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An African Theory of Moral Status: A Relational Alternative to Individualism and Holism

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Abstract

The dominant conceptions of moral status in the English-speaking literature are either holist or individualist, neither of which accounts well for widespread judgments that: animals and humans both have moral status that is of the same kind but different in degree; even a severely mentally incapacitated human being has a greater moral status than an animal with identical internal properties; and a newborn infant has a greater moral status than a mid-to-late stage foetus. Holists accord no moral status to any of these beings, assigning it only to groups to which they belong, while individualists such as welfarists grant an equal moral status to humans and many animals, and Kantians accord no moral status either to animals or severely mentally incapacitated humans. I argue that an underexplored, modal-relational perspective does a better job of accounting for degrees of moral status. According to modal-relationalism, something has moral status insofar as it capable of having a certain causal or intensional connection with another being. I articulate a novel instance of modal-relationalism grounded in salient sub-Saharan moral views, roughly according to which the greater a being's capacity to be part of a communal relationship with us, the greater its moral status. I then demonstrate that this new, African-based theory entails and plausibly explains the above judgments, among others, in a unified way.

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Notes

  1. I first very briefly suggested this account of moral status in Metz (2010a: 57–58), and I have discussed related ideas of dignity in Metz (2010b: 91–95), reasons for beneficence in Metz (2010c: 61–67), and legal personhood in Metz (2010d).

  2. For an example of individualism in African philosophy, see Bujo (2001), who is naturally read as holding that a being’s spiritual nature is what constitutes moral status, and for an apparent example of holism, see Oruka and Juma (1994: 125–126).

  3. The rest of this paragraph borrows from Metz (2010d: 308–309), which includes some evidence beyond that mentioned here.

  4. Kant himself might hold a view that would count as “relational”, for he deems moral status to be grounded in the capacity to act according to maxims that can be universalized without frustrating purposes, or, allegedly equivalently, the capacity to act in accordance with the absolute value of rational nature wherever it is encountered.

  5. For classic statements of these ubiquitous sayings, see Mbiti (1969: 108–109) and Menkiti (1979). My explications of the basics of African morality borrow from Metz (2010b: 83–84).

  6. As is made particularly clear in Wiredu (1992) and Gyekye (1997: 49–52).

  7. For a few more representative examples, see Shutte (2001: 16–33); Murove (2004); and Mkhize (2008).

  8. For a similar comment from a moral-anthropological survey, see Silberbauer (1991: 20), and for philosophical analysis and defence of the idea that a relationship qua relationship can provide a reason for (beneficent) action, see Metz (2010c): esp. 67–72.

  9. Some suggest that factors besides sentience or even well-being more generally can ground a being’s moral status. For instance, Nussbaum (2006) has recently argued that the capacity to be a good member of its kind grounds moral status to no less a degree than the capacity to live a good life. However, even she maintains that in order for the former, perfectionist good to matter morally, it must inhere in a being with the latter, welfarist good. With Nussbaum, I suggest that exhibiting solidarity with a being can involve acting for its perfectionist good, but if and only if it also has a welfarist good. Such a qualification most easily enables one to exclude, say, knives from being objects of moral status.

  10. There are a very small handful of other modal views in the literature, restricting moral status either to the capacity to be caring (Jaworska 2007) or to the capacity to be an object of sympathy (Mercer 1972: 129–133).

  11. As I have argued in detail in Metz (2007).

  12. Some utilitarians argue that people’s “global” desires, with regard to their lives as a whole, are more important than “local” ones, giving them priority over the severely mentally incapacitated in cases of conflict. But what if a normal person, such as Galen Strawson, lacked such desires?

  13. This line of reasoning is inspired by some remarks from Slote (2007: 17–19).

  14. Note how the African theory differs from the classic ethic of care with regard to foetuses and infants, which grounds their moral status in their responsiveness to care (Noddings 1984: 87–89).

  15. Does the African theory entail: that cuter animals have a greater moral status than ugly ones, that a late-term human foetus has a lower moral status than a chimpanzee, that a stereotypical Mother Teresa has a greater moral status than us, or that someone actually part of a communal relationship with us has a greater moral status than someone who merely could? And, if so, are these implications counterintuitive?

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Acknowledgments

For helpful comments on a prior draft of this article, I thank Kevin Behrens, Kai Horsthemke, Neil Van Leeuwen and two very thoughtful and helpful anonymous referees for this journal. I have also benefited from audience feedback at: the 2008 Annual Conference of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa held at Monash University; a Philosophy Department Seminar at the University of Johannesburg; the 15th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies held at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop; and a Symposium on Nonhuman Animals organized by the Hunterstoun Centre at the University of Fort Hare.

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Metz, T. An African Theory of Moral Status: A Relational Alternative to Individualism and Holism. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 15, 387–402 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-011-9302-y

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