Derived Moral Status

I noted earlier Francis Kamm's observation that there is a broad sense of moral status in which the concept can be defined as "what it is permissible or impermissible to do to some entity. In this sense, rocks may have the moral status of entities to which, just considering them, it is morally permissible to do anything." This is certainly true of the great majority of rocks and stones. For instance, the pebble that I found walking along the beach the other day has the moral status of something I may do anything to. I can, if I wish, crush and pulverize it into dust. Or I can, if I find it aesthetically pleasing, take it home and put it on my coffee table. No one owns this pebble so I would be violating no one's interests or committing any wrong by doing with it as I please.

But consider another case. In 2001 the Taliban regime in Afghanistan dynamited and destroyed two mammoth statues carved out of sandstone cliffs known as the Buddhas of Bamyam. These statues dating from the sixth century were regarded by the Taliban as "idols" that violated shar'ia law, but UNESCO had designated them as a world cultural heritage site. People around the world were horrified that they were intentionally destroyed and efforts are now underway to rebuild them.

Warren's multi-criterial theory of moral status accounts for these kinds of intuitions by proposing a seventh principle of moral status The Transitivity of Respect Principle:
Within the limits of principles 1-6, and to the extent that it is feasible and morally permissible, moral agents should respect one another's attributions of moral status. (170)
As she explains it, the Transitivity of Respect Principle requires that "we give a fair hearing to other people's reasons for ascribing to certain entities either a stronger or weaker moral status than we think appropriate." But giving their reasons a fair hearing, she insists, "does not require us to accept other people's attributions of moral status -- at least, not without good reason. We are entitled to reject attributions of moral status that are irrational, disrespectful of life, cruel, incompatible with the moral rights of human or non-human beings, or inimical to the health of social or biotic communities." So what was the reason that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar gave for ordering the destruction of the Buddhas? According to the Wikipedia article on this topic:

On March 18, The New York Times reported that a Taliban envoy said the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works. The report also added, however, that other reports "have said the religious leaders were debating the move for months, and ultimately decided that the statues were idolatrous and should be obliterated."

Then Taliban ambassador-at-large, Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, said that the destruction of the statues was carried out by the Head Council of Scholars after a single Swedish monuments expert proposed to restore the statues' heads. Hashimi is reported as saying: "When the Afghani head council asked them to provide the money to feed the children instead of fixing the statues, they refused and said, 'No, the money is just for the statues, not for the children'. Herein, they made the decision to destroy the statues". However, he did not comment on the fact that a foreign museum offered to "buy the Buddhist statues, the money from which could have been used to feed children."

This explanation does not strike me as providing a very convincing justification for destroying these stone statues. While it is certainly true that hungry children have greater moral standing than statues (and pet cats), and do have a right to receive food, there is no necessary incompatibility between feeding hungry children and restoring ancient statues. Their destruction could have been avoided had the Swedish expert offered to provide some food aid in order to work on the statues, or if the Taliban had agreed to let the museum buy them and then used the money received for food.

The second justification offered was that the statues were "idolatrous". This is an attribution of derived moral status and, according to the Principle of Transitivity of Respect, deserves some consideration. But while the Taliban may see these statues as sacreligious, millions of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have attributed to them the moral statuses of "sacred images" and "world cultural heritage site" which should be protected from damage and destruction.

So what is supposed to happen when attributions of moral stature are at odds with one another as they are in this case? Warren does not, as far as I can see, provide a satisfactory answer. to this question, or indeed, to a great number of other questions that require us to balance and decide the relative weights of competing moral obligations derived from different moral principles as applied to moral patients with different levels of moral standing and moral stature. These questions will occupy us shortly when we discuss defeasibility conditions on obligations.

A preference utilitarian, such as Peter Singer, would answer it by adding up everyone's preferences and determining which course of action would tend to produce the greatest happiness, or the least suffering, for everyone concerned. Using this as a criterion, one might decide that since those who wanted to preserve the statues outnumber those who wanted to destroy them, greater happiness would have been produced had the Taliban not done what they did. I see nothing wrong with using a utilitarian calculus in this case since there are no rights at stake. Using this principle, it was wrong for the Taliban to destroy the statues because their doing so disrespected the attribution of value of the greater number of stakeholders.

But, perhaps a better solution would have been for the Taliban to simply cover the statues rather than destroy them. This would allow both religious groups to achieve the satisfaction of their preferences and would be a way of respecting both value attributions.

But we need not dwell any longer on this case in order to make the theoretical point I want to make here, namely, that attributions of moral status derived from the Principle of Transitivity of Respect, can add to or subtract from an object's moral standing. Considered just in themselves, the Buddhas of Bamyam are just stones, and have no intrinsic moral value, (although they do have aesthetic, cultural, and historical value in relation to human valuers). The moral obligations to preserve (or destroy) them that different groups of moral agents have towards them are wholly derived from their value to those groups of moral agents. The statues can, therefore, acquire moral standing and become moral patients, and serve as the objects of moral responsibilities, even though they are not alive, not sentient, not owned, and are certainly not moral agents.

Conventionally we do not often speak of non-living, inanimate objects as things that are able to be "harmed." We say that they can be damaged or destroyed, but not harmed. This is a fine way of talking; it reminds us that the moral status of inanimate objects is wholly derived from the value that moral agents place on them, while on my account that of living things, psychological organisms, and moral agents, is not. When moral status is wholly derived, we are not respecting those things "in themselves" and "for themselves, but for the sake of something else that has a kind of intrinsic value.

But, nevertheless, it is still possible for there to be moral obligations towards things with wholly derived forms of moral standing. As Warren notes, "respecting people is difficult if one does not also, to some degree, respect those things or beings to which they accord strong moral status. Respect is, in this sense, transitive" (171). By respecting my property you indirectly respect me. By respecting the non-living elements of ecosystems, you are indirectly respecting the intrinsic value of the living beings who occupy it and who depend upon it for their survival.

The Transitivity of Respect Principle, then, proposes that moral responsibilities can be mediated such that A can have a responsibility towards C that is mediated by B. In the case of the Vulnerability Relationship, C would be a vulnerable moral patient, and A and moral agent. B could be anything of value to C which could be damaged or destroyed in a way that would harm C's interests or well-being. In such relationships, A's harming, destroying, or disrespecting, B indirectly harms C, so A can be said to be morally obligated not damage or destroy B.

I can see no deep theoretical reason why it should not be the case that inanimate objects such as statues and other works of art, ecosystems, wilderness preserves, artifacts, and organizations cannot function as objects of human responsibilities, so long as it is understood that this kind of moral standing is wholly derived from acts of valuing by moral agents. Such entities mediate moral relationships among moral agents and between moral agents and other classes of moral patients possessing intrinsic value in themselves. On this view, then, even stones can have moral standing as long as they are regarded by moral agents as having derived moral status.

It is tempting to think that all of Warren's other relational criteria of moral status, the Human Rights Principle, the Ecological principle, and the Interspecific principle, are variants of or derived from the Principle of Transitivity of Respect. In each of these cases, the moral stature of an entity or class of entities can be altered by means of the value attributions of moral agents who stand in some relationship to them and whose value attributions create in them a value that gives them moral standing or adds to their moral stature. Recognizing this simplifies the theory of moral status considerably by reducing the number of criteria for assigning moral status from seven basic principles to four: life, sentience, moral agency, and transitivity of respect. However, I think there is an important difference between the first three of her relational principles and the last one, the principle of transitivity of respect. The difference is that it is a matter of fact, either natural facts in the case of the ecological principle, or social facts in the cases of the Interspecific Principle and the Human rights principle, whether or not something is a member of a particular community, while Transitivity of Respect is a subjective notion. It is epistemically subjective in that whether or not someone "respects" something in this sense depends entirely upon that persons point of view, while in the case of the other three derived principles, there is a matter of fact, that is, the judgment is epistemically objective. This fact allows us to make mistakes about our personal attributions of moral status.

Derived attributions of moral status can be mistaken, irrational, or unwise. There there are going to be struggles within the community of human moral agents as to which derived moral status attributions should be accepted and respected, and which should not be. The practice of asking people to account for their moral valuations, and then examining their justifications for holding them, is part of the process by which such relational attributions of moral standing and stature become institutionalized as social facts.

For instance, it is a social fact that the personal property of others should be respected in various ways. We have elaborate conventions about this that require, for instance, that items of personal property should not be stolen, appropriated, or used in any way without their owner's consent. This is a settled social convention in most all human societies, so much so, that property rights are sometimes mistakenly taken for natural facts (see Locke).

But the moral status that we attribute to items of personal property is wholly derived; the objects are considered to be "property" only because of our conventional attribution of moral status to them. Native Americans were astonished when European settlers claimed to be able to own land. The thought that the Land could be privately owned seemed a sacrilege to them because the Land, in their view, was a sacred gift from God to all living things. Perhaps they were right, but history has moved in a different direction, and much of the habitable land of the planet has now been "enclosed" and designated as someone property. Efforts to protect the remaining wilderness areas from "development", and to protect the global commons, the seas and the atmosphere, are an effort to halt and perhaps reverse this historical process.

Questions about which sorts of thing have derived moral status and what sorts of moral obligations can be had towards them cannot be settled by means of philosophical theorizing and rational inquiry alone, but require processes of social dialogue and social legitimation for them to become institutionalized as social facts embodying our normative values and principles. These kinds of struggles, struggles that attempt to "revalue" society's values towards embracing a wider conception of the global biosocial moral community, one in which the moral standing of all living things and the natural ecosystems on which they depend should be taken into account, are at the core of the project to construct a global ethics.