Moral Status and Personhood

In order to understand the VCP on must grasp the concept of moral status. Moral status is what determines whether something can function as the A and B terms in the Vulnerability Relation, which is, as you will recall,

The Vulnerability Relation: A is vulnerable to B with respect to C because of D.

The B term specifies the bearer or subject of the sorts of moral responsibilities that I content derive from the Vulnerability Relations, while the A term specifies the addressees, beneficiaries, or objects of these kinds of moral responsibilities. The VCP says that moral agents can have moral responsibilities to protect those who are specially vulnerable or in some way depending on them for their care. But the questions which we must now address are:

Who (or what) can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities in this sense? and,

Who (or what) can function as the objects of moral responsibilities in this sense?

I will begin my discussion of the concept of moral status with the work on this topic by several contemporary philosophers.

Mary Anne Warren has characterized the concept of moral status as follows:

To have moral status is to be morally considerable, or to have moral standing. It is to be an entity towards which moral agents have, or can have, moral obligations. If an entity has moral status, then we may not treat it in just any way we please; we are morally obliged to give weight in our deliberations to its needs, interests, or well-being. Furthermore, we are morally obliged to do this not merely because protecting it may benefit ourselves or other persons, but because its needs have moral importance in their own right. [Warren (1997) Moral Status: obligations to persons and other living things. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3]

Personhood is an example of moral status in this sense. To have the status of a person is understood as the basis of having human rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and the others. The moral status of persons is typically conferred upon types of individuals who meet certain general criteria, for instance, sentience, rational agency, intentionality, and the like. Normally adult human beings are regarded as persons. I have already noted that moral agency is a precondition for attributions of liability responsibility. So it is reasonable to suggest here that moral agency is likewise a precondition for something functioning as the bearer of moral responsibilities in the substantive normative sense. So, the short answer to the first question is that only individuals who possess moral agency can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities in the vulnerability relation. Since persons possess moral agency, persons can be the bearers of moral responsibilities.

Adult human beings are, for the most part, persons. Philosophers sometimes call human moral agents 'undoubted persons' because there is no doubt that they satisfy the conditions for moral agency. However, not all human beings are also persons in this sense. Individuals in deep comas are not, nor are infants and young children, nor are embryos and fetuses. In none of these kinds of cases does it make sense to ascribe moral responsibilities to these kinds of human beings. There are also some borderline cases in which one might legitimately doubt whether someone is a person, for instance, when dealing with severely psychotic or schizophrenic individuals. People who are deranged in these ways are not normally held to be morally responsible for their actions, even though they look just like undoubted persons.

But there are also certain kinds of things which are persons but are not human beings. The prime example of this category are corporations and other sorts of collective entities. I will return to this topic at a later point, but for the time being, I want to note that corporations and other kinds of collective entities can be ascribed moral responsibilities even though they are not human beings, and in fact, are not even alive. Corporations do not bleed and they do not die. Nevertheless it is important to understand that corporations can satisfy the necessary conditions for moral agency, and hence be regarded as moral as well as legal persons.

If there are extra-terrestrial intelligent races out there somewhere in space, then it is quite possible that we would classify them as persons who are not also human beings. Think, for instance, about the alien in Steven Spielberg's movie E.T. -- not human to be sure, but capable of moral agency and hence moral responsibility nonetheless. It is certainly imaginatively possible to conceive of other kinds of beings which are 'persons' in the sense of possessing moral agency, but which are not human beings. Think about hobbits.

Science fiction provides other examples of possible non-human persons. Issac Asimov's story "The Centennial Man" (later made into a movie called the Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) contemplates the possibility that some day we will have robots that claim their civil rights as persons under the law. For the time being, this is just a fictional possibility, but some authors, such as Ray Kurzweil, have predicted that the day in which we have such forms of artificially intelligent robots is not as far off as many people think. If and when these robots do come into being we will need to think of them as nonhuman persons.

Some people also think that some of our biological relatives, higher primates such as chimpanzees, or cetaceans such as bottle-nosed dolphins, might quality as nonhuman persons. Other people doubt this is true, which is why it might be possible to call these members of other species "doubted persons". Since I think of personhood as closely connected with those capacities necessary for moral agency, I am comfortable with this designation. Philosophers, by and large, have tended to over-emphasize the evolutionary discontinuities between human beings and other intelligent species. I, on the other hand, am more persuaded by the arguments of the biologists and evolutionary psychologists that there are significant continuities between humans and other members of the animal kingdom in the underlying psychological capacities that make moral agency possible.

Philosophers have spent a good deal of time and lots of ink trying to figure out exactly where to draw the boundaries of moral personhood. While interesting, I am not going to say much more about this topic here other than to note that I believe this is a matter for decision rather than discovery. That is, we will ultimately need to decide to draw the boundary somewhere or another, and where ever we draw it is going to be politically contested, as it is, for example, in the debate over the morality of abortion. We can fix on various kind of natural or psychological features of individuals as the basis for drawing the boundary, but this does not alter the fact that we construct and create it.

Definitional boundaries are rather like political borders in this sense; we can use the presence of a river or a coastline as the marker for a political boundary, say between the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it is still our decision to use this natural feature as a boundary. The ability of the river to function in this way depends upon our collective intentionality to treat it as a political boundary. The same thing is true of the definitions of terms like "person" or "moral agent". We construct the meanings of our symbols.

No comments: