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.

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