Are Non Human Entities Entitled To Moral Consideration?

1691 words - 7 pages

Perhaps the most important question moral philosophy can ask is: who or what is entitled to moral rights? When we discuss differing moral philosophies such as utilitarianism or deontology we do so with the underlying assumption that human beings are centric to the moral code. Should we assume this? Historically speaking humans have only been present on this planet for 100,000 years. The planet itself has been around 4.6 billion years, so the environment and animal life existed long before intelligent human life emerged. Why then, is morality generally accepted to be applied solely to humans? To answer this question I intend to discuss some of the basic tenets of morality, such as the moral community. What does membership in the moral community entail? Does not being a contributing member to the moral community mean that you are not entitled to moral consideration? The way humans deal with the topics of animal rights and environmentalism hinge upon the answer to these questions.
The moral community is comprised of a body of people who are self-aware enough to make moral decisions and contribute to and obey moral mandates laid down by the community. According to philosopher Carl Cohen, human beings are the only known moral creatures that, "lay down moral laws; for others and for themselves. Human beings are self-legislative, morally auto-nomous" (897). It is important to distinguish that it is being self-legislative and morally autonomous and not the mere fact of being biologically human that distinguishes members of the moral community. Theoretically, any species of creatures that had the same measure of self-awareness and moral thought should be granted equal membership into the moral community and all the privileges that membership entails. However, by these guidelines it must be conceded that some human beings are not members of the moral community. Infants, for example, do not yet possess the ability to make moral choices or even behave in ways that can be considered right or wrong. The mentally handicapped, likewise, do not possess the necessary level of moral understanding to contribute to the moral community. The moral community, then, is not so much a species specific group as it is a measurement of intellectual capability.
If we concede that certain human beings are not members of the moral community, then surely we must also grant that entities outside of the moral community are to be granted rights and protections. No person of feeling or empathy would state that infants or the mentally handicapped should be allowed to be mistreated because they do not belong to the exclusive clique of the morally aware. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham brought this important concern to the forefront when he pointed out that many animals have more intelligence and understanding than infants. the most important question to ask, then, he argued is not, "Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?" (886). No moral individual should want to cause...

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