To have moral standing is to be the kind of thing that should be taken into account in ethical deliberation. Asking the question of moral standing raises the prospects of there being many kinds of things that count, and in different ways.
One standard account that we find from Hedonic Utilitarians like Peter Singer and Bentham is the idea that someone counts, ethically, if they can suffer (Singer 2012). Animals count because they can suffer. I like the hedonic account, but it has problems. On this account, if I overcome suffering, I would no longer be in the category of things who should be taken seriously. This disincentivises me from overcoming suffering. That’s strange.
Another ubiquitous account of moral standing is unabashedly anthropocentric. The silly version of this theory says that anything that is human is important or should be respected. This is silly because tumors, acne and dandruff can be human: we should not respect them (cf. Marquis 2007, 441). Perhaps to avoid these problems, refined anthropocentrists argue that to ethically count one must be able to reason, and this requires the kinds of representative abilities humans have (Gauthier 2007, 623; cf. Korsgaard 1996, 93; cf. 2007). Tumors wouldn’t count on this account, but adult humans would. Historically, one finds this account in Kant, who not only identified moral standing with the ability to be like him (think in the manner of the categorical imperative) but correlatively argued that we have no obligations to nonhuman animals, but we should be nice to them so we don’t developed dispositions of cruelty towards humans (Kant 1996, 6:443; 1974, 5:298-303). The reason we have no obligations to nonhuman animals on Kant’s account is that they do not reason like Kant (in accordance with the categorical imperative). Of course, this puts babies and the senile at a disadvantage too. On Kant’s account, if I can spare humans my cruelty while I torture puppies for fun, I would be doing nothing wrong (Wood 1998, 194-5). By parity of reasoning, the same would apparently hold true for babies and the senile.
Kant is correct for identifying moral standing with reason, for this does indeed separate tumors from people: tumors are not reasonable, but people should be. But Kant gets reason wrong. Here I note one problem.
There are at least two approaches that one can take to reason. One can treat it as a norm or a standard to judge cognitive behavior, or one can treat it as the facts of how we reason. If reason is a norm and if reason defines persons, then we could identify a person as the kind of entity that has an interest in being reasonable—whether they are able to be reasonable or not. Dogs, small babies and the senile have an interest in being reasonable, hence they would be persons, whether they are reasonable or not. If reason is the same as how we (adult humans) think and if to be a person is to be reasonable, then anything that deviates from our psychology would not be a person.
Which account of reason is correct: the normative account or the account that identifies reason with our psychology? If it is possible for us to be irrational, then reason cannot be identical with the laws of our psychology for the laws of our psychology are compatible with irrationality. This is old news in the history of philosophy (Frege 1894, 1980; Husserl 2001, vol.1, p.41). What is often not noticed is that if this criticism of psychologistic accounts of reason is correct, naturalistic, descriptive and speciesist accounts of logic are in trouble. Accounts of personhood based on these accounts of reason are also in trouble.
Enter the Yoga Sūtra
The Yoga Sūtra account of moral standing starts the book off, finishes it, and peppers the intercessions. To get to it, we need a bit of sūtra sleuthing.
At the start, Patañjali tells us that:
• Yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ (I.2)
• Tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe’vasthānam (I.3)
• Vṛttisārūpyamitaratra (1.4)
In my translation (Patañjali 2008) I translated this as:
• Yoga is the control of the (moral) character of thought.
• Then, the seer can abide in its essence.
• Otherwise, there is identification with the character of thought.
At the end of the YS, Patañjali tells us,
Puruṣārthaśūnyānāṁ guṇānāṁ pratiprasavaḥ kaivalyaṁ svarūpapratiṣṭhā vā citiśaktiriti (IV.34)
I translated this as:
• With no other goal of the person remaining (for they have all been fulfilled), the qualities (of Nature) resolve themselves back into the flow (of Nature). Then (the person) stands only on its own form, or on (pure) power of knowing. This is Isolation. That is all.
I think now that this final reference to standing on one’s own form (IV.34), and the earlier reference to abiding in one’s essence (I.3) are referring to the same state. And the connection is the idea of abstraction: kaivalya. I used to believe that kaivalya is the Yoga Sūtra term for “autonomy.” But I’m starting to believe that it really is abstraction (and that autonomy is to be understood in terms of abstraction). What’s the connection between abstraction and abiding in one’s own essence?
The first three lines explain it. When we control our relationship to thought (I.2), we live a life that is authentic (I.3). Failing this control, we identify with how things seem to us. Or, put another way, when we live a life that reflects who we are (I.3), we abstract (kaivalya) from the things we contemplate (I.2), and when we fail to abstract, we identify with what we contemplate (I.4).
If I were to provide a gloss (something like a paraphrase), it would look like this:
• When we put critical distance between ourselves and thought-content (I.2)
• We live a life that reflects our rational essence (I.3, and IV.34)
• Otherwise, we identify with our thoughts (I.4)
What is a Person
This account of the authentic life implies something about what people are. A person is something that has an interest in being abstract, which is to say, not identifying with thoughts and feelings. Put another way, a person is something with an interest in abstracting from contexts and content. If logic is the abstraction from all content, then the Yoga Sūtra position is that people are ideally logical, and have an interest in being logical.
In real terms, what is a person? Tumors wouldn’t be a person: there is no obvious sense in which they have an interest in abstracting. From a tumor-y point of view: they have an interest in not abstracting from their host. But persons, in contrast, have an interest in abstracting, and when they can abstract from tumors, they are free from cancer! The kinds of entities that have an interest in abstracting from contexts and content are critters like us: animals! Indeed, it is difficult to identify health for a person (animal) except to note that an animal is healthy when they can control their relationship to content in their environment. Illness for animals (persons) just is the impeding of the ability to abstract from content.
Plants would apparently be special cases: they have interests, but it is difficult to understand these interests in terms of being able to abstract from contexts and contents. They need a to stay put in a convenient environment. They are more like tumors. Indeed, perhaps tumors are just special kinds of plants (or perhaps plants are relatively manageable tumors)!
For similar reasons, a good case could be made that Planets too would be people… I will leave that for another post.
Frege, Gottlob. 1894. “Rezension von: E.G. Husserl, Philosophie der Arithmetik I.” Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik:313-32.
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Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Logical Investigations. Translated by J.N. Findlay. 2 ed. 2 vols, International Library of Philosophy. London; New York: Routledge.
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———. 1996. The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary J. Gregor. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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———. 2007. “Facing the Animal You See in the Mirror.” Harvard Review of Philosophy no. 16:2-7.
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Patañjali. 2008. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra. Translation, Commentary and Introduction by Shyam Ranganathan. Delhi: Penguin Black Classics.
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Wood, Allen. 1998. “Kant on Duties Regarding Nonrational Nature.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplement no. LXXII:189-210.