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.
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 specie 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-specie distributors of hedons.