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From Squirrel, version FIVE!


Following such arguments, a case can be made that there is no direct[1] moral reason for the preferential treatment of a severely cognitively impaired human over a NHA of high cognitive complexity, like a chimp. (R. Frey, 1988; Mcmahan, 2007; Singer, 1993). Pluhar and Horta counter that instead of lessening the interests of some humans, moral reasoning could lead to enhancing the interests of NHA who do not meet the criteria (Horta, 2014; E. Pluhar, 1988). But for some this conclusion nonetheless appears obnoxious. There is a strong intuition that a member of the human community has ‘something’ that counts beyond her individual capacities and interests.

One way of conceptualising this, while seeking to avoid the claim of speciesism, is to assert, as Mary Midgley does, that relational-bonds are morally significant. She writes:

An emotional, rather than rational preference for our own species is… a necessary part of our social nature, in that same way that a preference for our own children is, and needs no more justification… (Midgley, 1998)

In a rescue situation, to justify saving the human rather than a squirrel by citing the human’s greater interests in not dying, for example, would, in Midgley’s view, be ‘one thought too many’. It certainly makes sense that one’s child matters more to one than does a stranger’s child, and few egalitarian theorists ignore claims based on special relationships. Utilitarianism, for example, recognises the social benefit of each set of parents looking after their own children. Nonetheless, this does not imply that one’s own child has higher moral status. A ‘natural’ psychological or emotional response does not confer moral justification. It is natural for humans to favour those who seem familiar – members of their own ‘tribe’ – but the equality of all humans is a foundational principle in all more theories I am familiar with.

Agent-related reasons can be divergent from agent-neutral reasons. This is a point made by Thomas Nagel, who claims that ‘the clash of personal and impersonal standpoints is one of the most pressing problems’ (Nagel, 1995). Yet agents are capable of taking an impersonal perspective and recognising that just as their own child is precious to them, so too is their neighbour’s child to their neighbour: relational-bonds are significant, but universalizable in that they effect the interests of all social animals. And to restrict their force to one species appears to be a claim which does require further justification. There will be humans who do not feel such relatedness; more relevantly, there will be humans who have formed a cross-species relational bond which they deem as meaningful as those with other humans. An availability bias might lead us to doubt this, but so might the bias generated by millennia of claims of human exceptionalism.

Midgley’s claim that familial bonds can be analogously extended to encompass the entirety of Homo sapiens and no other species seems to me to conform to Horta’s description of anthropocentrism: a theory that seeks to justify premises that are favourable to humans which do not stand up to strong argument.

[1] There may be indirect reasons – the interests of family members who would be harmed. (Mcmahan, 2007)

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