Daniel Elbro (KCL) - 2018-19 Students

Agency as the grounds for moral status

My project concerns the problem of grounding moral status: what features of some entities are necessary and sufficient for their having morally significant interests, and why? In other words, why is it usually not a moral wrong to break a stone apart, while it usually is a moral wrong to do the same to a human? Features proposed to ground moral status in the past have included Kantian autonomy (the capacity to rationally form goals) and sentience (the capacity to experience pleasure and pain). I find these accounts respectively too restrictive and too narrow: autonomy excludes non-human animals from moral status; sentience explains the wrongness of only some morally wrong actions. An adequate account of moral status will confer it upon all and only those entities which plausibly have it, and explain the wrongness of all morally wrong actions towards those entities. An emerging idea in this literature, which my research will explore, is that a basic capacity for agency (roughly, the capacity to control how one’s goals are pursued), the kind possessed by humans and non-human animals alike, grounds the moral status of both.

Previous defences of the agency account do not deal adequately with the question of degrees of moral status, nor do they consider the possibility of non-biological agents (i.e. AI that is sufficiently advanced to count as having a capacity for agency). My project constitutes a defence of the agency account that grounds degrees of moral status in the differing degrees of agency had by different animals, including humans. This will require work in the metaphysics of agency, which will aid in attempting to understand the agency and moral status (if it exists) of non-biological agents.

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