Biosocial Moral Communities

Several years ago my aunt spent $20,000 on chemotherapy for one of her cats, which, unfortunately, succumbed to cancer nevertheless. My own values would not permit me to do this; I would much rather spend that kind of money on humanitarian relief and medical assistance to endangered human beings living in other countries, with whom I have no personal relationship.

However, I do understand why people like my aunt feel so strongly about their pets. Her cat was her constant companion, and a source of joy to her. She regarded it as a member of her family and did not think that she could just let it die when treatment might have saved its life.

People who have such social relationships with domestic animals attach a kind of moral status to them that does not reflect their intrinsic biological properties. Warren proposes that there is a distinct principle of moral status, what she terms the Interspecific Principle, that accounts for these intuitions, under which "non-human members of mixed social communities have a stronger moral status than could be based upon their intrinsic properties alone" (168).

Pets and other domestic animals acquire greater moral stature because they are regarded as members of mixed moral communities comprised of individual entities with different kinds of moral status. This particular source of moral status is based upon an entity's relational properties to other members of these mixed moral communities. However, for Warren, the Interspecific Principle need not assign the same moral stature or the same rights to all domesticated animal and plant species.

She quotes Mary Midgley's observation that human social communities have throughout history included non-human species, but that different animals play different roles and have different moral statuses:
Pets, for example, are...surrogate family members and merit treatment not owed either to less intimately related animals, for example to barnyard animals, or, for that matter, to less intimately related human beings....The animal welfare ethic of the mixed community...would not censure using draft animals for work or even slaughtering animals for food so long as the keeping and using of such animals was not in violation...of a kind of evolved and unspoken social contract between man and beast. (129)
For Warren, wild animals, those which are not members of human social communities, "should not lie on the same spectrum of graded moral standing as family members, neighbors, fellow citizens, fellow human beings, pets, and other domestic animals. Wild animals, are, however, parts of natural biological communities, or ecosystems, and we may have moral obligations towards them derived from their relationship to these natural ecological communities. Separate treatment is also required for members of invasive species, whose presence degrades the ecosystems into which they are introduced, and also to endangered species, whose survival as a distinct life form is threatened, most often, by patterns of human activity. Some environmental ethicists have proposed that "wilderness areas" which remain essentially untouched by the hand of man, deserve special protection. Conflicts can arise, for instance, between protecting the integrity of natural ecosystems, and protecting the lives of members of certain species who are parts of them, as well, of course, between human interests, and the interests of members of various sentient animal species.

Warren proposes a distinct principle of moral status, the Ecological Principle, to handle cases involving wild animals, species, and ecosystems:
Living things that are not moral agents but that are important to the ecosystems of which they are a part, have, within the limits of principles 1-4, a stronger moral status that could be based on their intrinsic properties alone; ecologically important entities that are not themselves alive, such as species and habitats, may also legitimately be accorded a stronger moral status than their intrinsic properties would indicate (p. 166).
This is a principle for assigning moral stature to individual entities that is distinct from the level of moral standing that entity has based upon its intrinsic properties. It can be used to either add or to substract stature. So for instance, animal species that we call "vermin" and "pests" have less stature on their levels of moral standing than otherwise comparable organisms. Livestock that is raised for human food, such as cattle, pigs, and chickens, have lower stature than pets, and protected endangered wild species. So-called "charismatic species" such as panda bears and koalas (that have big eyes and are furry), are generally seen by humans as having higher moral statures than their not so cute and cuddly cousins.

The variability and (frankly) arbitrariness of these kinds of moral judgments, indicates that they are based on our perceptions of an entity's relational value, either to human beings, to other plant or animal species, or to an ecosystem, that is, to what J. Baird Callicott has termed "biosocial communities." Humans live in such biosocial communities, and so do many other plants and animals. All life forms are dependent on the biotic community as a whole, and the Earth's natural systems, for their survival and well-being. Biosocial moral communities are comprised of individuals and other entities having different kinds of moral standing and stature within them.

It may seem somewhat surprising that Warren takes the position that the Ecological Principle
can be (but she says need not be) extended to include "moral obligations towards water, air, plant and animal species, or other elements of the biosphere that are neither living organisms nor sentient beings." (167). It is surprising because, as she acknowledges, entities that are not alive, "cannot be harmed in the ways that living things and sentient beings can," and, "it is implausible to insist that our obligations regarding them must be understood as obligations towards them." Nevertheless, she insists that we should allow non-living entities, like natural ecosystems, to be the direct objects of our moral obligations, because "human beings may be more inclined to protect these vulnerable elements of the natural world it they accept moral obligations towards them."

This is a consequentialist argument that bases the claim to moral standing for non-living elements of natural ecosystems on the utility of this belief for modifying human behavior towards the Earth. It is, she thinks, a policy we might adopt "if we wish humanity to survive and flourish into the distant future" (168). The crucial point, however, is that "to say that these elements of the natural world may legitimately be accorded moral status is not to be committed to the claim that they have intrinsic value, i.e., a value that is entirely independent of the needs and desires of any living or sentient being" (167). Put differently, moral standing can be based entirely upon the derived rather than the intrinsic values of certain classes of moral patients.

On my theory of moral status, many non-living things will have various kinds of moral standing derived solely from their value to other entities that have intrinsic value in themselves. For instance, common artifacts such as my car or bicycle have the moral status of personal property, and on that account other people should not damage or destroy them. On a conventional way of thinking about such moral obligations, the obligations derived from something having the status of personal property are not owed to the bicycle or car, but to their owner. They are obligations "regarding" or "concerning" these objects, not obligations "towards" them. The moral (and legal) obligations in such cases are owed to me; I am the moral patient in the relationship, not my property. The bicycle and the car themselves cannot be moral patients or the objects of our moral responsibilities on this view.

The terminological distinctions I have drawn between "moral status," "moral standing," and "moral stature" and the additional idea of "moral plateaus" provide a more adequate theoretical vocabulary for talking about these issues than does Warren's single term "moral status." On my view, some inanimate objects can have
moral standing, and can function as the objects of moral responsibilities, even though they lack intrinsic value and should therefore not be regarded as "ends in themselves." Being alive, being sentient, and being capable of moral agency are intrinsic properties that provide sufficient conditions for moral standing. But they are not necessary conditions. Some kinds of entities that have none of these intrinsic properties can, on my theory, nevertheless function as moral patients.

As I have already mentioned, I am committed to the view that organizations such as corporations and governments, can be regarded as moral and legal "persons" and can be ascribed moral and legal rights and obligations. Corporations and governments are not alive and do not die, nor are they sentient, and have no intrinsic value in themselves. But nevertheless it is scarcely conceivable that we can understand the nature of rights and responsibilities within human moral communities without attributing a kind of moral agency to these kinds of organizations that is not reducible to the agency of their human operators.

If we grant moral standing to corporations, governments and other organizations, then there is no reason to withhold this moral status from wilderness areas, endangered species, and various non-living elements of complex ecosystems. In order to create the kind of global ethics that I envision, we will also have to ascribe moral statuses to deceased persons and to future persons, neither of which are presently alive. I see no principled reason why we cannot treat them as kinds of moral patients toward whom we can have responsibilities, although they will occupy different moral statuses within the overall framework of my axiology for a global ethics.

We can also have moral obligations towards certain kinds of "unowned" inanimate objects, such as rivers and streams, wetlands, marine reserves, even towards stones. This will perhaps become less counter-intuitive when we consider some examples that Warren relies upon to motivate her seventh (and last) principle of moral status, the Transitivity of Respect.