Thursday, July 26, 2007

Basics of Bioethics: Moral Status

I've decided to establish a regular series of posts aimed at disambiguating and defining commonly used terms in the bioethics and philosophy literature. I won't be taking any particular stance on these terms, but instead listing some of the more common positions and explaining the central notion.

Moral Status

is also known as moral standing, moral patienthood, moral considerability or sometimes (misleadingly) as personhood. The basic idea is that for us to have moral obligations towards something it must have moral status or standing. Thus suppose we had obligations to not destroy those with moral status. Then to assess whether you could destroy something you would need to assess whether it had moral status. (Note this may not be the only consideration necessary since something with moral status might have a right that you not destroy something else that lacks moral status)

In essence moral status is the flip side to moral agency.

Although the majority of debates about moral status have been in the context of applied ethics, notably in the animal rights debate, the abortion debate and more recently in regards to stem cells, the question of what has moral status is actually an important question in moral theory more generally, since before we can determine what a theory tells us we ought to do we need to know who the theory's claims apply to. Often the answer to the question is taken to flow out of a particular moral theory.

Thus for Kant, animals don't have moral standing since they are (on his view) not rational agents and only rational agents have moral status. In contrast the traditional utilitarian viewpoint is that animals do have moral status since they are sentient, so they can feel pleasure and pain, which is what matters on the traditional account.

Typically attempts to address this question try to give lists of necessary and/or sufficient conditions to have moral status.

Further readings:

The Moral Status of Animals
Animal Rights

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