Agency and Moral Status

in Journal of Moral Philosophy
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According to our traditional conception of agency, most human beings are agents and most, if not all, nonhuman animals are not. However, recent developments in philosophy and psychology have made it clear that we need more than one conception of agency, since human and nonhuman animals are capable of thinking and acting in more than one kind of way. In this paper, I make a distinction between perceptual and propositional agency, and I argue that many nonhuman animals are perceptual agents and that many human beings are both kinds of agent. I then argue that, insofar as human and nonhuman animals exercise the same kind of agency, they have the same kind of moral status, and I explore some of the moral implications of this idea.

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Rowlands (2012) argues that nonhuman animals are capable of acting on moral reasons, since they are capable of acting on moral emotions that respond to moral reasons. I agree. But as Rowlands notes, the capacity to act on moral reasons, while enough to make one a "moral subject," is not enough to make one a moral agent in the traditional sense.

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Likewise, Dennett (1995) claims that a "Popperian creature" is capable of preselecting from "all the possible behaviors or actions, weeding out the truly stupid options before risking them in the harsh world" (pp. 374–5).

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Gallagher (2008) argues that direct perception plays a central role in social cognition. Insofar as this argument is correct, it supports the idea that perceptual agency plays a central role in shaping not only our physical behavior but our social behavior as well.

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