The Ockham Society (Wednesday - Week 2, HT21)

Ockham Society

Humans are capable of acts of astonishing goodness. We sacrifice our lives so that others might live. We care for others who are suffering, even when we have no familial obligations towards them. Sometimes (and not often enough), we even extend our moral concern to those of other species. These acts are moral acts, and they show that we humans are moral agents. Non-human animals also do these things; nature documentaries and social media are replete with examples of non-human animals giving their lives in service to some greater purpose, saving the lives of conspecifics, and caring about the fates of other species. And yet, philosophers and non-philosophers alike have, with very few exceptions, been inclined to deny that non-human animals are moral agents.

In this paper/presentation, I consider a number of conceptual arguments that non-human animals cannot be moral agents, and show why these arguments fail. These arguments, from Moral Responsibility, Moral Cognition, Control, and Moral Understanding, connect Moral Agency with some other property that non-human animals are alleged to obviously lack. Here, I grant for the sake of argument that the other animals do lack these properties. In each case, I argue that this will not mean that these animals aren’t moral agents.

The near ubiquity in the literature of the denial of moral agency to the other animals is such that it is often hard to discern when it is argued for, and when it is simply assumed. Therefore, the arguments I consider, while inspired by and as far as possible faithful to the literature, have necessarily required some refinement by myself. Nevertheless, I think they fail. Notwithstanding any controversial empirical evidence of non-human animal moral behaviour, we in fact have no good conceptual arguments for discontinuity between humans and the other animals with respect to moral agency. In other words, there may well be good dogs.

Additional Information: Ockham will be held on MS Teams during HT21. Please email if you wish to attend. 

Ockham Society Convenor: Steven Diggin | Ockham Society Webpage