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February 20, 2014


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I wonder whether, even if someone granted the whole story, there isn’t another criterion of adequacy on an account of higher moral status that this view cannot meet: the status must be great enough, and it must not graduate down to zero. If the moral status of babies depends on their capacity to engage in activities that are incomplete realizations of the paradigmatic caring, chosing, valuing activities of adults, then it seems that, first, teenagers should have less moral status than adults (they are notoriously imperfect choosers/valuers), middle-schoolers should be further down, and so on, until we get to babies playing peek-a-boo, who should have barely any value at all. That is, the activities, and therefore the corresponding capacities ought to have value in proportion to their distance from the activitiy whose value is their source and which transforms them. J&T seem to grant something like principle this in fn. 16: “In many cases, the more complete the realization of a valuable activity, the more value it has. But perhaps some incomplete realizations of -ing are close enough to completion to have the same value as -ing.” Peek-a-boo would not seem to me to qualify, relative to adult decision making, as being close enough. (This can be obscured by our intuition that it wd. be wrong to interfere with someone at the early stages on the grounds that we would be preventing the truly valuable thing--the late-stage manifestation--from coming into being. But J&T are (rightly, to my mind) committed to discussing the intrinsic value of the early stage manifestation.)

I think Agnes is on to something. Often, in debates like these about moral status, philosophers tend to separate human beings with cognitive disabilities from 'the rest of us.' But the human community is much more diverse than this, and the ability of various humans when it comes to caring/choosing/acting rationally/etc are going to vary, often quite a lot. We might think there is some clear threshold separating paradigmatic persons from non-persons, but I'm skeptical of this.

I also found it odd that the authors seem to dismiss the ability of other, non-human animals to engage in reasoning and relations involving care. There's been quite a lot of recent work in animal ethology on moral behavior (or, if you like, 'proto-moral' behavior) and moral emotions of other animals. For those unfamiliar with this work, Marc Bekoff and Julia Pierce cover a lot of it in their book Wild Justice. And Mark Rowlands explores some of the philosophical issues related to whether or not other animals can act for moral reasons in his book Can Animals be Moral?

I wonder why, on Jaworska and Tannenbaum's (J&T's) own story about how the incomplete realizations of valuable capacities inherit their intrinsic value, dogs don't share in our high moral status.

As I understand their view: A baby has high moral status because she has the capacity to partake in a range of activities that are incomplete realizations of the characteristic activities of an SSP. Her capacity thus inherits the intrinsic value of the capacities in virtue of which we are SSPs.

Suppose I have a dog, and I engage him in the activity of rearing him to have one of the incomplete SSP-capacities that the baby possesses -- say, the capacity to follow simple commands. He participates in this process, which includes activities that "model" the full-fledged command-obedience activities, such as following a command for the sake of a treat, or being walked through a commanded task. So, he is capable of engaging in incomplete realizations of the activities that are characteristic of the baby's full-fledged command-obedience activities. So, the dog has a capacity that is an incomplete realization of the baby's capacity. And, so, since the baby's capacity has intrinsic value, so does the dog's, on J&T's account of how intrinsic value gets transferred from capacities to their incomplete realizations.

So, I'm not sure how J&T can block the conclusion, after all, that human babies but not dogs share in our high moral status. For, it looks like the same intrinsic value that the baby's capacities contain is inherited by the dog's capacities.

Grant: if I understand J&T’s view, they have a way of resisting the slide from baby to dog: it is not reasonable to expect that dogs will ever develop higher cognitive capacities, so no ‘rearing’ activities you engage them in now can reasonably be directed at that end. Thus, the value of the end of having higher cog. cap.’s cannot be conferred onto the value of anything you do with dogs. It is consistent with their understanding of how the value of ends gets transferred onto generic activities that what might look like very similar activities (training a dog, 'training' a baby) can have different amounts of value based on differences in the ends at which they are (or, can reasonably be) directed.

Hi Agnes,

Thanks for the reply. I should have been clearer: The end I had in mind was not the end of turning the dog into an SSP; it was the end of turning the dog into an incomplete SSP -- a being with the sort of capacities that a baby has (such as the capacity to follow simple commands). I take it that this is a reasonable end to assign to my activities with the dog. And the thought was that if the incomplete SSP capacities of the baby have intrinsic value, so will the incomplete versions of the incomplete SSP capacities found in a dog.

Grant, it was my understanding that the incomplete SSP capacities of the baby have intrinsic value because, unlike the incomplete SSP capacities found in a dog, they are themselves directed at a further end (complete SSP capacities). This end confers value onto only those of its incomplete variants that are (reasonably) directed at it.

We are grateful to Maggie and Jake for their generous and helpful précis.

With regards to their rendition of our view, we would like to clarify one point.

L&E liken our idea of incomplete realization of an activity to the psychological notion of proleptic engagement. Proleptic engagement might involve a rearer treating a rearee, who is not yet a practical reasoner, as if the rearee were a practical reasoner, in order to turn the rearee into a practical reasoner. By contrast, an incomplete realization of the activity of practical reasoning would involve a rearer engaging the rearee in activities, such as rule-following, that model practical reasoning but don’t yet, by themselves, amount to practical reasoning, in order to turn the rearer into a practical reasoner. So the aim of the rearer is the same in both cases but otherwise the two are rather different. Crucially, in proleptic engagement, the focus is on the activities of the reaer – how the rearer treats the rearee – but in incomplete realizations, the focus is on the activities of the rearee – the rearee must model practical reasoning. Another form of proleptic engagement might involve a rearer treating a rearee, who does not yet have higher moral status, as if the rearee had higher moral status, in order to turn the rearee into a person with higher moral status. However, on our view, the rearee who can participate in a rearing relationship already has a valuable capacity and so already has higher moral status. So it’s not a matter of merely pretending that the rearee has higher moral status in order for the rearee to get higher moral status.

Now to the critical part of L&E’s précis.

One issue is the scope of the capacity to participate in a rearing relationship. In this context, L&E entertain several imaginary scenarios. One involves imaginary creatures who could develop the capacities of humans far beyond our current capacities. L&E assume that such capacities would ground higher moral status than the status of you and I, but this is a very substantial assumption. An alternative would be to maintain that the status of SSP is the highest possible: SSPs meet a certain threshold of capacity and everyone who meets this threshold has equal moral status, regardless of how much beyond it they develop.

But what if we accept L&E’s assumption? Note that the world that L&E imagine involves not only the existence and the abilities of the imaginary creatures but also the stipulation that humans have what it takes be reared to possess the super capacities. If both were true, the “humans” in the imaginary world would gain higher moral status than SSPs via their capacity to enter rearing relationships with the creatures. (This seems unproblematic, since these “humans” may be very different from you and I.) But what does this say about the moral status of us, the humans in our world? Suppose we take the broadest interpretation of a capacity to participate in a rearing relationship, according to which the actual existence of a rearer is not necessary so long as a suitable rearer could exist. Does our ability to imagine this world imply that a suitable rearer could exist? No -- the imaginary creatures are suitable rearers for us only if it would be in fact possible for them to rear us, as we currently are (and not just the imagined “humans”) into the superbings. If this condition is not met, the imagined “humans” would possess something valuable that actual humans don’t have, and would indeed merit higher moral status. Perhaps the worry might be that we don’t really know if we have what it takes to be reared into the superbeings by such creatures, so our moral status is in fact uncertain. But this also doesn’t seem problematic, since such epistemic uncertainties arise on any account of moral status (e.g., do dolphins have SSP capacities?).

The next twist L&E add to their imaginary world is that the rearing by the creatures is aided by some special medicine. If the medicine by itself could turn humans into superbeings, human candidates for this enhancement would not have the capacity for incomplete realization of the superbing activities. This is because none of their own activities would be part of the means of turning them into the superbeings. So the case relevant for L&E is one in which a medicine, if taken toward the end of a training process involving modeling the superbeing activities, would result in turning a human into a superbeing. In a world in which all this were possible, humans would have the capacity to incompletely realize the superbing activities and the corresponding moral status. Similarly, in a world in which humans had a medicine such that, if taken toward the end of a training process involving interactive games, etc., would turn a cat into an SSP, cats would have the capacity to incompletely realize SSP activities and the corresponding moral status. But what does this say about us as we in fact are and our cats? Here the higher moral status depends not only on the factors discussed in the previous paragraph, but also on the existence of the medicine. If such medicine does not exist, neither we nor the cats get the higher moral status. Again, there may be epistemic uncertainty as to whether such medicine exists, but this does not raise any problem special to our account.

As L&E note, on our view an end-standard comes into play when one cannot reasonably believe in an end’s achievability, but the default rational presumption to abandon the end is overcome, for instance, because one is required to retain the unachievable end. One role the end-standard plays is guiding the agent as to what the next-best option is to be achieved or aimed at. How close alternative end-aims are to the end-standard is one measure of their suitability as next-best options. So it is not appropriate to describe, as L&E do, the standard as “second best.” What is second best is the aim adopted under guidance from the standard, not the standard itself. It is not “a second-best option, to engage the child in a person-rearing project,” but rather, the end-standard is turning the child (or whatever severely cognitively impaired being it might be) into an SSP and the next best end-aim might be, for example, developing certain simple intellectual or emotional capacities. The two ends are related but they have different content and status. The second-best end-aim is directly pursued while the end standard guides, inter alia, the adoption of other ends to be pursued. The content of second-best end-aim is reasonably believed to be realizable while the content of the end-standard is not believed to be realizable.

What kind of considerations can overcome the default rational presumption to abandon an end one reasonably believes is unachievable? We suggest that parental obligations can overcome this default presumption, but we leave it open whether parental obligations are moral obligations, whereas L&E assume that parental obligations are moral. Certainly some aspects of what one is obligated to do as a parent do seem to be moral obligations, but it is not clear that all the obligations that belong to parenting are moral obligations, and we needn’t claim this in order for the default presumption to be overcome.

When it came to an unimpaired infant, L&E correctly point out that “whether or not a cognitively normal infant is being reared, she now has the capacity to engage in those proto-versions of status-conferring activities.” Exercising the capacity requires being in relationship, but the capacity for such activity inheres in the child herself and hence there are “objective and impartial reasons for moral regard of infants even in cases where no such relationship actually exists.” This is also true when it comes to severely cognitively impaired human beings. However, in the latter case L&E suggest that “disabled child has no such capacity absent the existence of an adult who has special obligations to provide for his flourishing.” This is not correct. A severely cognitively impaired child has this capacity if (along with the other conditions of our account) someone could become her parent and thereby come to have an obligation to adopt the end of her flourishing, and so also the end of turning her into an SSP. No one need now have an obligation to be her parent for it to be true now that someone could become her parent, and so could come to have the end-standard of turning her into an SSP. Because the child has this capacity independently of anyone actually having a parental relation to her, and because of the kind of value this capacity has, it can in fact ground impartial moral status.

L&E claim that on some theories of parental obligations, “such obligations essentially serve to offer special protections of morally important interests.” But, they point out, “parental obligations cannot serve that purpose here, since they are antecedent to the very interests whose moral importance we are trying to establish.” We do not share this view of parental obligation, nor does our argument really rest on parental obligations per se, but rather on care-taking relations and the obligations constitutive of that relation. Part of what is required of someone in a care-taking relation to another being is that the caretaker have that being’s flourishing as one of her ends. A caretaker needn’t be thought of as there only or even primarily to serve the being’s morally important interests. The being itself need not be morally important and it certainly need not have a higher moral status than a dog. Those who take care of dogs must have the dogs’ flourishing as their end and those who take care of human children must have the children’s flourishing as their end. What that flourishing consists in will be different in the case of a dog and a child (only the latter’s flourishing requires becoming an SSP). So what we are trying to establish, the higher moral status of an infant compared to a dog, is not presupposed in a requirement that an infant’s parent have the infant’s flourishing as his end. And our account in this case too unproblematically rests, as we noted above, not whether someone is in a care-taking relation with the child but rather one whether someone could be in such a relation with the child and thereby could be required to have the child’s flourishing (and so also turning it into an SSP) as its end.

L&E also wonder about the implications of our view for the status of the fetus and the ethics of abortion. On our view, the status of the fetus hangs mostly on what kinds of activities the fetus is capable of and not on the flourishing criterion. In order to have the capacity to participate in a rearing relationship (either via end-aim or via end-standard arm of our view), a being must be able to model SSP activities in some rudimentary form. If, for example, caring is taken to be the relevant SSP-activity, one can ask how early in the human development some modeling of caring is possible. Very early fetuses are obviously incapable of this and so don’t get moral status via our account. But even conscious fetuses cannot model caring if they cannot yet emotionally track anything.

There is much empirical uncertainty here, but it seems likely that modeling of caring is possible some time before birth. For example, the late fetus is capable of recognizing its mother’s voice, so it can presumably emotionally and intentionally respond to her voice, and the mother can encourage such response and its subsequent development into mature caring by talking to the fetus.

As for the ethics of abortion, even if some fetuses have high moral status, the permissibility of abortion will also be a function of a variety of factors, such as the type of discontinuation of aid involved in abortion. But here we would rely on the work of others, including Judith Jarvis Thomson and Maggie Little.

Agnes, we are not entirely sure why you say “the status must be great enough, and it must not graduate down to zero”. We think that there are beings with no moral status (e.g., early fetuses, anencephalic babies, etc.). Moreover, we have a threshold view of full moral status: if capacity C grounds full moral status, then any being that has C, regardless of how well it can exercise this capacity, has as much moral status as any other being that has C and this status is full. Depending on what you think C is, unimpaired 3 year olds and teenagers both have C (e.g. capacity to reason, care, etc.), and though they don’t all do it equally well, since they have it, they have equal status. We also have the view that there are some beings who don’t meet the threshold for full moral status, but do have a valuable capacity (e.g., sentience, etc.) that grounds some moral status. The capacity for incomplete realization of SSP capacities belongs here and it grounds higher moral status than the capacities present in a dog. We do suggest that the degree of moral status may depend on the degree to which one incompletely realizes SSP-capacity. But this is compatible with a threshold view of full moral status.

Hi Grant, we agree (almost) with what Agnes has said on our behalf (thank you Agnes for stepping in). We would not say, as you and Agnes are saying, that dogs have the capacity for incompletely realizing SSP activities. They do not have this capacity, and their activities are not incompletely realized SSP activities because (a) most people cannot reasonably hold the aim of rearing dogs into SSPs, (b) even if someone did unreasonably hold this aim, there are in fact no means of doing so, and (c) one cannot reasonably hold the end-standard of turning dogs into SSPs. So without the relevant aim and means (via route (a) and (b)), and without the relevant end-standard (via route (c)), the dogs fetching, obeying commands, etc. cannot be transformed into an incomplete realization of SSP activities. And so also one cannot reasonably have the end-aim of the dog acquiring incomplete SSP capacities.

We would put Agnes’ last point as follows: The incomplete SSP activities of the baby have intrinsic value because, unlike the dog’s modeling of SSP activities, the babies activities are themselves directed at a further end (complete SSP activities). This end confers value onto only those modeling activities that are (reasonably) directed at it (along with our conditions).

Agnieszka and Julie, thanks for the response!
Suppose that C is a capacity for activity A, where A is itself an incomplete realization of another activity A', for which C' is the capacity, and so on until we hit activity Af and capacity Cf (f is for ‘final’). Suppose, also, that Af is the end that confers value all the way down the line. (As you say, this end ‘transforms,’ generic activities A, A', A'', etc. into valuable activities) Doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that the value conferral is not ‘even’, but rather that An will always be more valuable than An-1, and the same will hold for the corresponding capacities? If so, I do not see how you avoid saying that infants are less valuable (b/c they have less valuable capacity) than toddlers, toddlers than schoolchildren, and so on, until we hit the activity that confers value to all the cap.’s, namely, adult reasoning/valuing/choosing. It needn’t graduate down to zero in infants, since you could insist on a minimum, but nonetheless there will be what I assume are objectionable—and, furthermore, objectionably precise!—value differences based on development. I do not see how you avoid this result without denying the claims that
(a) value conferral is sensitive to distance
(b) the end which confers value is that of adult reason/valuation/choice (being a SSP)

Ultimately, I think maybe the thing I’m not getting is your resistance to thinking of the baby’s activities as incomplete realization of SSP capacities (you say, in your comment to me, that this is the right way to characterize dogs). But isn’t peek-a-boo an incomplete realization of whatever sophisticated cognitive capacities selfstanding people have? It may be an early exercise in _rule following_, but it does seem _early_, as the tennis player’s initial wild strokes are incomplete realizations of her eventual ability to deftly volley, serve, etc. You describe the activities in question, in response to L&E, as “incomplete realization[s] of the activity of practical reasoning…activities..that model practical reasoning but don’t yet, by themselves, amount to practical reasoning.” It strikes me that such activities must be less valuable than practical reasoning—and that is all I need to set up my problem for your claim to have a threshold picture of moral status.

One final attempt (excuse my repetitiousness). You say: “on our view, the rearee who can participate in a rearing relationship already has a valuable capacity and so already has higher moral status.” Though an infant may have _a_ valuable capacity, your theory forces us to recognize many much more valuable ones. My worry is that you have established a normative difference in moral status between an infant and a dog, at the cost of introducing one between a 3 month old and a 6 month old; a 6 month old and a 9 month old...

Hi Daniel,

There can be a clear threshold for full moral status in this sense: (a) one might hold that the capacity to care or reason practically is sufficient for full moral status. But there is another sense in which this threshold is unclear: (b) it can be unclear what it takes to have this rational or emotional capacity, that is, what exactly the necessary and sufficient conditions are for it and (c) even when (b) is “clear” the empirical facts might leave it unclear whether a particular being’s capacity meet the conditions specified in (b). The threshold view of full moral status we assume is a version of (a), that is, specifying a sufficient condition for full moral status, while leaving aside (b) and (c).

We do think that there are non-human animals who have the capacity to reason or care (or both) and so have full moral status. But most (or many) animals do not. Let’s first address the capacity of care. We didn’t have space in the paper to explain in detail what we mean by the capacity to care. As we mean it, caring is a fairly sophisticated and demanding attitude. It is much more than emotional attachment or emotional bond. Also, caring is not just any positive emotional attitude, or predisposition to nurture, directed at one’s young, one’s parent, or one’s mate. For example, according to Frankfurt, caring about X involves not just a first-order desire for X, but also, among other things, the higher-order desire “that this first-order desire not be extinguished or abandoned.” Just this brief description makes clear that Frankfurtian caring is a sophisticated attitude, requiring self-reflection about one’s own desires and, more specifically, taking up attitudes towards one’s own desires. Critics of Frankfurt who emphasize the emotional aspect of caring and do not see caring as requiring self-reflection, nonetheless also insist on the complexity of caring. According to one of us (Jaworska 2007), caring is a complex of rationally interconnected emotional dispositions that track the fortune of the object of care and, in so doing, imbue the object with importance. To genuinely care, the subject must consequently perceive the object’s importance, where such a perception could inspire further cognitive activity, for example, the formation of stable intentions, plans, and policies concerning the object, and thereby function to support agential unity. Jeffrey Seidman has clarified that the perception of the importance of the object of care must itself be cognitively sophisticated and involve seeing reasons to advance the fortunes of the object of care and seeing reasons to feel the emotions constitutive of caring. On all these accounts (caring as involving self-reflection, or comprehension of the importance of the object of care, or seeing reasons to act and feel for the sake of the object) the capacity to care is cognitively sophisticated. While these proposed essential elements of caring are standard abilities of most adult humans, there is no reason to believe that either most mammals, such as dogs, possess them. Though there is reason to think, for example, that Great Apes probably do possess this emotional capacity.

As for the claim that animals can act on moral reasons, the prior issue is whether animals can act on reasons (full stop), that is, at the very least, whether they have a conception of what they are doing as to be done. Mere intentional action or helping behaviors, to take two examples, would be insufficient for establishing this conceptual ability. While we suspect that Great Apes do have this ability, we are not sure whether the literature you point to shows that other animals meet this criterion. But we will look into it.

Thanks to Hille Paakkunainen for inviting me to participate in this discussion of Agnieszka’s and Julie’s rich and interesting paper.

On p. 257, Jaworska and Tannenbaum (J&T) wrote: “Our view is not a potentiality view—it is not the view that the rearee is now valuable because it will become an SSP. Instead, our view is that the rearee is already an incompletely realized SSP. The rearee now has a capacity that is valuable—a capacity to do incomplete realizations of the very activity characteristic of SSPs—and this explains the rearee’s value.”

I’m not sure if this is a fair characterization of the potentiality view. Someone who holds a potentiality view wouldn’t say that an acorn is now valuable because it *will* become an oak. Whether an acorn will become an oak depends on a host of extrinsic factors such as whether it will be planted, whether it will receive enough water, etc. Instead, someone who holds a potentiality view would say that an acorn is now valuable because it now actually has the capacity to become an oak. But isn’t this basically what J&T are saying regarding the rearee, that the rearee is now valuable because the rearee now has the capacity to do incomplete realizations of the very activity characteristics of SPPs? If so, is J&T’s view just a version of the potentiality view?

J&T might respond that their view is not a potential view because in Section V of their paper, they argue that human infants who do not have the capacity to do incomplete realizations of the very activity characteristic of SPPs also have a high moral status. Using the example of Ashley, a nine-year old who has the developmental level of a three-month old, J&T argue that “Ashley’s flourishing requires her becoming an SSP” (p. 262). According to J&T, one can reach this conclusion either through the Intrinsic Potential Account or the Species Norm Account. The Intrinsic Potential Account says that because Ashley has something like the genetic basic for personhood, this sets a certain benchmark (that one wouldn’t set vis-à-vis a dog which does not have this genetic basis). The Species Norm Account says that because Ashley is a member of the human species whose members are normally persons, this also sets a certain benchmark (that one wouldn’t set vis-à-vis a dog whose members normally are not persons). I’m certainly sympathetic to something like the genetic basis for personhood as a ground for human moral status, having defended such a view in "The Basis of Human Moral Status," and "The Genetic Account of Moral Status: A Defense." My concern though is that once J&T make this move, wouldn't they have effectively moved away from “the capacity to do incomplete realizations of the very activity characteristic of SPPs” as a ground for why human infants have higher moral status than dogs with comparable cognitive capacities, since it is not having the actual capacity to do these things that gives one moral status (Ashley does not have this capacity) but rather having, e.g., something like the genetic basis for being able to do activities characteristic of SPPs (Ashley still has this)?

I found it interesting to try to use the work of this paper to try to think through the moral issues that actually arose surrounding Ashley’s case. In 2004, Ashely had a very controversial set of medical procedures to stop her growth at about 60 pounds/4'5'', and keep her from going through puberty (hysterectomy, removal of breast buds). Her parents did these things mainly so that they would continue to be able to care for her at home, and secondarily so as to prevent her from being sexualized by future caregivers (rape is a real worry, should she at some point become institutionalized) and prevent the possibility of pregnancy (which can be fatal for people in her condition). Whether the following strikes one as a virtue or not will depend on one’s intuitions about the Ashley case to start out with, but it seems to me that the argument of J&T’s paper supports her parents’ decision, grounded as it is in the possibility of continuing to engage in rearing activities with her. Does this seem right to you, J&T? If it does seem right, this would immediately point to a way in which their view differs from the potential or species view that Liao mentions, which most seems at first blush to oppose, or, at best, to be neutral on the question of who is right. (The procedures could be—and have been—criticized as ‘unnatural’ and as preventing her from, quite literally, fully instantiating a ‘benchmark’ of human form, since human beings are 'supposed' to develop into adults.)

Thanks, Agnes. As it happens, I've argued in "The Ashley Treatment: Best Interests, Convenience, and Parental Decision-Making" that some aspects of what Ashley's parents had done could be justifiable. So I don't think that holding something like the genetic basis for moral agency account of moral status requires one to criticize Ashley's parents' decisions.

Matthew, that's an interesting article. You worry over whether the parents are making these decisions 'for their convenience' or rather 'for Ashley's sake'--and I think J&T help us call into question whether the two can be separated. As many parents of babies will attest, the younger your child is, the more those two questions seem like one question. And it may be that J&T have a way of explaining this: the younger a child is, the more it is the case that the 'rearing activities' are engaged in primarily by the parent (e.g. their example of mother singing to unborn baby). What Ashley's parents are trying to do in having these surgeries is continue to 'rear' their daughter. The thought inspired by J&T is: it's not just that it is obviously 'in Ashley's best interest' for her to be at home vs. in an institution. It's that part of what it is to be horrified by the prospect of her living in an institution is that it's not totally clear she can be 'fully human' anywhere else--which is to say, apart from the work of her parents.

Now, I dont know whether they would embrace this, since it raises in a more pointed way L&E's worry about disabled infants who don't have loving families—surely they have moral worth too. J&T say in their response that their account “rests not [on] whether someone is in a care-taking relation with the child but rather on whether someone could be in such a relation with the child and thereby could be required to have the child’s flourishing (and so also turning it into an SSP) as its end.” And so perhaps I have tried to read too much into it as providing guidance for how to think about the Ashley case. My point was not that other views (species norm/genetic basis) were incompatible with agreeing with the decision (or some of the decisions) of Ashley’s parents, but that their view seemed to me to capture something of the insight of why we should agree with the decision or what is right about it. But perhaps that ‘insight’ problematically requires an infants moral value rest on her actual relationships with other caregivers…? I’d be interested to hear what they think!

Hi Agnes,

We agree that there is a gradation of moral status below the threshold of full moral status (FMS), corresponding to the degree to which the being incompletely realizes the SSP-capacity. You seem to think it’s problematic that a 9-month-old would have a higher status than a 6-month-old, but we don’t see this as so problematic for two related reasons: the threshold of FMS is crossed relatively early in human development, so the period to which the gradation of moral status applies is relatively short and the differences in this gradation could be very small.

We believe that on the most plausible views about the grounds of FMS, two- or at most three-year-olds have the relevant capacities (to act on reasons and to care) and once this threshold is crossed everyone has equal (full) moral status. If two beings have a FMS, then there are equally stringent presumptions against interfering with them in various ways – destroying them, experimenting upon them, directly causing their suffering, etc. There may also be strong reasons to aid them and treat them fairly (and if they both have FMS, the strength of these reasons is equal). If a being has the less-than-full status of someone with the capacity to incompletely realize SSP-activities, what would this mean with respect to not interfering, aiding, and treating fairly? We don’t address this at all in our paper and we are still not sure how to figure this out. But what we say is compatible with the idea that so long as you have the capacity to incompletely realize SSP-activities to some degree, there are still very stringent moral presumption against interfering with you but perhaps less strong reasons to aid you and treat you fairly. Moreover, the differences in the strength of these reasons could be quite small when comparing a 6-month-old and a 9-month-old, or even a neonate. If this is true, the gradation of moral status between a neonate and 2 or 3-year-old (when FMS is had) of the sort you argue for could be compatible with the status of, e.g., a six-month-old being very close to FMS and thus not seem all that counter-intuitive.

On a different matter, which we don’t think is relevant to your main point, the capacity for peek-a-boo (as well as for fetch-and-catch) is not an incomplete realization of whatever sophisticated cognitive capacities SSPs have. If this were true, dogs would get moral status via our account. Peak-a-boo is merely a model for SSP-activity. Guidance by the relevant end is necessary for an incomplete realization of SSP-activity.

Agnieszka and Julie, thanks very much, I will think about that. For the moment, just a quick question on the last point, to make sure I understand: I thought your view was that peek-a-boo _is_ (unlike dog fetch) guided by the relevant end, b/c the parent plays peek-a-boo w/ the end of turning the child into an SSP. Is that wrong?

Hi Agnes, nothing about peak-a-boo requires that it be played with the end of turning the child into an SSP. We allow that some parents might not have this end while playing that game with their kid and if they don't, then while the activity is a model for SSP-activity, without the end (and the other conditions) it wouldn't be an incomplete realization of SSP-activity.

In their response to L&E, J&T write:

"[I]n a world in which humans had a medicine such that, if taken toward the end of a training process involving interactive games, etc., would turn a cat into an SSP, cats would have the capacity to incompletely realize SSP activities and the corresponding moral status. [...] If such medicine does not exist, neither we nor the cats get the higher moral status. Again, there may be epistemic uncertainty as to whether such medicine exists, but this does not raise any problem special to our account."

What strikes me as worrisome about this is not any epistemic concern, but rather the metaphysical objection that this account violates the datum that one's moral status supervenes on one's intrinsic properties. It just seems wrong that the moral status of my cats depends on whether there exists a medicine that could (as part of an active training process) turn them into SSPs -- and regardless of whether this medicine would actually ever be used on them.

For similar reasons, I worry about the claim that the (unknown) ends of others can affect the non-instrumental value of my actions. For example, manipulated Pete's subjectively innocent house-sitting does not strike me as non-instrumentally bad (whereas I'm happy to grant that vicious actions may be non-instrumentally bad). Or, in an example I owe to Eli Weber: consider a child -- John2 -- who is unwittingly manipulated by his parents into playing on the tennis court in a way that the parents conceive of as aiming at training him to become a great tennis player. John2's actions here seem to have the same non-instrumental value as John's wanton playing, in contrast to Judy's deliberate training.

Indeed, an alternative explanation of the value of Judy's actions (and similar cases) would be that there's non-instrumental value to (reasonable, non-hopeless) striving. But if such an "internal" explanation of the action's value is correct, it's clear that it won't carry over to the value of infants' actions: they aren't (intentionally) striving to become people.

A different worry (which emerged in discussion with several Bowling Green grad students), specifically about extending the argument to cover humans (like Ashley) with permanent severe cognitive disabilities:

I worry that the appeal to parenting rests only works, dialectically, on the assumption that one can only parent humans. But in light of the problem of marginal cases, I'm not sure why this should be so. Given the possibility of adoptive parents, genetic relatedness is clearly not necessary. And given that one could adopt a child like Ashley, it seems that ordinary cognitive capacities are not necessary either. So what are the grounds for thinking that one can be a parent (or care-giver) to Ashley but not to a cognitively equivalent non-human animal? And if indeed all animals are potential participants in such a care-giving relationship, it seems we have yet to be given a basis for granting greater moral status to Ashley after all.


With respect to Ashley, our account does not necessarily support what her parents did, since it does not necessarily imply that what they did served her overall well-being. Engaging in SSP activities is one aspect of flourishing, and so engaging in incomplete realizations of SSP activities is also one aspect of flourishing. And perhaps it is the most important aspect of human flourishing, or at least a very important one, though we don’t take a stand on this. Moreover, it may well be that Ashley's surgery helped make that case that her future would continue to contain opportunities for her to engage in incomplete realizations of SSP activities. But that might be happening at the cost of other aspects of her well-being and whether that cost is justified (or whether this is the best way to achieve her overall well-being) is not something we take a stand on. Our account does, though, highlight that Ashley’s parents should take into consideration what impact the surgery would have on her capacity to incompletely realize SSP activities.

Notice that what contributes to Ashley’s flourishing is Ashley's doing incomplete realizations of SSP activities and this requires the presence of a caretaker with the relevant end, etc. However, Ashley’s higher moral status does not requires the presence of a caretaker with this end. She has this moral status due to her capacity to incompletely realize SSP activities, and she has this capacity even if no one takes care of her. But she can only flourish if someone takes care of her (in the right way). This also means that if one were to recommend certain procedures to Ashley’s parents (because they would help Ashley engage in more incomplete realizations of SSP-activities) this would not be in order to enhance her moral status.


When you say “one's moral status supervenes on one's intrinsic properties” there is more than one interpretation of “intrinsic.” If you mean “features of oneself,” then we agree that moral status should rest on a capacity that is the being’s own. If you mean “non-relational features or facts,” then we disagree. While moral status rests on a capacity that is the being’s own, whether the being has such a capacity depends on relational facts, such as whether there is or could be someone to take up certain ends with respect to the being and whether the means to transform this being are available.

Our account is not the only one that grounds moral status in a feature that is the being’s own, but where this feature depends on certain relational facts. Consider, for example, potentiality accounts of moral status, where the feature of the being’s own is the potential to become a person – where this potential is understood in either of the two ways described in our response to Matthew. Whether a fetus has the potential to become an adult human being depends on all sort of relational facts, such as whether a certain medicine or medical procedure might keep it alive, whether a virus will infect and kill it, and so on. The problem with potentiality accounts is not that they fail the criterion you point to for accounts of moral status. Rather, they suffer from other sorts of problems (see

We introduced Pete’s case, among others, to demonstrate that the moral character or status of X can depend on Y but Y might depend on relational facts Z. When it comes to Pete’s case and others like it, we may have a battle of intuitions. Let’s see if we can’t say more to move you closer to our intuitions. Isn’t part of what’s bad about the manipulation of Pete that it pollutes his actions? Evidence for this is that Pete has a grievance against his friend and not merely third party indignation on behalf of the owners of the apartment (i.e., the kind of indignation he would have had he not been involved at all). And notice he would have this grievance even if his friend had not succeeded in taking over the apartment. The moral character of his action then depends on a relational fact (on what someone else’s end is with respect to Pete’s actions). If this is compelling when it comes to the moral character of action, why can’t it be true when it comes to the moral status of a being?

The same sort of reasoning applies when it comes to the positive character of an action. If one’s action is unwittingly coopted into a positive end, isn’t it something to be thankful for? Shouldn’t John2 be thankful to his parents that he ends up doing something meaningful on the court rather than playing aimlessly like John? Here again, the value of action depends on relational facts.

As for your other point about parenting, if we take an ordinary language concept of parenting, it well may be true that humans can only parent humans. But we focus on parenting as a special mode of caretaking, and caretaking is certainly not restricted to humans. One can be a caretaker of an animal and one is then required to have the end of the animal’s flourishing, just as a parent is required to have the end of the child’s flourishing. Most animals cannot participate in a rearing relationship of the kind we focus on, not because no human can be their parent or caretaker, but rather because, as we indicated in our response to Grant, (a) most people cannot reasonably hold the aim of rearing them into SSPs, (b) even if someone did unreasonably hold this aim, there are in fact no means of doing so, and (c) no one can reasonably hold the end-standard of turning them into SSPs since their flourishing doesn’t require becoming an SSP. But it may be that there are animals (e.g., perhaps a baby great ape) that one could parent or take care of while meeting the other conditions of our account, in which case the animal could be participating in a rearing relationship.

Thanks, that's helpful, I see that my second comment rested on a misunderstanding -- I was neglecting the role that "flourishing" plays, on your view, in determining the precise content of a care-giver's reasonable end-standard.

This leads to a new worry, though, about the limited accounts of flourishing you discuss. You claim that these are the [only] "two plausible views of the relevant benchmarks." (p.262) But this seems a bit quick. It seems to me, at least, that a more principled account of flourishing is one (like the Peak Capacity Account that McMahan briefly discusses) that treats the individual's actual cognitive capacities as determinative, and thus treats cognitively equivalent individuals alike, regardless of their species or merely genetic potential (since neither of those things seem intrinsically normatively significant, appeal to them seems an ad hoc attempt to force our theories into line with "common-sense" intuitions that perhaps, on reflection, we ought instead to reconsider).

Of course, you may just insist that -- at the end of the day -- you prefer the two accounts that you discuss, and that's fine. I just want here to flag that there are plausible alternatives that would have us treat cognitively equivalent individuals alike.

On moral status being intrinsic: If I'm right that this principle is a "datum" that any candidate theory must accommodate, then pointing to other accounts that violate it just goes to show that we should reject those other accounts too. When you consider the principle in its own right, doesn't it strike you as overwhelmingly plausible? Doesn't it just seem bizarre that one's moral status could depend on what possible (but never actually taken) medicines, etc., exist?

But in any case, I'm not sure that any plausible potentiality view will violate this principle. I'd expect any plausible potentiality view to appeal specifically to a being's intrinsic potential. So I guess I have similar worries to Matthew on that point. Did you post a response to him? I'm having trouble finding it...

On Pete's grievance: sure, he has a grievance for being used to illicit ends. His friend wronged him by using him in this way. But I don't see any reason to leap to the further conclusion that Pete's actions had non-instrumental disvalue.

(And if John2 never actually becomes a tennis player, so that his manipulated flailing on the court had none of the expected instrumental value, then no, I don't think he subsequently has anything to be thankful for, except perhaps that his parents meant well for him. Others' ends don't make his behaviour meaningful to him, I'm inclined to think. But as you say, we may just have conflicting intuitions here.)


We noted above that we agree with you that moral status must be based only on intrinsic properties of the being. But we also noted that there is a stronger and weaker reading of this “datum”: intrinsic properties as “non-relational features or facts” versus intrinsic properties as “features of oneself”. We don’t yet see why one should favor the stronger reading. Any theory of moral status that satisfies your datum, interpreted in the stronger way, is incompatible with some powerful intuitions, including the intuition that we try to account for in our paper: both a healthy human infant and a cognitively disabled human being have a higher moral status than a dog. Many people find these intuitions overwhelmingly plausible, and might go so far as to take these intuitions as data constraining any theory of moral status. But even if one does not treat these intuitions as decisive defeaters of certain theories of moral status, they are among the considerations relevant to developing a theory of moral status, alongside the more theoretical considerations such as that moral status must be based on only intrinsic properties. If one takes the “reflective equilibrium” approach, we don’t see why one should privilege a particularly stringent interpretation of a theoretical criterion over very powerful practical intuitions, given that a less stringent and independently plausible interpretation of the theoretical criterion is available that allows us to retain the intuitions.

Regarding alternative accounts of flourishing, we think that McMahan rightly rejects the Peak Capacity Account because it would not count, for example, a stunting of a child’s cognitive development due to an environmental factor (including Ashley’s case) as a misfortune. If this happened to a child you cared about, feeling bad for the sake of the child strikes us as a fitting response. We think that this implication decisively rules out the Peak Capacity Account (McMahan seems to agree). You may see this as one of the "common-sense" intuitions that should be revised, given that the theories that do account for this intuition appeal to factors such as species membership or the individual’s genetic potential which you don’t consider “intrinsically normatively significant.” We are not sure what you mean by this last phrase, but if the idea is that well-being, just like moral status, should depend only on intrinsic features of the individual, we note two points. (1) The principle that well-being depends only on intrinsic features is less compelling than its analog for moral status. If it’s interpreted very stringently, it doesn’t sit well with a host of intuitions about who is and is not flourishing. One intuition you bring to bear in the discussion is the importance of treating cognitively equivalent individuals alike, but, unlike the concept of moral status which is directly about treating individuals in various ways, flourishing is not about treating the being, but rather about how the being is doing. No one – in virtue of an account of flourishing alone – is being directed to act or refrain from acting upon, or with respect to, the being. And so the concern about treating like individuals alike doesn’t directly connect to the discussion of flourishing. (2) Something like what we have said about the use of “reflective equilibrium” with regards to theories of moral status applies in this case as well: we don’t see why one should privilege a theoretical criterion over a very powerful practical intuition, especially since the intuition that stunted cognitive development is a misfortune is so compelling.

On Pete's case: We think this case resembles, (only) in the following important respects, Bernard Williams’ case of a lorry driver who accidentally and through no fault of his own hits a child. Pete may not be blameworthy (this depends on further details), but he nonetheless has reasons to regret what he has done and to want to do something to compensate. And these attitudes are focused on his actions, and not, for example, on his deliberation (which may have been just fine). Plus, again, he has these reasons even if his friend had not succeeded in taking over the apartment. You allow that Pete was used, but what was used, more precisely, was his action – by being incorporated in the service of illicit ends, his action became regrettable and bad.

The post to Matthew does seem to be missing. We will re-post it.

Hi Matthew,

As your post brings out, there are two interpretations of the potentiality accounts of moral status. On one, a being now has, e.g., full moral status (FMS) because it will become an SSP. On the other, a being now has FMS because it can (has the capacity to) become an SSP – this is what you take to be the more charitable interpretation. Our view is different from both of these.

To see why, it helps to distinguish 1st and 2nd order capacities. Second order capacities are capacities to develop a capacity, e.g., an infant’s capacity to develop the capacity to play in an orchestra due to as of yet undeveloped musical talent. The charitable interpretation of potentiality appeals to a capacity of a 2nd order, ours to a capacity of the 1st order. The quickest way to see the difference is by focusing of the case of an early fetus. The charitable interpretation of potentiality gives most early fetuses high status, but no early fetus would get status via our view (see our reply to Maggie and Jake).

As for section V of our paper, the criteria for flourishing play a role in the grounding of moral status of cognitively impaired humans on our view, but they do not supply a sufficient condition. Crucially, it matters whether the being in question can model SSP-activity (along with further conditions). Also, contrary to what you say, we argue that Ashley has the actual (1st order) capacity to incompletely realize SSP-activities, since her activities such as peak-a-boo can now meet all the relevant conditions (they model SSP-activities, can be guided by the relevant end-standard, etc.).

We want to thank everyone for their participation in this blog! We will not longer be able to continue responding to further questions and comments, at this time, but thank you again for all your input.

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