Foreigners, Foetuses, and Fauna

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, I’ve been hitting on a group of issues that are usually treated as separate, but which I have now come to view as inextricably interlinked. Any answer to one must be compatible with one’s answers to the others. All of these issues come under the umbrella of forms of the broader question “to whom do we have moral obligations”. Today I seek to put together my responses to these different issues and show my answer to the broader question to be not merely consistent, but the only consistent response available.

“To whom do we have moral obligations” is asked in a variety of more applied, circumscribed ways by our society all the time:

Do we have duties to Foreigners?

  1. Do we have duties to prospective immigrants?
  2. What, if anything, constitutes a just war?
  3. How may we conduct ourselves in war?

Do we have duties to Future People?

  1. Do we have duties to future generations?
  2. Do we have duties to foetuses?

Do we have duties to Non-Human Persons?

  1. Do we have duties to aliens?
  2. Do we have duties to animals?
  3. Plants? Fungi? Bacteria? The ecosystem at large?

I propose that our answer to any one of these questions must ultimately be applicable to all of these questions. So for instance, one popular view is that sentience, the capacity of a being to feel pleasure and pain and to otherwise be minimally conscious, is indicative of moral value.

Under this view, we have duties to animals, and many people use this view to justify vegetarianism. But what happens when we apply this view elsewhere? Sentience gives us answers which, in isolation, might appear acceptable, but which, taken together, are a mess:

  1. We have the same duties to all people everywhere, regardless of whether they are fellow citizens or foreigners, because all people are sentient. This means that rich countries have a moral obligation to spend all of their money attempting to solve the problems of people in poor countries. It means we can only fight wars in self-defence, and when we are at war, we need some way of deciding who we can kill and who we cannot that is not arbitrary. It means we have to permit all immigration, regardless of whether or not the immigrants in question have any intention of contributing to the community they join.
  2. Foetuses are sentient from a relatively early point in the pregnancy, so for the most part, we can’t have abortions. We have no obvious answer to the question of future people, because they are not yet sentient.
  3. We have the same duties to aliens and animals that we have to people. We have a moral obligation to devote our resources to improving the standard of living of aliens and animals. There is no specific reason why it is better to help a poor person than it is to help a cat. We are just as obliged to defend a gazelle from a lion as we are an infant, but we cannot let the lions starve, and so we have no obvious means of dealing with carnivorous animals. Do we synthesise their nutrients in test tubes and give it to them intravenously? In order to do this, we would obliged to capture all carnivorous animals. We also would have to manage the fertility of the animals carnivores feed on in order to prevent them from overpopulating. We would not be permitted to hunt them to manage their populations, as this would be murder. All of this would be extremely expensive, and again, our obligation to do this is just as strong as our obligation to help poor people.

Many people embrace a higher standard for personhood, conferring it when a being exhibits human-like qualities of sapience. This spares us the agony of having to treat animals like people, but it doesn’t resolve the problem of rich countries being obliged to give away all of their wealth to help people in Africa. It’s also very arbitrary. Where do we draw the line between sapience and sentience? When is a foetus a person? It is arbitrary to say that the distinction is at birth, as we presently do. If we say that it is merely the potential for sapience that matters, then is not every ejaculation not in the uterus of an ovulating female genocide?

To resolve these problems, I propose that we appeal not to the biological or psychological nature of an entity, but to its relationship to us–its capacity for reciprocity. Under the reciprocity view, we have duties only to those beings that are willing and capable of accepting and fulfilling obligations to us in turn. This provides this alternative package of answers, which I believe is more appealing in aggregate:

  1. States exist to serve moral communities of reciprocating people, and exist to serve only the interests of those that are willing and capable of reciprocity with that community. States have duties to reciprocating immigrants and to reciprocating foreign states, but no duties to immigrants and states that cannot or will not reciprocate. Individuals only have duties to fellow citizens. A person in a rich country can choose to help a poor person in Africa if he desires to, but he is not morally obligated to do so. Rich states are obligated to accept immigrants who are willing to reciprocate, but they do not have to take people who will leech off of their welfare states. States can go to war for the benefit of their citizens when doing so is the most effective option available to them, but they cannot attack friendly, reciprocating states. When at war, states may fight in whatever way most reduces the harm to their own citizens.
  2. Future people are like immigrants–we only have duties to them to the extent that we believe they are willing and capable of reciprocity. We are not required to grant citizenship to foetuses or infants incapable of meeting that standard. Abortion and, in some cases, infanticide, may be permissible. If we choose to keep babies that are not capable of reciprocating, we do so not because we have duties to them, but because we desire to help them. We have duties to preserve a functioning planet and society for the next generation insofar as we expect that generation to reciprocate by helping us in our old age. If we have no expectation of that, we may not have duties to non-existent people, but we may nonetheless wish to act in their interest insofar as we care about our children and grandchildren and consider them to be our collective legacy.
  3. We have duties to aliens and animals only to the extent that aliens and animals are willing and capable of reciprocity. We have obligations to pets if we derive enjoyment from their companionship. We have obligations to animals that perform work for us, like horses. We do not have obligations to animals we raise purely for the purpose of consumption or that exist in the wild and do not interact with us to speak of. However, we may nonetheless wish to help these animals purely on the basis that we like them or enjoy them.

Taken together, this theory does not leave us with unreasonable obligations to foreigners, foetuses, or fauna. It restricts obligation to cases in which reciprocal relations are present. It still leaves scope for choosing to act beyond our obligations–we can help foreigners, foetuses, or fauna because we desire to. Helping non-reciprocating beings is not impermissible, it is merely not required.

If the reader believes I theorise wrongly in any one of these areas, disproving my argument requires an alternative principle to reciprocity that does not lead to major inconsistencies or unreasonable demands in any of the other areas. Arguing against abortion while simultaneously denying the extensive demands of animal welfare is a tall order without reciprocity, and defending animals without opposing abortion is similarly hard. So too is coming up with a reason to deny an obligation to give incapable immigrants access to our collective resources or to refuse to give away all of our money to people in Africa that does not rely on some reciprocity formulation. In all my readings, I have not come across a more comprehensive solution to this array of problems in moral philosophy.