costs on others who do not.

While this seems straightforward enough from a common sense moral point of view, philosophers such as Broome, Derek Parfit, Gregory Kavka, and my colleague Melinda Roberts, have found reasons to wonder about whether our ordinary sorts of moral status ascriptions can be applied to future persons. The question is: How can we, presently existing moral agents, have moral responsibilities towards future persons?

With regard to former persons, we can use what philosophers call "rigid designators" such as proper names to refer to particular individuals. For instance, the proper name "George Washington" refers to an actual former person who was the first president of the United States of America. The proper name "Hamlet" on the other hand, does not refer to any actual former person; it refers to a fictional character created by William Shakespeare (who may or may not be the actual former person who wrote the play of the same name).

But future persons cannot be referred to by proper names and other rigid designators. We can talk about the "descendants of Thomas Jefferson" and that class includes all of that dead president's past, present, and future biological descendants. But this predicate is not a rigid designator and does not pick out just one feature of the actual world, but rather features of many possible worlds.

Unlike former persons, future persons depend for their existence on our present choices and actions.The basic source of puzzlement arises when we realize that which future persons will actually exist will depend in part on our present choices and actions. So consider the fact that it is now know that Thomas Jefferson had some descendants that the fathered with his slave Sally Hemings, probably two sons named Eston and Madison Hemings. As of 2007 there are several known descendants of Eston and Madison Hemings, but the descendants of another person who claimed to be desended from Jefferson, Thomas Woodson, have had this claim conclusively disproved by DNA evidence. (See Sally Hemings' Descendants)

Whether or not someone is or is not a descendant of Thomas Jefferson is a natural fact about them. It is not just a matter of an observer relative status attribution. Had Jefferson acted differently, those descendents of his whose other ancestor was Sally Hemings would not now exist. So then, suppose that Jefferson had not procreated with Sally Hemings. His sons Eston and Madison would never have existed, nor would their descendants, and theirs, and so on down to the present living descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

But a puzzling question now presents itself: Would Jefferson have harmed Eston and Madison and all of their descendents had he chosen not to have procreated with Sally Hemings? Generally speaking, to harm someone is to make them worse off than they would otherwise have been. But, Jefferson's sons Eston and Madison would not have been at all had he not had sex with his slave Sally, so it is hard to see how his not having done that would have harmed them. Is not existing a harm? Is existing a benefit? Who is it that Jefferson would have made worse off had he not had sex with his slave?

There are deep philosophical puzzles here that some of our best philosophical minds have been struggling to understand for the past twenty-five years or so. It seems that unless we can find some way to "fix" the reference to future persons in statements like "Future persons can be the objects of our present moral responsibilities," we cannot save the commonsense moral intuitions discussed earlier that lead to the conclusion that we ought to avoid doing things now that will likely cause harm to members of future generations.

I am not here going to offer an account of future persons that solves (or dissolves) these philosophical paradoxes concerning future persons. Instead I will adopt the strategem of referring to actual future persons, where that term should be understood to mean those persons who will come into existence because of chains of procreation that have actual causal links to present human persons. It does not include all of the possible future persons, who may or may not come to exist depending on what we do and do not do, but only those persons, who, from a "God's Eye" view of time, will actually come to exist, those who, like us and our deceased ancestors, have left, are leaving, or will leave scratch marks in the causal structure of the cosmos.

It seems clear to me that within a scientific ontology that regards what is real as everything that leaves scratch marks in the causal structure of the cosmos, actual future persons can be moral patients, that is, they can function as the objects of our moral responsibilities, the sorts of things towards whom we can have moral obligations.

To illustrate this notion, suppose that the set of actual future persons is non-empty, and that it includes someone who is my great, great, great grandson, whom I will call "John Smith." (For the record, I have no male descendants, but I do have three daughters none of whom have children at the present). John Smith does not now exist, he is an actual future person, because he will be connected to me by means of my DNA being passed down through my daughters, to their children, and from them to theirs, and from them to theirs, and from them to theirs, one of whom is John Smith. I can have a moral responsibility towards John Smith which includes my refraining from doing things that would harm him when he comes into existence, for instance, by using up non-renewable resources that he will need, or by making it the case that conditions of his life are more difficult or dangerous than they would otherwise be had I not refrained from doing certain things. I could, for instance, refrain from planting a bomb on a long-delay fuse under the spot where his elementary school will one day stand.

From a "God's-eye" or tenseless perspective, John Smith is thus vulnerable to me and is depending on me not to do certain things that would make his life more difficult or more dangerous. Under the Vulnerability Principle, I have a moral responsibility to refrain from such actions. I have this responsibility towards John Smith, who functions as a moral patient and as the object of my moral responsibilities, even though I will be dead when John is alive. From John's temporal point of view, I will be a former person, one of his ancestors. He will not be in a position to punish me or demand compensation for any harm that I may have caused him, because I will be dead, and therefore, invulnerable.

But even though I will be invulnerable to John Smith, he will be vulnerable to me. This asymmetry of vulnerability is the result of the causal directionality of time: we cannot change the past, but we can change the future. There is no such thing as backward causation (despite what Broome has thought), but there is obviously such as thing as forward causation. My present choices and actions (and yours) can participate in causal chains that produce conditions in the future that will make John Smith's life more difficult and dangerous than it needs to be, given the causal structure of the cosmos.

Thus, there is also a sense in which John Smith, and all of the other actual future persons, are depending on us, to fulfill our moral responsibilities towards them. There is a kind of intergenerational interdependence in which our ancestors, former persons, depend on us to preserve what was best in their legacies, and future persons, like John Smith, depend on us to ensure that their lives are not more difficult and dangerous than they need to be.

The VP tells us that we acquire special moral responsibilities to protect the interests or "goods" of moral patients who are specially vulnerable or in some way dependent on our choices and actions. Hence it follows that we, present persons, have special moral responsibilities to protect the interests of the actual members of future human generations, whomever they turn out to be.