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Valuing Life as Necessary for Moral Status

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Many contemporary accounts of moral status consider an individual’s status to be grounded in some cognitive capacity, e.g. the capacity to experience certain states, to reason morally, etc. One proposed cognitive capacity significant particularly to killing, i.e. having a status that precludes being killed absent cause, is the capacity to value one’s own life. I argue that considering this a condition for moral status is a mistake, as it would lead to the exclusion of some individuals with mental health problems who are generally considered clear cases. While a cognitive capacities approach may turn out to be generally feasible, that particular cognitive capacity is not. In the course of this discussion I address two conceptual issues, the first regarding what it means to ‘value one’s life’ and the second regarding what conditions must obtain for something to count as a capacity. These conceptual issues, when resolved pursuant to this account of moral status, lead the account to exclude individuals with major depressive disorder, i.e. deny that it is morally wrong to kill such individuals based on their moral status. I then argue that this is decisive reason to reject this particular cognitive capacity as implicated in moral status.

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  1. This is borrowed from Futurama season one, episode eleven. Philosophical discussions have discussed similar cases, e.g. McMahan’s superchimp [7].

  2. Some readers may be inclined to argue that therapy is, itself, a form of medical intervention, and therefore more like intervention than training. If this is so, it makes my case much easier, as standard treatment for depression would actually be the conjunction of two medical interventions. This may be right, but I have chosen to argue the more conservative line.

  3. My point is not something broad like, “attitudes never matter to normative reasons.” I do not want to fall prey to objections put forward by Street [17], among other critics of attitude-independence claims. However, I do presuppose that attitudes, in and of themselves, are not enough to ground normative reasons. This is a commitment, but a moderate and accessible one.


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Correspondence to Joshua Stein.

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Stein, J. Valuing Life as Necessary for Moral Status. Neuroethics 9, 45–51 (2016).

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