First, moral considerability is essentially the technical jargon in the field of morals that is used to indicate whether or not one is worthy of moral consideration. As moral people tend to grant moral considerability to all other humans, the term is primarily used in relation to other species.
As an aside, I would point out that religion or other strong ideologies sometimes cause people to treat other humans without granting other groups moral considerability. Anyone who believes it is OK to kill or enslave members of any outgroup is clearly not granting that group moral considerability.
That said, I would try to keep this post to the topic of what species other than humans should also be granted moral considerability. As I have hinted in my title by the use of the word whom for members of other species, I clearly believe, quite strongly, that many other species are worthy of such consideration. I have often surprised people by asking who that bird is, rather than what that bird is or other equivalent. I believe living beings should be referred to as who and whom rather than what. It keeps us from forgetting that they are indeed other beings, not inanimate objects.
So, what species are worthy of moral consideration? Should this be only humans?
Jane Goodall related a story during a lecture she gave at the American Museum of Natural History. I believe she stated that this happened to her, though the lecture was quite some time ago and human memory is far from perfect.
Ms. Goodall was walking through a medical research facility. At the facility, there was a chimpanzee in a cage that had apparently been either home raised or otherwise taught sign language and somehow ended up in medical research. The chimp was sitting and signing over and over again in ASL a single message, ‘Help me.’
If this does not leave a lump in your throat and make you feel like crying, then perhaps you do not believe chimps, despite their incredibly close relationship to humans, should be granted moral considerability. For me, the lump reappears in my throat each time I write or tell this story. I have seen chimps in the wild. I know them to be highly intelligent and wonderful creatures. I have looked in their eyes and seen my cousins.
So, to me, it is clear that at a minimum all sentient creatures have moral considerability.
There are a lot of other things to think about in moral considerability. For example, do members of endangered species have greater moral considerability than members of thriving species? Do species have moral considerability or merely individuals? What about non-sentient or not very intelligent species? Is there a sliding scale where perhaps lab chimps get more than lab monkeys and both get more than lab rats and lab mice? What about the trees in a forest? What about the species that depend on them from the very small to the large?
I even remember some discussion about whether to destroy the last vial of live smallpox virus. One part of the discussion was a practical one about the inability to recreate the smallpox vaccine if necessary without the virus on hand. However, another part of the discussion asked the question of whether it is immoral to deliberately destroy an entire species.
In my research for this post, I even came across a discussion about the moral considerability of extraterrestrial life. Since I’ve heard a bit before, I’m going to guess that this has to do with the risk of infecting extraterrestrial bodies with Earth life during space exploration. There is a huge issue with ensuring that a space ship or even space probe is biologically sterile before sending it anywhere that may have life, for example, Europa.
Sticking with the only life we know to exist, that on Earth, I personally feel that there are many species to which I would grant moral considerability. Beginning with the obvious, I would include all primates and all cetaceans. Less obviously, I have seen high degrees of intelligence (no, I’m not necessarily claiming the same level as for great apes and dolphins on all of these) in all cats, canids (dogs, wolves, etc), bears, pinipeds, sirenians, elephants, and many others.
Birds should get some special mention. Some birds are amazingly intelligent. Crows have been observed making tools in the wild and storing them for later. African grey parrots can be taught English and can play the Sesame Street game of one of these things is different. Prostitution has been observed in Adelie penguins. A green heron was observed fly fishing for hours by repeatedly plucking a feather from the water and putting it upstream and watching for fish that come to check it out.
Then I get a little insane, by many other peoples’ standards. To a lesser degree than the sentiences, I even personally take care not to harm spiders, dragonflies (My wife and I actually rescue rather a lot of these from drowning when paddling our canoe.), frogs (Frogs get three points, one for being cute; one for eating mosquitoes and one for being a great indicator species for the health of an ecosystem.), snakes, crocodilians (interesting factoid: mother alligators care for their young for a year)
In fact, I’m prepared to grant varying degrees of moral considerability to rather a lot of multicellular life. I’m not a big fan of insects and arachnids (ticks) that steal my blood. However, even there, I recognize that they are an important part of the food chain and do feel a mild twinge of regret at wasting food when I slap one.
So, to whom do you grant moral considerability? What do you use to draw the line? Or, like me, do you see it as a sliding scale? If so, who is high on your list?
Now, on to even deeper issues stemming from moral considerability. If other species have moral considerability, does our position as de facto stewards of the biosphere, or at least the multi-cellular portion of it, create for us a moral imperative to care for the environment in ways that respect the rights of other species? I claim yes. How are we doing at this job? I claim very badly indeed.
As the cause of the sixth great extinction event on this planet, already greater than the one 65.3 million years ago (MYA) that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs and some say greater than the previous record holder, the Permian/Triassic extinction 250 MYA, I have to question whether we are a moral species at all.
Perhaps, individuals of our species may have very strong morals, but taken as a whole, our species does not have any morals. Thus far, even in light of political environmental movements, we are making little or no progress in this regard. As someone who cares deeply about wildlife, is it any wonder I have become so misanthropic?
A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few to help me show animals with moral considerability. All have appeared on prior posts.
If none of the above do it for you, how about the creature with the largest brain on the planet at an incredible 20 pounds? I just realized that it may not be obvious to everyone. The photo below is a sperm whale.