The Two Sources of Moral Standing


There are two primary traditions in philosophical theorizing about moral standing—one emphasizing Experience (the capacity to feel pain and pleasure) and one emphasizing Agency (complexity of cognition and lifestyle). In this article we offer an explanation for this divide: Lay judgments about moral standing depend importantly on two independent cues (Experience and Agency), and the two philosophical traditions reflect this aspect of folk moral cognition. In support of this two-source hypothesis, we present the results of a series of new experiments providing evidence for our account of lay judgments about moral standing, and argue that these results lend plausibility to the proposed causal link between folk moral cognition and the philosophical traditions.

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  1. 1.

    Non-absolute rights can be justifiably violated when doing so is necessary to respect other rights; absolute rights can never be violated.

  2. 2.

    While Kant also holds that we have a duty to treat non-human animals humanly, this is not because they are proper objects of moral concern. For Kant, people do not owe non-human animals anything, rather they owe it to themselves to treat non-human animals well. As he puts it in The Lectures on Ethics (2001, 212): “If a man had his dog shot because it can no longer earn a living for him, he is by no means in breach of duty to the dog, since the latter is incapable of judgment, but he thereby damages the kindly and humane qualities in himself, which he ought to exercise in virtue of his duties to mankind. Lest he extinguish such qualities, he must already practice a similar kindness towards animals; for a person who already displays such cruelty to animals is also no less hardened towards men.”

  3. 3.

    See. e.g., Steinbock 1979; Cohen 1987; Warren 1987; Gert 2005.

  4. 4.

    Carruthers also considers Scanlon’s contractualism.

  5. 5.

    According to Carruthers, taking the interest of the contractants into account results in the assignment of rights to non-rational human beings (babies, senile individuals, etc.).

  6. 6.

    See also Norcross 2007. It is particularly noteworthy that a Kantian moral philosopher as prominent as Christine Korsgaard follows suit (1996, 153): “When you pity a suffering animal, it is because you are perceiving a reason. An animal’s cries express pain, and they mean that there is a reason, a reason to change its conditions. And you can no more hear the cries of an animal as mere noise than you can the words of a person. Another animal can obligate you in exactly the same way another person can. (…) So of course we have obligations to animals.”

  7. 7.

    Some philosophers have emphasized Agency and Experience. For instance, for Gewirth (1980), who does not seem to distinguish rights from moral standing, while rational agency is the ultimate source of rights, the capacity to feel pain and pleasure grants some rights too because rational agents are also sentient beings (Gewirth 1980, 144; Korsgaard 1996).

  8. 8.

    By saying that these two cues are independent, we mean that the influence of Experience does not depend on whether an entity is conceived as having complex cognition and lifestyle, and the influence of Agency does not depend on whether an entity is conceived as feeling pain and pleasure.

  9. 9.

    These might include being alive, having a humanoid appearance, behaving in an anthropomorphic manner, and being cute. Beauty may be another cue for the ascription of moral standing: For example, if an explorer found a cave full of amazingly beautiful crystal formations, people may well think that it would be morally wrong for the explorer to needlessly destroy the crystals even if nobody else would ever be able to see them. Conversely, ugly and repugnant creatures are probably less likely to be granted moral standing by lay people (see the “Animals of Low Moral Standing” poster by R. S. Posnak).

  10. 10.

    Advocates of the views being discussed here often identify phenomenal consciousness (the capacity to have mental states such that it feels like something to have them) and Experience (understood as the capacity to feel pain and pleasure). We have argued at length elsewhere (Sytsma and Machery 2010) that this is a mistake: While lay people do have a concept of Experience, evidence suggests that they do not have a concept of phenomenal consciousness.

  11. 11.

    One may wonder why philosophers have paid less attention to the other cues that influence folk ascription of moral standing. On our view, this is because Experience and Agency are more important than the other cues, and we speculate that this might be particularly the case for reflective judgments.

  12. 12.

  13. 13.

  14. 14.

  15. 15.

  16. 16.

    It might be objected that that the quotations above may not reflect lay views about moral standing. After all, they express the opinions of Las Casas, Sepúlveda, de Waal, etc. We are however convinced that these opinions reflect lay views as well. For instance, The Guardian article quoted above suggests that lay people do not find anything outrageous in the opinion expressed by the proponents of the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. Alternatively, it might be argued that in folk moral cognition Agency matters for rights, but not for moral standing, which is only determined by Experience. We are however skeptical that the philosophical distinction between rights and moral standing is part of folk moral cognition. In addition, what is clearly at stake in at least some of the cases presented above is whether people owe anything to animals: For example, de Waal draws a distinction between mice, to which according to him we apparently don’t owe anything, and chimpanzees, whose interests matter morally.

  17. 17.

    Characters were a 7-week-old fetus, a 5-month-old infant, a 5-year-old girl, an adult woman, an adult man, a man in a persistent vegetative state, the participant, a frog, a family dog, a wild chimpanzee, a dead woman, God, and the robot Kismet. The mental capacities tested were hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, desire, personality, consciousness, pride, embarrassment, joy, self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication, and thought.

  18. 18.

    Specifically, they asked: “If both characters had caused a person’s death, which one do you think would be more deserving of punishment?” (619).

  19. 19.

    Specifically, they asked: “If you were forced to harm one of these characters, which one would it be more painful for you to harm.” (619).

  20. 20.

    For critical discussion of Knobe and Prinz’s work, see Sytsma and Machery 2009.

  21. 21.

    See Robbins and Jack (2006) for a similar argument.

  22. 22.

    Responses were collected through the Philosophical Personality website ( Participants were counted as having more than minimal training in philosophy if they were philosophy majors, had completed a degree with a major in philosophy, or had taken graduate-level courses in philosophy. Participants were 75.6 % female, ranged in age from 18 to 79, and had an average age of 38.5 years.

  23. 23.

    An alternative strategy would be to attempt to decrease the amount of empathy felt by the participants. For example, the vignettes used in our first study could be rewritten to describe the experiment as being pain-free for the monkeys. We revisit this strategy in the following section.

  24. 24.

    Participants were 69.7 % female, ranged in age from 18 to 86, and had an average age of 39.0 years.

  25. 25.

    Because the physical make-up of the atlans varies across conditions, the difference between conditions could result from the difference in physical make-up rather than the difference in psychological capacities. While we find this hypothesis implausible, future research should attempt to control for this confound.

  26. 26.

    Participants were 74.6 % female, ranged in age from 18 to 90, and had an average age of 38.2 years.

  27. 27.

    Participants were 67.9 % female, ranged in age from 18 to 84, and had an average age of 38.7 years.


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Correspondence to Justin Sytsma.

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We are grateful to Joshua Knobe and Mark Phelan for their comments on a previous version of this article.

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Sytsma, J., Machery, E. The Two Sources of Moral Standing. Rev.Phil.Psych. 3, 303–324 (2012).

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  • Moral Judgment
  • Moral Agent
  • Philosophical Tradition
  • Howler Monkey
  • Moral Standing