|Photo credits: sxc.hu|
Imagine that you are walking home one evening when you notice a fire in your neighbour’s house. Do you have any moral responsibility to try put the fire out (or at least call the fire brigade)?
Assuming that your answer is yes, is your duty to your neighbour or to the house itself?
The next day you are talking a walk along a nearby canal bank when you see your neighbour’s dog: it has evidently fallen into the canal and is unable to get out again. It is still swimming but seems exhausted and in danger of drowning. Do you have any moral responsibility to try to rescue the dog (or at least call the RSPCA)?
If your answer is yes, then once again: is your duty to your neighbour or to the dog itself?
The aim of this particular thought experiment was to illustrate the concept of moral status, and particularly how it might (or might not) apply to animals. Adapting a definition found here:
Moral status means that a particular thing matters for its own sake, so that we must pay attention to its interests when we consider actions that might affect it.
Moral status is different from moral goodness. Some beings may act in a morally good way, some may act immorally, and others may be incapable of moral action (e.g. new-born babies), but deserving consideration in others' moral reasoning is different from acting morally oneself.
When a thing has moral status, we may not act toward it in any way we please, disregarding its well-being, preferences, or continued existence. We owe some moral obligations to that being itself. As moral agents (beings capable of doing right or wrong), we must care to some degree about what it wants or needs, or simply what it is; this imposes some limitations on how we may act toward it.
|Photo credit: sxc.hu|
However, I suspect that most people would act to try to save the dog. Furthermore, I'd say that in acting, most people would be primarily thinking about the dog (recognising that it might be distressed or its life in danger) rather than the dog’s owner. That is, they would see their duty as being to the dog, not to some other being.
If so, I think you’d have to conclude that animals do have a moral status. Of course this doesn’t tell us whether the moral status of animals is the same as or different to that of humans, but I’d argue that it would be morally inconsistent to rescue the dog in the above scenario, but then act as if animals have no moral status in ethical questions such as the use of animals for food, entertainment, or medical experiments.
My year 12s seemed to mostly agree with this line of reasoning, but as always I’d be interested to hear any feedback. How would you respond in the house and dog scenarios and why? Or do you think there are problems with the though experiment or the conclusions I’ve drawn from it?