Duty to men, fairies...

Moral Status
October 9, 1998

Moral status" is a concept very well worth exploring. In many moral dilemmas, such as whether it is wrong to bring the life of someone terminally ill to a premature end, whether abortion is permissible, whether research using live human embryos or laboratory animals, should be prohibited, the question is often said to turn on the moral status of the entities concerned. So Mary Anne Warren's enterprise, to delineate "obligations to persons and other living things" is potentially fruitful, and of considerable importance.

Yet the argument of the book, though painstakingly thorough, seems somewhat hesitant. In the first part, Warren examines various criteria that have been suggested by moralists and philosophers as determining moral significance: life, sentience, "personhood", the ability to act as a moral agent, or to form relationships with humans. She sensibly concludes that moral status depends on a variety of factors, no one of which alone is sufficient or even necessary for its being accorded to a creature. In the second part, this multiplicity of criteria is shown at work, applied to the issues of euthanasia, abortion and animal rights. The central weakness lies in her reluctance to state clearly what her own starting point is.

We need to know to what extent she feels herself bound, like Aristotle, to the way things are, the "phenomena": the way, that is, in which people on the whole actually do believe that they have duties to other people or other animals, and the importance they actually do, for the most part, accord to one another or to their non-human environment. Sometimes she speaks of the need "not to stray too far from common sense"; elsewhere on the other hand, she seems afraid that she may be guilty of "rampant human chauvinism", or the sin of anthropocentricity. Yet at other times she denies, or nearly denies that it is a sin: she very reasonably allows that "we are not gods but human beings, reasoning about how we ought to think and act. Our moral theories can only be based upon what we know and what we care about, or ought to care about. If this makes our theories anthropocentric, then this much anthropocentrism is inevitable to any moral theory that is relevant to human actions". Quite so. But she is unduly respectful of the view that morality must encompass non-human animals.

She appears to hold, moreover, that our being able to "emp-hathise" with fictional characters from outer space (such as E.T. in the film) entails that we must in actual fact have duties towards any such characters as we may one day encounter. One could, equally, say that we must have duties towards certain fairies, on the grounds that we can understand the distinction between good and wicked fairies. It is necessary to distinguish between such hypotheses, and those concerned with a foreseeable future, in terms of which we might define moral duties we now have.

Warren's insistence that there are multiple criteria according to which we accord moral status to things, fits with how most people actually feel. As she says: "The multi-criterial account permits us to take account of a wider range of both intrinsic and relational properties (in the awarding of moral status). One desirable result of this ethical eclecticism is that we will often find moral theory moving closer to moral common sense."

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

Moral Status

Author - Mary Anne Warren
ISBN - 0 19 823668 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 264

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