Eastern APA 2017: Whence Moral Personhood?

By Nathan Eckstrand

Note: The Presidential Address was recorded by the APA Blog, and a transcript is forthcoming.  This is a summary of the main points of the speech, coupled with a few reflections on how it relates to the rest of 2017 Eastern Conference.

The Eastern APA presented a diverse and exciting array of ideas, works in progress, and engaging discussion.  While I was there to cover the conference for the blog, one of the experiences I found most interesting was just how many philosophers were wresting with the phenomenon of the last election.  Numerous papers referenced philosophy’s value to our democracy, and I heard multiple conversations about peoples’ worries, hopes, and plans for the upcoming years.  Whether explicitly or implicitly, many presenters put forth ideas relevant to the sociopolitical situation we find ourselves in.  One of the best examples of this was the President’s Address, which explored the moral status of humans, where it comes from, and the implications it has for society.

Kittay with her daughter.

Given by outgoing Eastern APA president Eva Feder Kittay, the address was titled “The Moral Significance of Being Human” and focused on the question of why and how we should apply ethical status to all humans regardless of their intrinsic traits.  Kittay began with a summary of the well-known effects of not doing this.  We strive to be universal free beings, but we are unable to do this if we are under constant threat because of traits like the color of our skin, our gender identity, our religious faith, or any number of attributes.  Perhaps most significant to Kittay is the way the mentally disabled are ignored, as she has a daughter who falls into that category, and worries about how such individuals are often excluded from our ethical considerations.  While mentally challenged individuals may not be able to do things that most children can, Kittay says it is clear that their understanding outstrips their abilities.  This is illustrated by how Kittay’s daughter has indicated that she wants to be seen as a woman despite the significant challenges she faces.  As Kittay eloquently put it, by ignoring the truths of the mentally challenged, we distort our own.

Unfortunately, philosophers have historically relegated the mentally challenged to the margins of society.  Kittay gave two examples, one from Locke and one from Kant.  Locke says that being human consists in the participation of the same continued life united in the same body.  To be morally equal requires that one be able to instantiate a moral human; since ‘idiots’ cannot do this, they are sub-human or partial humans.  Kant similarly requires that one have rationality to be a moral person, and claims that only humans have this capacity.  For both these philosophers, as well as some of their inheritors still writing, the mentally challenged are not moral agents.  While this does not entail discrimination, Kittay nevertheless criticizes a moral view that necessitates her daughter—and those in similar conditions—not be considered citizens despite their humanity.

Utilitarians do no better providing the mentally challenged with a meaningful sense of moral personhood.  To illustrate this position, Kittay turned to Peter Singer’s challenge on behalf of animals that they have no fewer intrinsic qualities than the mentally disabled, but nevertheless we treat them differently.  While Kittay mentioned several times that our society has a ways to go before we can be considered ethical when it comes to animals, she disagrees with Singer’s claim that humans and animals should be assessed on the same scale.  In response to this challenge, Kittay provides five objections.

  1. The argument given by utilitarians is the so-called ‘argument from marginal cases.’ For Kittay, this is an unfortunate term, as there is nothing marginal about the disabled, and they should not be seen as such.  Being mentally challenged is a part of the human experience, not something tangential to it.
  2. The danger of assessing animals and humans using the same moral lens plunges us backward, it doesn’t move us forward. Indeed, it even evokes the Nazi’s claims that removing the mentally challenged from society is justified as they are no better than animals.  We should question the idea of human superiority and their right to control animals, but this does not necessitate using the same ethical criteria for all humans and animals.
  3. Utilitarians like Singer suggest that we use a progressive scale for ethical consideration, moving from the question of what we owe, and what is owed by, those with the lowest mental and physical capacities to what we owe/is owed by those with the most. But there are many things that dogs can do which humans cannot, and vice versa.  Even when animals share numerous traits with humans
    Baruch Spinoza and Kittay’s dog Spinoza share at least one notable trait.

    (see the picture to the right, which Kittay showed the audience), there are many traits that separate them. The diversity of characteristics found in nature suggests that it is impossible (or at least extremely arbitrary) to rank animals and humans according to one scale.  As Franz De Waal, says, each species is uniquely adapted to its own environment; thus, Kittay suggests, there are many different potential scales, and no ‘right’ ones, that could be used to decide moral obligation.

  4. While we should be careful about harmful speciesism, preference for one’s own kind does not lead to harmful “isms” like racism and sexism. We must distinguish between primal and constituted groups.  Many critical race theorists have convincingly shown how race is a constructed concept, just as gender has been shown through a variety of means to be largely cultural.  But species are primal groups, not constituted (or socially constructed) ones, and for this reason it is okay to give preference to your own kind (while still being respectful of others).
  5. Utilitarians focus on intrinsic characteristics in arguing against preferential treatment for humans. But these are not the only characteristics there are.  Relational characteristics also exist, and can justify giving preferential treatment to humans.  All humans, regardless of their intrinsic characteristics, are born of human mothers and fathers.  We are morally related to our human parents before we are to any other being.  Kittay was ontologically and temporally related to her daughter before knowing a single thing about her, and it is from this that her maternal ethical relationship is derived.

Kittay brought her talk to a close by discussing the implications of this analysis for the field of ethics, and for society as a whole.  Because of the different capacities held by different species, there are different kinds and degrees of friendship.  Some kinds of friendship can only be filled by other humans, but others can be filled by animals.  Our relationship to other humans begins with ourselves, as we can plausibly imagine ourselves in their shoes.  I could have been mentally challenged, but I could not have been an animal.  For this reason, we have a moral access to other humans that we lack when it comes to animals.  And it is our ability to access the suffering of others that should make us care when we see suffering Syrian refugees abroad, or hear the frustrations of protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement.  We should look at all other humans as possible “I”s.

By contrast, our ethical relationship to animals does not come in the same way.  It comes through a knowledge of animals, and an understanding of how they operate.  This requires empirical evidence, and thoughtful analysis.  Our response to them cannot, ethically, come from the same place.  Rather, we should respond to other species in species appropriate ways.  In this way, we can raise the moral status of animals without at the same time lowering the moral status of certain categories of humans.


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