The recent blog by Dr. Steve Phillips led me to deeper thought (and this excursus) on the idea of moral status and moral agency. While his comments reflected on the significance that blurring the two concepts has had on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, it also has important implications for the idea of animal rights. Dr. Phillips addresses the writings of Mary Anne Warren, whose Moral Status- Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things, dedicated many words to animals.
Warren, a professor at San Francisco State University until her death in 2010, was a champion of the abortion rights cause. But she was also deeply influenced by Peter Singer’s views on animal liberation. She managed to avoid the inevitable outcome that Singer’s views would necessitate, specifically abolitionism of all animal confinement and human use. She has written of a “sliding scale” concept of animal rights that “…depends in part upon their sentience and mental sophistication.” In other words, she seems to use the ability of animals as moral agents to determine their moral status. While it is arguable that even higher non-human primates could be capable of moral agency, the level of mental sophistication of non-human animals seems, intuitively, like a reasonable way to address their level of welfare. I may be entirely unenthusiastic if my son chooses to go deer hunting but fine with a fishing trip. Others might find my distinctions illogical based on their own views, and that is okay. There is an inherent subjectivity to the moral status of animals, because they are, at least in Christian thought, not created in the same fashion as human beings. I daresay that this is a pretty palatable view of animal welfare and is what most people think, without really thinking, when approached with the idea of animal rights. I have, in fact, based the moral status of animals on their capacities, an altogether reasonable thing in the world of animals, while I cannot logically consider them moral agents, which Warren would seem to do. This is where her failure to differentiate the concepts muddies things.
If I lack the biblical distinction of the imago Dei (image of God) that distinguishes humans from non-human animals, don’t differentiate moral agency from moral status, and want to be consistent in the idea of animals as having variable levels of moral status, then I am forced to look at capacity as the basis for this status for everyone. This is the insidious nature of granting rights to animals, even “lesser rights,” however those can be quantified. Absent the imago Dei, I lose intellectual credibility when I say all human beings have the same moral status, but vary in their moral agency, but non-human animals vary in their moral status, and cannot be considered moral agents at all.
How, then, do we intellectually make exceptions for human beings? On this basis, we can’t. At some point, we are forced to make the rights of the human that are not in end-stage dementia, the unborn, and the profoundly mentally-handicapped submit to those of the cognitively superior, to the animals of greater “mental sophistication.”
Dr. Phillips has done a great service in distinguishing the concepts of moral status and moral agency. Be wary of those, like Mary Anne Warren, that do not.