Taking Stock of Moral Status

In the last series of sections I have been developing a theory of moral status that is designed to explain what sorts of things can function as the objects of the moral responsibilities of moral agents. The account I have offered is rather expansive in that it proposes that moral agents can have moral obligations and responsibilities towards a great many sorts of things. Before moving on to the discussion of how this theory of moral status functions within an ethics of global responsibility, it might be wise to take stock of what I have claimed thus far.

On my theory of moral status, living, sentient moral agents, in particular those moral agents who have achieved full moral stature and who possess the psychological capacities necessary for moral autonomy, can have moral responsibilities towards or concerning:

  1. Other moral agents
  2. Other sentient creatures
  3. Other living organisms
  4. Organizations
  5. Ecosystems and features of the natural environment
  6. Artifacts which are assigned the status of property
  7. Former persons
  8. Future persons

One might wonder whether this list leaves anything in the universe out. What sorts of things cannot be the objects of moral responsibilities?

Well, as I suggested earlier, there are certain things which cannot be the objects of our moral responsibilities because they cannot be harmed and are not depending on us in any way. The planet Jupiter, or the Carina Nebula, for instance, are things of this sort. We can causally affect these kinds of things but we cannot harm them. Several years ago, on December 7, 1995 to be precise, the Galileo Jupiter probe plummeted into Jupiter's gaseous mass traveling at 100,000 mph. Before it disintegrated it sent back radio signals to receivers on Earth revealing information about the atmosphere of the largest planet in our solar system. We humans causally affected Jupiter, but we did not harm it, nor could we. Jupiter is the not sort of thing which can be harmed and hence we cannot have moral responsibilities towards or concerning it.

Closer to home, it would seem that we cannot have moral responsibilities towards atoms, for instance, boron, the element with the atomic number 5. Atomic elements and chemical compounds have the moral status of things to which we can do anything we please. Considered in themselves, atomic elements and molecules have no moral standing.

But gold is also an element. For centuries human beings have ascribed monetary value to gold, but gold, considered in itself, has no intrinsic value. If I acquire some pieces of gold so that they are owned by me, then they are my personal property and other moral agents may have moral obligations concerning them which mediate their moral relationship to me, their owner. But this is an observer-relative kind of moral status. Pieces of gold are not "ends in themselves" and therefore do not have intrinsic moral standing. The moral standing of pieces of gold is wholly derived. In cases where a moral patient's moral standing is wholly derived, we say that we can have obligations "concerning" those things, but not "towards" those things. We can only have moral responsibilities towards things which have some kind of intrinsic moral standing.

Complex material objects composed of large numbers of atoms and molecules can also acquire derived moral standing. For instance, the pebble that I found on the beach and took home and placed on my coffee table to use as a paper-weight, has acquired the status of an artifact and has also become my personal property. If you take the stone from my coffee table now you have committed theft. Locke thought that we can appropriate (almost) anything we please from nature and by "mixing" our labor with it, and thereby convert it into our personal property. But I do not think that this account of how property is acquired can be correct. If I swim in the Atlantic Ocean I am mixing my labor with it, but the Atlantic Ocean does not thereby become my property. If I spray paint graffiti on your boat, I have mixed my labor with it, but that doesn't make it mine. The so-called "Lockean proviso" (the almost) was his stipulation that one must be careful to leave enough natural resources for others. But the details or exactly how property is acquired need not detain us now.

Human artifacts are those things that have been taken from their natural conditions and intentionally shaped or designed by human action. The class of human artifacts includes everything from neolithic "dawn stones" to the great pyramids at Giza, to the Eiffel Tower, to the notebook computer with which I am writing this sentence. The class of human artifacts can includes immaterial things, intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents. Both material and immaterial human artifacts can acquire derived moral status, for instance, as property, or as works of art such as a painting or a novel, and when they do so, human moral agents can have moral responsibilities concerning them which mediate their moral relationship to the owners of those things.

Certain kinds of organizations, such as corporations and governments, are also artifacts, social artifacts, since they are intentionally designed social structures. We conventionally ascribe to them the moral status of "artificial persons" and regard them as capable of having certain kinds of moral and legal rights and obligations. But organizations that are artificial persons have a wholly derived kind of moral status that is dependent on our social institutions. Their status as artificial persons attributes to them a kind of moral agency which, however, is not wholly reducible to the moral agency of their human creators and operators. Although people sometimes talk as though they think they have moral obligations towards governments, corporations, and other sorts of artificial persons, this is, strictly speaking incorrect because they have no intrinsic moral standing.

Excluded from the class of human artifacts are those features of the world that have been unintentionally causally effected by human action. For instance, the glaciers in Greenland are melting in part because of human actions, but the glaciers are not human artifacts. Glaciers and other non-living elements of the earth's ecosystem have no intrinsic moral value, but they can acquire derived moral status, on my account, through their relationship to living things which have some form of intrinsic moral standing. Wild plants and animals may also be causally affected by human action in unintentional ways, and they are also not artifacts, though we may have moral responsibilities towards them because of their intrinsic properties which give them intrinsic moral standing.

Most artifacts have derived moral standing; that is we can have moral responsibilities towards or concerning them due to their observer-relative properties, It is plausible, but incorrect, to assume that artifacts can only have derived moral status. It is incorrect because human beings have been intentionally shaping and designing certain plant and animal species for 10,000 years. For instance, maize, or corn, is a cereal grain that was first domesticated about 9,000 years ago in the highlands of what is now central Mexico. Wild maize had ears and kernels much smaller than our present day corn, which has been selected, hybridized, and genetically engineered to have properties that make it more useful to human beings. The corn plants we grow today are human artifacts, but they are also living organisms, and thus, on my theory of moral status have a basic kind of intrinsic moral standing.

Similarly for certain animal species. Domesticated animals have been specifically bred to suit human interests. The dachshund, for instance, was bred by German hunters to flush out badgers and small animals like rabbits. According to the Wikipedia, "The flap-down ears and famous curved tail of the dachshund have deliberately been bred into the dog. In the case of the ears, this is so that grass seeds, dirt and other matter do not enter into the ear canal. The curved tail is dual-purposed: to be seen more easily in long grass and, in the case of burrowing dachshunds, to help haul the dog out if it becomes stuck in a burrow." Dachshunds, other breeds of dogs, domestic cats, cattle, pigs, chickens and other livestock animals, are all human artifacts. But they are also sentient psychological organisms, and thus have a kind of intrinsic moral standing in themselves, apart from whatever derived moral status they might have due to Warren's Interspecific Principle or some other observer-relative principle for ascribing moral status. Living things which are artifacts, or property, or have some relationship to the survival or well-being or interests of other living things, can have derived moral status in addition to whatever moral status they acquire because of their intrinsic properties.

We have designed our naming conventions so as to exclude ourselves, human beings, from the class of human artifacts, even though we have been extensively shaped and designed by human action. Wild hominids, such as existed a million years ago, and who were our ancestors, were well-adapted to survive as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Modern humans, like you and me, however, have been domesticated so as to be better adapted to living in cities, which are themselves just collections of human artifacts. Civilization, which is etymologically, the practice of building cities, required that we tame ourselves so as to inhibit and redirect certain instinctual behavioral patterns that became maladaptive when we started living in close contact with and cooperating with large numbers of non-kin, that is, with strangers. Nevertheless, if we changed our naming conventions and began regarding ourselves as human artifacts, the same argument would apply: since we would still have the intrinsic properties sufficient for intrinsic moral standing, our moral status would not be wholly derived.

The moral status of former and future persons is also not wholly derived. Since former persons had and actual future persons will have the same intrinsic properties, life, sentience, and moral agency, that ground our moral status, they have (tenselessly) intrinsic moral standing as persons in addition to whatever forms of derived moral status they may be assigned. We can have moral responsibilities towards them, not just concerning them,

Some future persons may be genetically engineered or cloned from existing human genetic materials. They would be artifacts in the same way that genetically engineered corn and cloned sheep now are, but we would probably be wise to exclude them from the class of human artifacts as we do for ourselves. The science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which was the basis of the film Bladerunner, contemplates the moral consequences of our not doing this. The androids in Bladerunner were composed entirely of organic compounds and were physically indistinguishable from normal humans, though they were specifically created to work on the Mars colony and were designed to live for only four years. Nevertheless, these androids are living, sentient moral agents and so have all of the intrinsic properties sufficient for personhood. Deckard, the bounty hunter whose job it was to hunt down and kill escaped androids, was a murderer.

This seems to have exhausted the set of things which can function as moral patients, that is, which can have moral status as objects of the moral responsibilities of moral agents. However, I have omitted thus far discussing one other kind of entity that can have this status -- ourselves. The question which we must now address is: Can human moral agents have moral responsibilities towards themselves?" As will shortly become clear, the way in which I answer this question will have important theoretical consequences.