Respecting Former Persons

Recent archaeological evidence excavated near Stonehenge suggests that the mammoth stone circle erected there in approximately 2500 B.C. was used at least in part as a monument to the dead. Another nearby neolithic site, Durrington Walls, was found to contain a profusion of pottery, animal bones, and other detritus suggesting that it was a feasting site. But few human remains have been found at Durrington Walls, while 52 cremations and numerous other human remains have been uncovered at Stonehenge, suggesting that it was used in Neolithic Britain as a cemetery, the stone circle representing the "domain of the ancestral dead." [Caroline Alexander. "If the Stones Could Speak: Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge," National Geographic Magazine. Vol 213, No.8 (June 2008): 35-59.]

Like the Buddhas of Bamyam, the stones at Stonehenge have a kind of moral status because they have value to human moral agents. For us they have historical, cultural, and perhaps aesthetic value. But they probably had a different value to the people who erected them. Like the tombstones in our present cemeteries and public memorials to soldiers who died in wars, the stone circle represented the domain of the ancestral dead, or former persons.
Monuments to the dead, to former persons, are the enduring symbols of people who did once have intrinsic value as living, sentient, moral agents. We humans often choose durable things like stones to memorialize the dead, because they persist in time longer than most things, and can thus serve as a continuous link between the past and the present. The stones remind us that the dead are still in some sense "with us", not in themselves, but in the flesh and blood of their living descendants, in the cultures they created, and in the material artifacts that they produced.

Do former persons have a moral status? Can moral agents have moral obligations towards former persons? If so, what can such moral obligations be based upon?

Former persons, the deceased, are not alive, not sentient, and are not agents in the sense we ordinarily assume since they cannot act in the present, so in terms of our theory, former persons do not have intrinsic moral value because they possess none of the intrinsic properties that things must have in order to have moral standing in themselves.

But former persons did at one time exist as persons, and acted on the world in various ways as moral agents. Among the things they may have done is to have created cultural artifacts such as Stonehenge, or the Buddha statues at Bamyam, or the Illiad, or the Mona Lisa. Some of them must have also procreated and produced progeny, who procreated, whose descendants in turn, by means of causal chains of "begetting", may have begotten us.

Great Chain of Being, as some ancient philosophical traditions called it, included spiritual beings, such as demons, angels, and gods, but the Great Chain of Begetting, does not. It is only the chain of biological inheritance that connects living generations of humans and other species with both their deceased ancestors, and their yet to be conceived biological descendants. While each of us, the living, has an intrinsic moral value in ourselves based upon the intrinsic properties and capabilities of our form of life, this intrinsic value is inherited from our ancestors and passed on by us to future generations of our species by means of biological procreation. There is nothing fancy or supernatural about this form of inheritance. If living things and sentient moral agent have intrinsic value, and they procreate and produce other living sentient moral agents, then those progeny inherit the kinds of moral value that was intrinsic in their ancestors. Our children, and their children, and their children's children, and so on, will inherit this same intrinsic moral value from us.

But from our present temporal vantage point former persons are nonexistent. Dead people cannot be affected or harmed in any way by our present actions. The dead are, in an important sense, invulnerable. If the dead cannot be harmed, as philosophers since Epicurus have thought, they are invulnerable and it would seem they cannot be objects of any moral responsibilities under the Vulnerability Principle, which normally presupposes that the moral patients to whom responsibilities of care and protection are directed must be vulnerable in some way to being harmed by our actions.

But the Vulnerability Principle is carefully stated: it says that moral agents have moral responsibilities to protect those moral patients who are specially vulnerable or in some way depending upon us. Can former persons, the deceased, be regarded as moral patients who are in some ways depending on us?

There is a sense in which they can. Former persons, our ancestors, are depending on us to preserve their genes by passing them onto future generations; they are depending on us to preserve the cultures that they created, their knowledge, their art, their moral and religious beliefs. Past generations are depending on us to preserve their best material artifacts, their monuments and cathedrals, their pyramids, aqueducts, and their sandstone Buddha images.

Many people feel the moral pull of tradition very strongly in their own lives. A great deal of human activity is directed towards the goal of preserving the cultural traditions and cultural achievements of the past and passing them on to future generations. Educators are culture carriers in this sense, and no human culture can persist without educators. In complex cultures such as our presently emerging global civilization, there are specific detailed roles, such as archaeologists, New Testament scholars, classicists, Asian antiquities experts, Florentine art restoration experts, Chicago historical architectural preservationists, and so forth, whose specific roles are to preserve cultural artifacts created by former persons. But, for whose sakes are they doing this? Is it for the sake of the deceased creators of these things or is it for us, the living, or is it for those who will come after us, future persons?

When people draw up their last will and testament that specifies what is to be done with their possessions when they have died, they are depending on others, the executors of their wills, to fulfill their wishes. Are we not obliged to keep our promises to the dead even though they will not be harmed by our betraying them? If we honor a trust placed upon us by another, we respect them, and conversely, by betraying a trust we disrespect them. So respecting the dead, means that we, the living, must honor the trust they have placed in us. They, the deceased, have placed their trust in us to preserve what was best in their life's work, the fruits of their labors, and the legacies they created as "gifts to the future." Think about your own legacy and how you would want it treated by those who come after you. It is the same for our ancestors: just as we are trusting future persons to preserve what was best in our present day culture, previous generations trusted us to preserve and protect what was best in theirs.

We can certainly harm the living descendants of the dead. If we fail to execute a person's last will, we can deprive a rightful heir of what they are entitled to. Most all human cultures have adopted burial practices that involve memorializing their ancestral dead. The physical remains of the ancestral dead, their bones, and the stone and concrete monuments that the living erect for the dead, can be damaged or destroyed, and to do so is usually regarded as a sacrilege, and as a way of disrespecting the departed.

But the remains of the dead, and the monuments erected to memorialize them, can only have derived moral status, a form of moral standing that is wholly derived from the value that moral agents place on them. So it is really the living descendants of the dead whom we respect when we respect the bones of their ancestors or respect the memorial stones erected over their graves, or the public monuments constructed to honor them. The moral standing these kinds of artifacts have is derived from their value to living moral agents, not their value to the deceased.

This way of looking at the question reduces all of our moral obligations to ones owed, directly or indirectly, towards actual, existing, moral patients. On this view, the only reason for honoring former persons' wills, or for fulfilling the promises we make to the dying, is that not doing so would harm some interest of present persons.

It is part of our conventional homocentric ethics to hold the belief all moral obligations are owed to presently existing moral patients. Our conventional way of thinking about ethical issues is highly "present-oriented"; we are inclined to consider only the short-term effects of our actions. It is also quite "localist" in that we mainly consider only those personal interests most directly affected by our actions.

I do not think these assumptions are correct. There is no theoretical barrier towards thinking of former persons as moral patients to whom moral agents can have moral obligations. As in the case of inanimate objects and aritifacts, all we have to do is to assign the status-function "moral patient" to the referents of the term "former persons," and presto-chango, they become moral patients, in the same way as pieces of metal become "coins" when we assign the status-function "money" to them. Like other derived forms or moral status, the moral status we assign to former persons is "observer-relative." it depends upon how intentional moral agents like ouselves assign status-functions to things. By assigning the status function "moral patient" to the term "former persons" we decide to include the referents of that term within the category of things towards which we can have moral obligations.

But former persons actually existed at one time as living, sentient moral agents, persons, who had intrinsic moral value in themselves. This is different than the pieces of metal that we make into coins, which have no moral or monetary value in themselves apart from that which observers like us assign to them. We do not respect inanimate objects in themselves, but we do, I believe, respect former persons in themselves, we respect them for what they were and for what they have bequeathed to us. So former persons have a distinct kind of moral standing. Although former persons cannot be harmed, they can be disrespected and the trust they place in us can be violated or dishonored. We present moral agents can have moral responsibilities towards former persons which are based upon the moral stature they once had as human persons, like us.

A global ethics, as I conceive it, alters our conventional assumptions about the boundaries of the moral community. In place of the homocentric bias of conventional ethics, it proposes a biocentric axiology in which living, sentient, non-human organisms can also function as moral patients and be the objects of human moral responsibilities. In place, of the "localist" bias of our conventional ethics, a global ethics proposes a "global" perspective in which our moral responsibilities extend beyond our own families and homes, our neighborhoods, and our own states and nations, to encompass all present persons and other living beings. So too, a global ethics must overcome the "present-oriented" bias of conventional ethics, and extend the boundaries of the moral community into the distant past, towards previous generations and former persons, and into the far future, towards future persons and future generations. On my theory, both former persons and future persons have moral standing as moral patients towards whom we, present persons, or actually existing moral agents, can owe moral responsibilities.