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Mar 10 2021


12:30 pm - 1:45 pm

The dignity of subjectivity account of the wrongness of killing

« Dans le cadre des midis de l’éthique du CRÉ, Rainer Ebert nous offrira une présentation intitulée « The dignity of subjectivity account of the wrongness of killing ».


Traditional morality maintains that it is as seriously morally wrong to kill one human being as it is to kill any other human being, yet less seriously wrong to kill other animals, as human beings have a special moral status and are one another’s moral equals. On another view, which has emerged more recently, the boundaries of the community of moral equals should be redrawn so as to include all and only persons, regardless of species membership. Both views, which continue to enjoy a great deal of popularity in contemporary moral philosophy, radically mark out a certain class of conscious beings for special treatment. In this talk, I will argue that doing so conflicts with our modern scientific understanding of nature, according to which all life on earth is interrelated, through evolution, and biological characteristics come in degrees. If we could look at all organisms that have ever existed at once, we would see in front of us a continuous spectrum of the properties that philosophers commonly associate with our special moral status, with no recognizable discontinuity that would recommend itself as a line of moral demarcation. As I have argued elsewhere, that is a serious problem not only for defenders of human dignity but also for Jeff McMahan and others who similarly seek to superimpose a binary morality onto living nature. One would have to define a map between the continuous spectrum of biological characteristics on the empirical side, which is messy as all of nature is, and the neatly compartmentalized world of traditional or otherwise dichotomous morality, and there is little hope that this can be done in a non-arbitrary and intuitively plausible way.

I am not the first one to note that Darwinism puts pressure on views that endorse the equal worth of all human beings or persons. Tim Mulgan and James Rachels, for example, have made essentially the same point. Both, in response, advocate consequentialism, which is one way to avoid the just-described mapping problem. Consequentialism, however, has well-known problems of its own, and I think the idea of equal human worth, arguably one of humanity’s greatest moral achievements, is well worth defending and should not be easily surrendered. I will hence propose a tenable and attractive alternative response to the tension between our modern naturalistic view of the world and binary morality, which is less radical than consequentialism in that it retains the idea that we are all equal in terms of moral worth, but also more radical in that it rejects human exceptionalism in a way most versions of consequentialism do not.

I will argue that what makes it true that you and I have equal moral worth – so that, other things being equal, it is equally wrong to kill you and me – is the fact that we share the property of having the capacity for phenomenal consciousness, on which our worth supervenes.

In developing the details of this account, I will show that it avoids the shortcomings of its alternatives. For example, I will argue that we are essentially capable of phenomenal consciousness, and that the capacity for phenomenal consciousness is best understood as a binary concept. From this, I will conclude that my account does not share the superficiality of McMahan’s morality of respect, instead affirming that moral worth is not transient but the kind of thing we have during our entire existence, and carves out of the natural world of organisms the community of moral equals along a non-arbitrary line that carries empirical significance.

While my account fits very well with how people commonly think about human beings, its implications radically diverge from popular opinion in the case of non-human animals. A review of the relevant scientific literature will show that we may reasonable assume that at least mammals and birds have the capacity for phenomenal consciousness, which makes them intrinsically valuable subjects of experience whom it is no less seriously wrong to kill as it is to kill you or me, other things being equal. I will use the last part of this talk to explore some of the implications of this for the way we eat, dress, do science, build and produce things, move around, entertain ourselves, do sports, and worship. »

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