Uni-criterial vs. Multi-criterial Theories of Moral Status

According to Mary Anne Warren, "ascriptions of moral status serve to represent very general claims about the ways in which moral agents ought to conduct themselves towards entities of a particular sort" (Moral Status: obligations to persons and other living things. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 9). She also notes that "a second important feature of the concept of moral status is that the moral obligations that are implied by the ascription of moral status to an entity are obligations to that entity" (10). Having moral status, then, qualifies something as a possible object of the moral responsibilities and duties of moral agents. If the VCP is a fundamental principle of normative ethics, then it tells us that human moral agents have moral responsibilities towards things which have some kind of moral status, in particular, it tells us that we have moral responsibilities to protect them particularly when they are specially vulnerable and in some way dependent on our choices and actions.

Warren contrasts theories of moral status which are uni-criterial with those that are multi-criterial. A uni-criterial theory of moral status takes the view that there is some single criterion that we can use to determine what the moral status of a particular entity is. Various philosophers have proposed various uni-criterial theories of moral status. Kant's view that take rational agency as the sole criterion of intrinsic moral value, and hence moral status, is one example. Other people have proposed that genetic humanity is the proper criterion. Peter Singer, and other utilitarians have proposed that sentience, in particular, the capacity for pain and pleasure, functions as the sole criterion. Still others take other things such as self-consciousnsess or being the "subject of a life" as providing the criterion for moral status. Others, like Albert Schweitzer, propose that life or being alive is the criterion for having moral status.

But Warren argues that none of these uni-criterial theories of moral status can adequately account for the full range of our considered moral intuitions about cases calling for moral discrimination and judgment. Her view, which I find to be convincing is that "any satisfactory account of moral status must be a multi-criterial one, comprising a number of distinct but related principles" (20-21). In particular, Warren argues that:
(1) there is more than one valid criterion of moral status; (2) that there can be more than one type of moral status, with different types involving different obligations on the part of moral agents; and (3) that the criteria of moral status must include both certain intrinsic properties, including life, sentience, personhood, and certain relational properties, which sometimes include being part of a particular social or biological community. (21)
Like Warren, while I think that it would be nice to have a simpler theory of moral status, it is preferable to have one that is more descriptively adequate and which can account for a wider range of robust moral intuitions that competent moral judges have about cases calling for moral discrimination and judgment found in our current commonsense morality. Theories of moral status, however, should not be expected to satisfy everyone's opinions on these matters. Theories and principles are important in normative ethics because they help us correct our biases and guide our judgment in borderline cases. Theory choice in normative ethics is determined by a number of factors other than simplicity and descriptive adequacy alone, so it does not follow that just because a theory of moral status is "simple" or accounts for a number of current moral intuitions, it is correct. Ultimately, any theory of moral status will have to be discursively legitimized and translated into moral and in some cases legal norms that function to guide the judgment and action of large numbers of human moral agents. Philosophers, like Warren and myself, can only point the way towards such socially legitimized norms, we cannot by writng down our thoughts and reasons create them.

Warren does an excellent job in her book of giving philosophical arguments against the various uni-criterial theories of moral status. I am not going to spend a lot of time here rehearsing her arguments, but suggest that the interested reader consult her work. Since I agree with her general approach, I am going to save some time by jumping right into her own multi-criterial theory of moral status. It is, I believe, the best available account of its kind and so can provide a good starting place for further philosophical development.

The goal of this inquiry, recall, is to provide an account of what I am calling "moral patients", that is, those things which can function as the objects of our moral responsibilities. It is necessary to provide such an account in order to determine the boundaries of the moral community for which, I believe, we need an ethics of global responsibility.

Warren's Multi-criterial theory of moral status

Warren begins her account by dividing the criteria that provide bases for ascribing moral status to entities into those that refer to an entity's intrinsic properties and those that refer to its relational properties. All together, she proposes seven principles for ascribing moral status, three of which rely on intrinsic properties, and four more that rely upon relational properties. We can say that her criteria that rely on intrinsic properties confer moral status on an entity because of it's kind of intrinsic moral value, while those that confer status because of relational properties confer moral status because of their relational or derived value, that is, the relationship they have to something that has some kind of intrinsic value.

In brief summary form, Warren's seven principles of moral status are as follows:

1. The Respect for Life Principle

Living organisms are not to be killed or otherwise harmed, without good reasons that do not violate principles 2-7.

2. The Anti-Cruelty Principle

Sentient beings are not to be killed or subjected to pain or suffering, unless there is no other feasible way of furthering goals that are (1) consistent with principles 3-7; and (2) important to human beings or other entities that have a stronger moral status than could be based upon sentience alone.

3. The Agent's Rights Principle

Moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights, including the rights to life and liberty.

4. The Human Rights Principle

Within the limits of their own capacities and of principle 3, human beings who are capable of sentience but not moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents.

5. The Ecological Principle

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 than could be based upon their intrinsic properties alone; ecologically important entities that are not themselves alive, such as species and habitats, may legitimately be accorded a stronger moral status than their intrinsic properties would indicate.

6. The Interspecific Principle

Within the limits of principles 1-5, non-human members of mixed social communities have a stronger moral status than could be based upon their intrinsic properties alone.

7. The Transitivity of Respect Principle

Within the limits of principles 1-6, and to the extent feasible and morally permissible, moral agents should respect one another's attributions of moral status.

Each of these seven principles will require some further explanation. It is also necessary to explain how they interact with one another. In her book, Warren applies these principles of moral status to a wide range of issues, including, abortion, euthanasia, and questions about human responsibilities towards non-human animals, ecosystems, and some kinds of artifacts such as religious or sacred objects. Her goal is to provide a comprehensive theory of moral status that accounts for a wide range of considered moral intuitions about what sorts of things can be the objects of the moral obligations of moral agents or persons.

The Agent's Rights Principle assigns the "strongest" type of moral status to persons, that is, beings who possess the intrinsic properties necessary to full moral agency. Presumably, "weaker" kinds of moral status would be assigned to entities with fewer of the intrinsic and relational properties which she believes confer moral status. Intuitively, a bacterium, which is alive, has some moral status under the Respect for Life Principle, but its moral status is "weaker" than that she would assign to a sentient animal, such as a squirrel, which is weaker still than the moral status she would assign to a person.

The four relational principles operate independently of the three intrinsic property critieria and can add moral status to a thing on top of its status as determined by its intrinsic properties. So, for instance, a beloved family pet, such as my Senegalese green parrot, Pierre, because he is a member of a mixed social community, will normally have a stronger moral status than the wild birds flying around in my backyard, because of her principle six, the Interspecific principle.

While the basic idea of stronger and weaker kinds of moral status is intuitive enough, I think we need more precise language if we are to start comparing different kinds and degrees of moral status across species and with things, like ecosystems and religious artifacts that are not alive. So as a terminological innovation I would like to propose that we employ the terms "moral standing" and "moral stature" as describing different kinds and degrees of moral status. A living being has a different kind of moral status than a work or art or a sacred object; I will say that they have different kinds of moral standing. Similarly, a plant has a different degree of moral status than a snake which has a different degree of moral standing than a chimpanzee, which has yet a different degree of moral status than a human being. I will say that these different kinds of living things have different moral statures, with some having a "higher" stature than others. Standing is on this view an all-or-thing property; things either have a kind of moral standing or they don't. Stature, on the other hand, is a graded property. Things can have different degrees or grades of moral stature even though they may have the same moral standing.

I will also employ the term "moral plateau." A moral plateau signifies the kind and degree of moral status that things of a certain kind of thing occupies. Whether a particular entity or organism occupies a particular moral plateau is a function of both its moral standing and its moral stature. The value of these terms will, I expect, become evident as I proceed with my elaboration of Warren's multi-criterial theory of moral status. These concepts will help us grapple with some important issues concerning conflicting moral responsibilities and the question of whether we shoud treat moral patients impartially or partially.

Respect for Life Principle

According to the Respect for Life Principle all living things have a moral status and on account of that should not be killed or harmed without good reason. Moral agents, then, can have moral responsibilities towards other living things, for instance, responsibilities derived from the VCP to protect them from harm. But, of course, human moral agents kill and harm other living beings all the time. Should we feel guilty about this? What constitutes a "good reason" for killing, or harming, or otherwise failing to protect something that is alive?

For Warren, the Respect for Life Principle, "imputes no wrongdoing to those who harm living things when there are morally sound reasons for doing so," but the principle alone "does not explain what counts as a sufficiently good reason for harming a living thing" (149). But what counts as "good reason" is a function, at least in part, of that thing's moral status. It is also a function of the moral status of the things that are doing the harming, and their reasons for acting as they do.

In the natural world, biological organisms kill and otherwise harm other biological organisms all the time. The other day I came upon a black snake in my backyard whose slender body was engorged by what I surmised to be some small mice. The snake did nothing morally wrong in eating these mice because snakes are not moral agents and cannot be ascribed moral obligations.

And so it is with respect to all creatures great and small who prey upon one another for their survival. It is a matter of Darwinian survival of the fittest out there in the biosphere. Human moral categories just do not apply, except, of course, to us.

In her book, The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World. (Minneapolis MN: Milkweed Editions, 2004), Kathleen Dean Moore recounts a story that illustrates this point beautifully.

In a wilderness Alaska research camp where Jon works summers, a baby pine marten turned up tangled in a fishnet in a storage shed. A pine marten is a large silky weasel, not a rodent, but close enough for this essay, I hope. And it's fierce -- the hiss, the flashing teeth, the predator's slashing speed. Hearing the baby squeal, the two young aquatic biologists struggled to disentangle it. (110)
Moore says that "what seems important to me about this story is that neither of the men wondered whether they should release the baby marten, whether they should risk the nasty bites to set it free. The only issue was how." The two men obviously felt that it was their moral responsibility to free the baby marten. They were not the cause of its plight, but they understood that without their help this creature was doomed, so they undertook to free it. She continues:
Philosophers say that you can't deduce an ought from an is. It's the old "is-ought" problem that has bedeviled Western philosophy since the eighteenth century, when David Hume explained that from a mere description -- this is the way the world is -- you can't infer a prescription -- this is the way the world ought to be. In one sense he's right: You can stare at the world as long as you want, examine it every which way in all its detail, and it will not reveal to you what ought to be. But that doesn't mean you can't infer what you ought to do, from a description of the way the world is. We do it all the time. Jon made that leap in a flash, the space of a synapse, so fast he was probably never aware of the jump: The marten is caught in the net; therefore, I ought to free it. (111)
Logically speaking the inference is invalid, unless one adds a missing premise, a premise that is a description "not about the world, but about the moral convictions of the person acting in the world" (112). What is this missing premise? Perhaps it is something like the VCP; it is the premise that says moral agents have moral responsibilities to protect vulnerable moral patients when some aspect of their good is dependent on their choices and actions. As Moore writes, "the moral impulse, the silent premise affirming one's own standing as a moral agent, the sharp knife against the tough strands of a net: this may be humanity's unique gift to the universe" (112).

But let's vary this case. Suppose that rather than a baby marten, one finds a Siberian tiger caught in the net. Here most of us would be more inclined to make a different judgment about what we ought to do. Let's assume that the marten and the tiger have the same moral status, they occupy a moral plateau on which we find wild sentient life forms who are not members of mixed moral communities. Based on their moral status alone it seems we should treat them equally. But the difference is that we place ourselves at much greater risk by attempting to free the tiger than we do when we attempt to free the marten. For this reason, most of us would not blame someone who does not try to free the tiger. Why not?

The answer is, I think, that we are also vulnerable living creatures and so we have moral responsibilities to protect ourselves from being killed or harmed. Our reluctance to place ourselves at risk of serious injury or death by means of a tiger mauling us is not just "speciesism" -- an irrational preference for our own kind. It is due to our having a higher moral standing than tigers. We humans occupy the highest moral plateau and thus it would be wrong for us to risk our lives in order to protect a tiger from losing its life.

We can vary the case again. Suppose that you are a hunter-gatherer in the Amazon rain forest and you have trapped a bird in your net. Is it morally permissible to take that animal, kill it, and feed it to your children?

Yes, of course it is, assuming that you and your human family have no other means of survival. Humans are also vulnerable living beings who must nourish themselves in order to survive. Since human beings occupy a higher moral plateau than birds, who are also vulnerable living things that must nourish themselves to survive, there is no wrongdoing in your capturing the bird and killing it for your dinner. But this does not imply that human beings may wantonly kill other living things.

Suppose that rather than a hungry hunter-gatherer, you are a weekend hiker in a national park whose ruck sack is stuffed with granola bars and other edible goodies. May you still trap birds in nets and kill them, say, for your amusement?

I think you may not, even though you can. You may not because trapping and killing birds for your amusement is not a good enough reason to do it. In this case, your standing moral responsibility to protect vulnerable living things becomes the overriding moral principle of action and it outweighs your desire to have some fun. Risking injury or need for nourishment provide good reasons for excusing moral agents from their standing responsibilities to protect vulnerable living things, but wanting to see what it is like to kill a bird for fun does not.

On this view, then, moral agents owe other vulnerable living beings certain responsibilities of care that require them, morally speaking, to avoid harming them, and to protect them from harm, unless there are good reasons for excusing them from such responsibilities. If one is excused from one's moral responsibility, then one does not wrong the bird in killing it. But if one is not excused, then what one does is wrong, not because it adversely affects some human interest, but for the sake of the bird itself, who is a moral patient whose status as a living, sentient creature gives it some claim on our moral concern.

This way of thinking of the matter may strike some people as strange. As Warren remarks, "the adoption of the Respect for Life principle seems to require something more akin to spiritual conversion than to a logical deduction" (151). Some people seem to have made this conversion. Albert Schweitzer, for instance, thought that we have a moral responsibility "without limit towards all that lives" (Quoted in Warren, p. 31). Someone who subscribes to this ethics of reverence for life, "tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower, takes care to crush no insect." Warren claims that Schweitzer's ethics, "permits no principled distinction between the moral status of plants and that of animals -- or humans." (33) It treats all living creatures as equally valuable, and as equally deserving of our concern and respect.

But Warren (and I) reject this form of radical biological egalitarianism. The reason, she says, is clear:
Any human society which treated ordinary acts of food preparation, personal hygiene, and medical care as the moral equivalents of mass homicide would jeopardize its own survival. For if, on the one hand, members of society adopted the view that the destruction of micro-organisms is as serious a crime as we consider homicide to be, and consistently sought to prevent such destruction, then the health of the human population would suffer severely. And if, on the other hand, they came to see homicide as no more serious a wrong than we consider the destruction of micro-organisms to be, then the society's survival would be threatened by uncontrolled intra-human violence. (37)
All men may be created equal, but all living things aren't. Or at least, all organisms do not have the same moral standing and stature as human moral agents do. Micro-organisms, plants, insects, birds, mammals, and human beings occupy different moral plateaus. Other things being equal, we should treat entities on each plateau impartially with due regard for their particular kind of moral standing. But we do not have to feel guilt or remorse about sacrificing living things with lesser moral stature for those with greater moral stature when there is a good reason for doing so.

But, if so, then doesn't this view boil down to the traditional homocentric theory of moral status where human interests always prevail over those of non-human animals? Neither Warren nor I think so. According to the traditional homocentric view, the value of other living things is only a derived value; their value depends upon their relationship to our interests. But, on the Respect for Life principle, other living things have intrinsic moral value "in themselves". That is, it is wrong to wantonly harm them for their sakes, not just for ours. As Warren writes,
It makes more than verbal difference whether we believe, on the one hand, that all living things have a claim to our consideration, however, modest; or, on the other hand, that plants and other non-sentient life forms should be protected only when they have demonstrable value to human beings. If we believe that the needless destruction of living things is a wrong against them, not just a possible wrong against other human beings, then we will be more likely to search for ways to reduce the needless killing that we do, individually and collectively. We will not be permanently content with methods of agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, manufacturing, mining, transportation, energy production, forestry, recreation, flood control, and waste disposal that cause the needless destruction of harmless plants and animals. Respect for life may, therefore, substantially improve humanity's chances of surviving and flourishing into the deep future.(150)
This is a homocentric argument for a biocentric ethics. There is nothing wrong with it since it is, after all, for human moral agents that we fashion, critique, and re-create, our ethical philosophies, since we are the only things in the universe that we know of to which they apply. The reason why we should embrace a biocentric ethics now is that doing so will help our global civilization make a transition to a sustainable form of development. Sustainability means different things to different people, but in this context, it means a future in which life on earth, including human life, will continue to flourish. It is difficult to think of anything that could constitute a higher moral purpose than this.