Saturday, 12 October 2013

Though Experiment #2: Hot Bricks and Wet Fur

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I came up with the following simple thought experiment that I used with my year 12s today:

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.
In the first scenario, of the neighbour’s burning house, most people would agree that we have some duty to act, by trying to put the fire out or dialling 999. They would, however, be motivated not by any sense of duty towards the house itself, but instead by concern for the house’s occupant, because their life may be at risk, or because of the distress and difficulty they would suffer if they lost their home in a fire. Houses therefore, and I would say all inanimate objects, have no moral status. If we do consider such things in our actions, it is only because of their relationship to some being that does have moral status (in this case, our neighbour).
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In the second scenario, of the neighbour’s dog, if you would not act to try to save the dog, or your action to save the dog was motivated only by a desire to save your neighbour from distress caused by losing the dog or the financial inconvenience or buying a new one, I think that you would agree that animals have no moral status. Dogs, you would say, deserve no more consideration for their own sake than inanimate objects.

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?


  1. Lots of interesting ideas here, I've been thinking about them and this is as far as I've thought thus far:

    If having moral status means that a particular thing (X) matters for its own sake - then perhaps it matters regardless of our feelings and attitudes and behaviour towards it. I'm not sure that testing what our instinctive reaction would be if X were in danger shows anything other than our perception of its value to us, rather than its moral status 'for its own sake'.

    To illustrate: suppose two objects are in a puddle, and one is a wasp which is in distress and which will surely die if we don't rescue it, and the other is a rather nice diamond ring, and we can only save the one object. Which do we instinctively save?

    I think perhaps many people would 'save' the ring, which is inanimate and not suffering at all, even though the wasp is, in its own waspy little way, irreplaceable as an individual life and an exact copy of the ring could be made - because a diamond ring is of value to us and the wasp isn't - but this doesn't demonstrate that the ring has moral status and the wasp doesn't. It just shows that we do what we feel is in our own best interests, a lot of the time.

    I'm firmly of the opinion that animals have moral status, ie they deserve our respect and consideration for their own sake and not just when they have perceived value to us (eg because they are 'cute'). I think, if someone deliberately steps on a beetle on the doorstep rather than gently moves it out of the way, that doesn't demonstrate that the beetle has no moral status, it demonstrates that the person in the boots hasn't respected that which he or she should respect.

    I think I disagree that all inanimate objects have no moral status.

  2. Thanks Libby, some interesting points there. I agree that there are limitations to what we can learn from testing our reactions to hypothetical situations, and you're very probably right that most people would pick the diamond ring over the wasp (though in my experience, wasps only ever seem to drown in pub beer gardens on summer days, and in pints of beer that I've only just bought).

    I'm not sure how an inanimate object could ever have a moral status. At best, I think it would have some sort of a proxy value by virtue of its importance to a being or beings that do have moral status.

  3. I've been thinking about this a bit more. I think: Moral status, moral value, have to be in relation to other things. You can't have a status by yourself, only in relation to something else which you're superior to, inferior to, or equal to; and you can't have a value unless it's to something or someone. So I don't think there can be such a thing as intrinsic moral status/value; unless we are talking about, value to God, status in the perception of God. Now, if we are talking about that, then inanimate objects that are part of creation may have moral value and status - we shouldn't pave paradise and put up a parking lot because God made the paradise and it has value to him, however much we might value having somewhere to park the car.