According to a dominant view it is the capacity to feel pain or pleasure that confers full moral status on an organism. The roughly antithetical view holds that full moral status conferral is contingent on membership with the sapiens species. Call the former view Capacitist and the latter Speciesist. This brief piece presents a novel argument [moral status vagrancy] against capacitism about moral status conferral.
Capacitists hold you shouldn’t eat steak because the cow would prefer to skip dinner. Speciesists don’t prohibit a steak dinner because the cow isn’t a person with full moral status. Capacitists allege speiciesists discriminating against cows as subhuman, and so as lacking in full moral status, are no different from speiciesists discriminating against blacks vis-à-vis whites as subhuman, and so as lacking in full moral status. If cows are fit to be dined on, to the Speciesists, then some humans are apt to be slaved.
- Argument Appraisal
It remains to the Speciesists to rejoinder that if cows would prefer to live so would mosquitoes. Indeed, the speiciesist has a general argument that the capacities view of moral status entails moral status vagrancy. The capacitists allege if any entity can differentially respond to oncoming stimuli so as to prolong its existence, perpetuate its kind, or prevent bodily insult and annihilation, then it has full moral status. These dispositions to differentially respond evidence a preference for pleasure and an aversion from pain— legitimating, on the capacitists’ view, a conferral of full moral status.
- Moral Status Vagrancy: A Problem for Capacitism about Moral Status
Mosquitoes infesting a Sudanese slum would prefer to live and dine with the locals rather than die starved outside bed-nets, or be culled by insecticides. So, if the capacitists are right, mosquitoes have full moral status and ought not to be kept from their pleasure or hastened to a painful end on pain of committing oneself to speciesism.
If one rejects the conferral of full moral status on mosquitoes then one rejects the view that their capacity to prefer pleasure to pain, and life to death, is a sufficient basis for full moral status on pain of committing to the view that some number of men are morally worth less than some number of mosquitoes. Assuming this is incorrect, and men are worth vastly more morally than any mosquitoes or non-sapiens species member, it is clear the capacities view of moral status conferral is incorrect as well. The predicament where one can’t tell the moral difference between swatting a mosquito and lashing a slave girl is comic rather than tragic, and not one entertained by any respectable speiciesists. Call this predicament associated with the Capacitist view the problem of moral status vagrancy.
The problem with moral status vagrancy as it emerges in Capacitist accounts of moral status is that it gerrymanders to charismatic megafauna, and is incompatible with the axiomatic commitment to the view that the capacity for preferring pleasure over pain confers moral status. Although cows, which can be very cute, can suffer and rejoice in their circumstances this makes them no different from blithely ugly mosquitoes that rejoice in stagnant pools, and on peoples’ skin, and suffer in a baygon mist.
If the species memberhood of the subjects sets them apart then it is not their capacities for pain or pleasure that matter as capacitists hold. It is their species memberhood that matters as speiciesists maintain. The capacitists are guilty of pandering to the preferences of charismatic megafauna while imagining themselves impartial pan-species distributors of hedons.
6. An Objection due to Mylan Engel Jr. (2017, personal communication)
Your criticism of capacitism, even if it were sound, wouldn’t do anything to establish the moral legitimacy of speciesism. You have offered no positive reasons to think that species is morally relevant. Species membership is an arbitrary biological taxonomic category. Why pick species as the revelant category? Why not race? Why not Genus? Why not family, class, order, phylum, or kingdom? Speciesist* is unjustified absent a positive argument as to why species membership is morally relevant, and you have offered no such argument.
6.1. Response to Mylan Engel Jr.’s Objection
I haven’t made a positive case for specieism contra racism etc. yet, but there is a very robust case. It is outlined below:
6.2. Positive Argument for Speciesism
1. Only the human species can become committed or entitled to receipt/delivery of commissive or omissive performances that have moral valence.
2. It is the ability to become entitled or committed to receipt/delivery of such performances that confers moral status.
3. Nonhuman species cannot become committed or entitled to deliver such performances, so they haven’t a moral status.
4. Racial identity, genus, class, family and other such markers of distinction, don’t impede or abet the receipt/ delivery of such performances as confer moral status. Only sapience, i.e. inter alia the ability to become committed or entitled to such performances with full cognizance, confers moral status on the human species.
5. The only species known to be sapient is human. Ergo, species membership, specifically characterized by the ability to become committed or entitled to moral performances, confers moral status on humans but not non-humans.
Capacitism by contrast lacks a coherent justification for the idea that mere sentience confers moral status, and is vulnerable to the problem of moral status vagrancy. There is absolutely no positive case that can be made to defend the idea that a non-human critter is committed or entitled to any performance whatsoever.
6.3. A Second Objection due to Mylan Engel Jr. (2017, personal communication):
You seem to be a capacitist after all. For you the morally relevant capacity seems to be “sapience”. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “sapience” but you seem to mean something like the complex property of “being rational and morally autonomous.” It seems clear to me that being rational, morally autonomous is sufficient for moral considerability, but you have not shown that it is necessary for moral considerability. Why think that moral agency is necessary for moral patiency? There are lots of humans who are neither rational nor morally autonomous, and yet those non-agent humans are still moral patients. They deserve moral consideration. When identifying a morally relevant property, there must be some PLAUSIBLE RATIONALE for the property picked. That is, there must be some reason for thinking that possessing the property in question is necessary and sufficient for possessing [the right or moral status in question]” The argument: “X is rational. Therefore, X has a right not to be harmed.” is a non sequitur. What does being rational have to do with the right not to be harmed? There might be rational beings who are incapable of being harmed. It would make no sense to say of such beings that they have the right not to be harmed. It is much more plausible to think that the right not to be harmed is grounded in the capacity to be harmed. Any being capable of being harmed has a right not be harmed (without just cause). Since every sentient being (i.e., any being with the capacity to suffer) can be harmed by being cause to suffer gratuitously, every sentient being has a right not to be harmed, regardless of species.
6.4. A Response to the Second Objection
I’m not a capacitist because I don’t think being worthy of receiving moral consideration is sufficient for having a moral status. I’m a speciesist because belonging to a certain species, i.e. human, is necessary to have the capacity to enter into enforceable moral transactions, covenants, and contracts.
The reason the capacity to act rationally for the interests of others is necessary to have a moral status is that moral consideration is earned only by entering into tacit, or explicit, covenants/contracts with other beings who have such capacities.
People agree not to kill each other by inventing and enforcing a legal system. A hyena cannot be taken to court for killing a child, nor can it be expected to not kill a child because it has some primitive capacity to feel pain. This is why people, but not hyenas, have a moral status.
Disabled humans, and others who can’t enter covenants committing/entitling them to moral performances towards/from others still *could* have been able if it weren’t for their disability. Ergo, they could possibly have acted for the interests of others. It is this possibility which confers moral status on them.
Infants who can’t enter covenants committing/entitling them to moral performances towards/from others *can* and are expected to do so when they grow up. Ergo, they will possibly act for the interests of others. It is this possibility, and expectation, which confers moral status on infants.
Non-human animals can’t enter covenants committing/entitling them to moral performances towards/from others and neither are they expected to do so at any point in their lives. Furthermore, they couldn’t possibly have such capacities counterfactually, for then they would no longer be non-human animals as we know them. It is the impossibility of non-human animals to conduct moral transactions that prevents the conferral of moral status on them.
It turns out the capacity to act morally, i.e. conduct moral transactions, is tied up with which species one belongs to. One cannot have the capacity to enter into moral transactions without belonging to a species that has such a capacity [it’s tautologically true]. Ergo, species-membership is a necessary condition for having the capacity to conduct moral transactions which confer moral status. Non-human animal species haven’t a moral status because they can’t morally transact. But, the human species has a moral status because it can.
7. Concluding Remarks
Having the capacity to morally transact is a sufficient condition, and belonging to a species that has such a capacity is a necessary condition for the conferral of moral status.
-Disabled humans and infants lack the capacity to morally transact. So, they fail to satisfy the sufficient condition for conferral of moral status. They do, however, belong to a species possessing the capacity to morally transact. Therefore, they individually satisfy the necessary condition for moral status conferral.
Why don’t [Non-human] animals have moral status?
– Animals lack the capacity to morally transact. So, they fail to satisfy the sufficient condition for conferral of moral status. They also don’t belong to a species possessing the capacity to morally transact. Therefore, they don’t satisfy the necessary condition for moral status conferral either.