On the Question of So-Called Superchimps, Their Place in our Moral Universe, and What Their Inclusion Means For the Average Idiot

I have a dog. I care about my dog. I care about my dog’s well being. I want him to be safe from moving cars or tainted dog food. I want others to be nice to my dog and respect my dog’s “right” to live a full, fun-filled dog life. My sentiment is not uncommon or even discouraged among pet owners. If asked, most pet owners would say that they care for their pets. They care about whether their pets have enough food to eat, or whether they are kept warm at night or safe from harm. But why is this so? Why do we value our pets so dearly?

The answer is because we include our pets in our moral sphere, that is, our pets are morally considerable. But, if we say that our pets are morally considerable, what do we mean when we say that something counts morally? What criteria do we use to determine who is in and who is out of our moral universe?

We say that something has “moral status” if that thing ( or being ) counts for us morally. That is, we owe certain moral obligations to certain, other beings. Status is most often defined in terms of  moral agents and moral patients. Individuals who possess rational autonomy and are self-legislating are moral agents. Moral patients are those individuals who lack, either by age, physical or mental condition, etc, the ability to self-legislate or rational autonomy are moral patients. For example, a year-old child lacks the ability to engage in rational, self-legislating behavior. The child is a moral patient. The child’s parent, if the parent is autonomous and self-legislating, is the moral agent who must act to the benefit of the child. An individual is in our moral sphere only if we grant the individual moral consider ability.

But, the act of considering an individual’s moral status relies on an important supposition: The act of considering the effects of our actions upon others indicates that those individuals that we take into account are already included  in our moral sphere. So, if moral considerability indicates that others are in our moral sphere, then we must ask, how do we include others in our sphere? That is, what are the criteria for the inclusion of other beings?

The West’s traditional view of moral status is grounded in the biblical texts of the Old Testament and Aristotle‘s hierarchy concerning nature and the natural order. The book of Genesis clearly states the relationship between man and animals:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and

let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the

air , and over the cattle, and all over the earth, and over every creeping

thing that creeps upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:26. Emphasis added).

The traditional biblical view holds that man, as a being created in God’s image, is given the earth to rule as he sees fit. The fact that animals are not made in God’s image  discharges any human from any moral obligation to the welfare of animals. According to the biblical view, the lack of any ability to morally wrong any animal means that animals are not morally considerable.  Aristotle brought the hierarchy to nature (and the natural order of things) which placed humans, more specifically free human males, at the top of the “natural” hierarchy. Aristotle wrote that man’s power of reasoning endowed him with natural superiority (and a soul). The way of nature, in Aristotle’s view, naturally places superior beings in positions of authority over inferior beings. In other words, if a rational soul is a superior trait, then it is the way of nature for animals who possess this trait to rule over animals that do not possess the same superior trait. Aristotle stated that animals, by contrast, are governed by their passions or instincts. Aristotle wrote that man’s rational soul ruled over his passions, and that this trait indicates that man’s natural place is to rule over animals. Aristotle reflects the traditional view in that inferior animals are “natural slaves” that are benefited by serving the interests of superior animals. Aristotle writes,

“…the other animals exist for the sake of man, and tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them for food…”

Descartes continued the traditional view of moral status. Descartes wrote that animals are mere “machines” meant to serve the need of their human masters. Although Descartes maintains the traditional view that man’s intellect confers superior status, Descartes gives an additional criteria for man’s moral superiority to animals. For Descartes, the capacity for speech is indicative of an individual’s intellectual capacity. The fact that animals possess no capacity for speech (at least no speech that humans can understand), animals cannot “… use speech… as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others.”

It is important to stop at this point to clear up an immediate objection to Descartes’ speech criteria.  If Descartes means to state that any being that lacks the capacity to express their thoughts in speech also lacks the capacity to think, one might put forth that Descartes is excluding humans who are mentally or physically challenged from the moral sphere. Humans who cannot speak due to physical or mental impairments, if Descartes’ criteria is used to define moral status, may be reduced to the status of “brutes” or animals.  Descartes, however, explains that his speech criteria does not exclude the mentally or physically disabled, on the grounds that individuals who lack verbal speech often find other ways to communicate their thoughts to others. For instance,  person who is born mute may learn to communicate through sign language. A person who is mentally handicapped may learn to express themselves, despite the fact that they lack the ability to communicate verbally. Descartes states that a disabled individual may have a diminished intellectual capacity, but is not excluded from the moral sphere due to the fact that humans who are intellectually “inferior“  possess some capacity for self expression. An animal, on the other hand, not only lacks a minimal capacity for rational thought, but lacks any capacity for rationality at all.
Although Descartes explains that his speech criteria will not exclude humans (including the mentally and physically disabled) from the moral sphere, Descartes’ explanation fails to recognize the fact the speech criteria may indeed reduce some humans to the status of mere “brutes”. Some humans do lack any capacity for speech, such as profoundly retarded individuals or the comatose. In addition, some animals have acquired the capacity to express their thoughts through non-verbal human languages such as American sign language. And, if the traditional hierarchical view places a rational soul at the top of the natural order, the fact that some animals possess a capacity for rational thought leads us to question whether an animal that possesses the capacity for rational thought may assume a higher position in the natural hierarchy. An animal that possesses a rational soul may disrupt man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy. A human who lacks the capacity for rational thought, such as the mentally challenged or the comatose, may be relegated to the status of animals and excluded from the moral sphere.

As humans, we feel reluctant (intuitively) to exclude people who we feel not only merit moral consideration, but also fit into the moral sphere. We feel that it is wrong to exclude any human from moral consideration on the basis that a person lacks the capacity to articulate their thoughts. We feel that despite their physical or mental handicap, a human mentally or physically disabled human is still a human, and that their humanness demands moral considerability and inclusion in the moral sphere. But, what about an animal who, despite a mere physical or mental difference from other rational beings, possesses human-like qualities, such as rationality and the ability to articulate its thoughts through language?  Is there a criteria for moral status that will allow us to include both rational animals and marginal cases? I believe that the answer is yes. I hold that Kant’s criteria for moral status allows us to include rational animals, but more importantly, Kant’s moral status criteria allows us to preserve marginal cases for moral consideration in the moral sphere.

It is  possible that nature may produce a chimpanzee with cognitive abilities that exceed the capacities of the average human. The fact that this “super chimp” ( let’s call him “Arthur Crackpot”), surpasses the intellectual capacity of the average human cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a mere aberration. It would not be difficult to imagine that Arthur Crackpot or any chimpanzee that possesses a high capacity for rational thought would not hesitate to articulate its thoughts or express what it considered to be its own interests. We can be most certain that Arthur Crackpot and any other “super chimp” would demand immediate inclusion into our moral sphere. The fact that the animal can do so forces us to deal with it in a manner that does not conform to the traditional biblical, natural hierarchy, nor can we treat the animal as a mere machine that is fit to serve man’s needs. So, if the difference between man and animals — primates in particular — is trivial, and a naturally occurring “super chimp’ is not outside the realm of possibility, then the mere fact that man and animal are different species is not a morally relevant difference to account for the exclusion of animals from the moral consideration or the moral sphere.

If we grant moral consideration of smarter animals, and we include Arthur Crackpot and other “super chimps” in our moral sphere because they rank higher on the hierarchical scale, then, if we are to be consistent, we must exclude certain marginal case humans who possess intellectual capacities far below the capacities of other animals. But, as I said before, this sounds intuitively wrong. We should not exclude humans simply because they lack the ability to articulate their thoughts or the capacity for rational thought. So, what perspective allows us to include both “super chimps” and marginal cases? I believe that the Kantian approach to moral agency allows us to  not only extend moral consideration  and inclusion of animals such as Arthur Crackpot, but the Kantian approach also allows us to keep marginal case humans in the moral sphere.

Kant states that rational beings must be treated as ends in themselves. That is, beings that possess the ability for rational thought cannot be used as a mere means to another person’s ends. Rational beings, according to Kant, are self-legislating and autonomous. The fact that rational beings possess an autonomous and self-legislating will grants them moral agency. Moral agents are not only morally accountable for their own actions, but are also morally obligated to moral patients. For Kant, rationality is not a matter of degree, but a characteristic that is all-or-nothing. Beings are either rational or they are not rational. Although Kant’s criteria seems to push us once again towards the hierarchy, the concept of moral patients pushes us away from excluding rational animals and irrational people.

Kant states that man’s duty to animals is indirect, in that our duties to animals are limited to treating them in a non-abusive manner, but Kant also states that our treatment of animals reflects how we are likely to treat other humans. Although we consider our treatment of animals from the Kantian perspective, we only consider their welfare from our own perspective — we do not want to cultivate abusive personalities in people who might harm their fellow man. This approach gets us away from the hierarchy it seems, but perhaps not very far. But, let us remember, Kant states that his criteria for our moral obligation is rationality.  More importantly, Kant does not specify a degree of rationality that qualifies a being for admission in our moral sphere. For Kant, rationality is all or nothing. So, from this perspective, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality is included in the moral sphere. So, one might say this criteria requires that a “super chimp” like Arthur Crackpot, who possesses a level of rationality rival to that of a human must also be regarded as a human moral agent.

If Arthur commit’s a moral transgression, he must be held accountable for his actions. So, for instance, if Arthur kills a human, he could be held accountable for his actions not only morally but legally as well. But this is not correct. For Kant, having moral agency does not necessarily follow from having rationality. There are minimally rational people who cannot be moral agents. These individuals are moral patients. Moral patients are included in the moral sphere insofar as their interests are the subject of moral consideration, but are excluded, in a sense, from a moral obligation to other moral agents. On the other hand, moral agents are morally obligated to moral patients.  It is clear that the concept of holding a trial for a chimpanzee is ridiculous (not to mention next to impossible to find a jury of Arthur’s peers). A chimpanzee, no matter how rational it may be, should not be held accountable for his actions in the same way that a human is held accountable for her actions. Like a child, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality may  be incapable of comprehending the moral ramifications of his actions. If an animal is like a child or an other moral patient, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that being. Likewise, if a human possesses a minimal degree of rationality, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that person. And, the fact that we have taken these individuals into our moral consideration signifies that both some animals and marginal case humans possess moral status in our moral universe.

The traditional, biblical, and Cartesian perspectives on moral status and moral considerability fail to enable to include animals who should be granted moral status. Even more detrimental to these perspectives is the fact that adherence to these perspectives forces us to remove humans as well.  Kant’s rationality criteria allows us to include rational animals like “Arthur Crackpot” in the moral sphere without excluding human marginal cases. The concept of moral patients and moral agency allows us to include individuals that may not be fully rational in the sense that they are capable of moral responsibility, but rational to the degree that they count in the moral sphere. Kant’s approach — though it is not perfect — is the best perspective we have to determine moral considerability, moral status and the inclusion of human marginal cases in the moral sphere.

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2 thoughts on “On the Question of So-Called Superchimps, Their Place in our Moral Universe, and What Their Inclusion Means For the Average Idiot

  1. Hey, just so you know – your movie suggestion for “What movie would benefit most from the addition of a dragon?” is one of the finalists! It’s a very big deal. I suggest shameless self-promotion.

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