Who Matters?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lately I’ve been thinking again about a question of moral philosophy that has long interested me. This is the question of who matters. Most of the time, when we talk about moral philosophy, we talk about what matters. Answers to that question vary–some propose that happiness is what matters, or suffering, or virtue, or equality, or liberty, or some other value or set of values. But whose happiness matters? Whose suffering? Whose virtue, equality, or liberty? This is something we don’t talk about as often, but different views about these matters have profound consequences for our politics and have serious consequences for ordinary people.

The way I see it, there are three kinds of answers people give to the question of “who matters”, each of which has a number of subordinate theories. These are:

  1. The Animalist View–all beings that meet a standard for material composition are morally important, irrespective of their capacities or their relationships.
  2. The Capacity View–all beings that meet a standard of mental or psychological ability are morally important, irrespective of their material composition or their relationships.
  3. The Reciprocity View–all beings that meet a standard of mutual cooperation are morally important, irrespective of their material composition or their capacities.

Let’s unpack each of these and discuss some of their subordinate theories.

Animalist Views

The simplest moral views are animalist. An animalist starts with the presumption that they themselves are valuable and extends this presumption to everything that is composed of similar material to themselves. The inclusiveness of the view depends on how broadly “similar material” is interpreted. It is helpful to imagine a ladder of possible views. The most inclusive views are at the top of the ladder while the most exclusive views are at the bottom:

  1. Anti-Biocentrism–all matter is morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
  2. Anti-Zoocentrism–all living things are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
  3. Total Animalism–all animals are morally valuable. This view has some popularity, but most people who care about animals have capacity views rather than animalist views.
  4. Mammalianism–all mammals are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
  5. Primatism–all primates are morally valuable. This is also a fringe view.
  6. Humanism–all human beings are morally valuable. Many major religions are humanist in this sense, including Christianity and Islam.
  7. Moral Racism–all human beings of a given race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, or orientation are morally valuable, but other kinds of human beings are expendable. This is the fascist view, but there are many people who profess to believe in a religion with humanist tenets who are really moral racists.
  8. Kinism–all human beings belonging to a given family or klan are morally valuable, but other kinds of human beings with different bloodlines are expendable. Think Walter White on Breaking Bad or Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.
  9. Moral Solipsism–only the self’s composition can be known, so only the self matters, all others only matter insofar as this serves the self.

Capacity Views

Some moral theorists believe that animalist theories are too arbitrary. They question whether beings can be said to have intrinsic value independent of their capacities to feel or think things. They start with the presumption that they themselves are valuable and extend this presumption to all beings that can do similar kinds of things and/or have similar kinds of experiences. Once again, the inclusiveness of a capacity view will depend on how broadly “similar” is interpreted. Here’s the ladder of views, again with the most inclusive at the top and the most exclusive at the bottom:

  1. Sentience–all sentient beings are morally valuable (i.e. those that can feel pain and/or happiness). This is an increasingly popular view. Peter Singer is one noteworthy adherent.
  2. Sapience–all sapient beings are morally valuable (i.e. those that are self-conscious and reasoning). This is very much like humanism, but it also includes other potential forms of intelligent life that have not yet been encountered.
  3. Genius–all beings of exceptional intelligence or ability in some relevant area are morally valuable. This is a fringe view.
  4. Moral Solipsism–only the self’s capacity can be known, so only the self matters, all others only matter insofar as this serves the self.

Reciprocity Views

Some moral theorists are dissatisfied by both capacity and animalist views because in our society, it is impossible to know that others will hold the same moral views we hold. This means that if we show indiscriminate concern for everyone, regardless of how others act, we cannot be sure that they will return the concern we show. This leaves moral actors open to exploitation and free riding by others. Reciprocity views demand that others be willing and capable of returning the moral actor’s concern. Usually a reciprocity view accompanies an animalist or capacity view and is used to qualify that view. For instance, a person with a reciprocity view who also thinks that only sentient creatures can matter will care about all reciprocating sentient creatures. He will not care about sentient creatures that do not reciprocate or reciprocating creatures that are not sentient. Here’s a ladder of reciprocity views, again going from inclusive at the top to exclusive at the bottom:

  1. Enlightened Indirect Reciprocity–any person who is willing to contribute indirectly to the moral actor through the moral actor’s wider society should be welcomed and shown concern by the moral actor. This includes foreign allies and trade partners, tourists and sanctioned visitors, and all fellow citizens–including potential willing additions to the citizenry, such as immigrants and refugees. This is more inclusive than we usually see in contemporary societies.
  2. Indirect Reciprocity–any person who contributes indirectly to the moral actor through the moral actor’s wider society should be shown moral concern by the moral actor. This includes all of the above except for willing refugees and immigrants, whose indirect reciprocity does not begin until after they are admitted to a society and therefore need not be shown concern until they are admitted. This view is quite common today, though people are still much more likely to show concern when the reciprocal relationship is more direct (e.g. family members and friends).
  3. Communal Direct Reciprocity–any person who regularly directly contributes to the moral actor should be shown moral concern by the moral actor. This only includes the beings with which a moral actor has standing relationships. For instance, if a moral actor regularly buys bread from a baker, he has a regular relationship of direct contribution with the baker and must show the baker moral concern. But if the baker lives in a different city and the actor never buys bread from that specific baker, the baker’s indirect contribution to society is does not meet the standard of broad direct reciprocity. This form of reciprocity often arises in isolated communities whose members have no sense of being part of a greater whole, and the remains of this mode of thinking continue to have influence today.
  4. Direct Reciprocity–any person who does something that benefits the moral actor is owed concern until the favor is repaid or the trade is completed, but no more beyond that. Under direct reciprocity, if you agree to buy bread from a baker, you have to pay the baker but your obligations go no further than this. This form of reciprocity often arises in extremely unstable, anarchic situations when moral actors are extremely mistrustful of one another.

Most people qualify their animalist or capacity views with reciprocity to some degree. While we are slowly recognizing more indirect forms of reciprocity as legitimate, we are likely to show more concern to those we directly reciprocate with as the level of reciprocity is generally higher and easier to readily comprehend. We are also likely to show more concern to another as that other’s level of concern for us rises. But some people take the view that reciprocity views are crassly egoistic and therefore inadequate, or perhaps not even moral views in the first place. This seems to me to be a mistake. Here’s my view:

I agree with the capacity theorists that animalists are too quick to assert that beings and materials have intrinsic value, and that this value must be tied to something more substantial, to something the being does or experiences. I’m inclined to think that sentience matters because I think that happiness and suffering are what matter and all those who are sentient are capable of experiencing these things.

That said, I also think that in our society exploitation is too common, and that a good moral theory will show when we can waive moral concern for another being in the interest of defending ourselves or those to whom we have strong reciprocal bonds from that being’s exploitative or oppressive actions. In other words, if a being uses its capacities to harm others or fails to use its capacities to help others, I think those others are entitled to deny that being moral concern. Without this provision, I don’t see any other basis upon which to justify self-defense, and without self-defense all political movements against oppressive systems would have to be motivated by altruism alone, which unfortunately in many cases is not enough to motivate people to take potentially risky actions.

I think people ought to recognize indirect reciprocity in an enlightened way, and that means welcoming any new person who wants to reciprocate and has the capacity to do so into our societies and communities, and treating all indirect reciprocators with a minimum of civility–this means that they do not exploit, abuse, manipulate, or otherwise oppress them. That said, I think people have stronger duties to those with whom they have direct reciprocal relationships, and that it is unrealistic for moral theories to ask people to show the same concern for random fellow citizens in a distant city that they show for intimate friends and family members. If your mother calls you up and asks you to bring her soup, you have stronger objective reasons to do this than if a random person asks the same thing of you, even though that random person and your mother may make similar contributions to wider society as a whole.

The state is another matter. In my view, the state exists to show equal moral concern for the interests of all those it accepts as citizens. It should also show concern for citizens of its foreign allies and trade partners, but this is secondary to its primary duty to safeguard the interests of its own citizens, because its own citizens are the ones making direct contributions to its economy, technology, stability, and general welfare. It should admit all those who wish to be citizens into its ranks, provided that these individuals can contribute and are willing to do so. Importantly, because the state is responsible for showing equal concern, it bears ultimate responsibility whenever it fails to do this and this causes its citizens to become marginalized and anti-social. This means that when a citizen commits a crime, the state is ultimately responsible for failing to provide the citizen with an adequate education and adequate life opportunities, so the state cannot dismiss the value of citizens who fail to reciprocate–it must recognize its moral culpability and work to correct its error via rehabilitation and mental health care.

Ultimately, it would be best if we could create a social order in which all beings could be integrated into a system of moral reciprocity, such that no beings were victims of exploitation. In those kind of conditions, it would be possible to have an animalist or capacity view without any reservations or qualifications. Unfortunately, human beings are not the sort of beings that can easily be sorted into one great big reciprocal system. Today there are too many individuals and groups that desire independence from others on the basis of some crude reactionary distinction that has little to do with morality–nationality, culture, ethnicity, religion, race, and so on. Others, such as the libertarians, are resistant to recognizing the depth of their interdependence on others, preferring to rationalize exploitative behaviors by inventing distorted definitions of “freedom”, “liberty”, and “equality” to manipulate others into accepting a morally inadequate status quo. Even if we were to deal with these things, people would still have a tendency to prioritize their more direct relationships over their indirect ones because the benefits they receive from direct relationships are either larger or easier to see. At this point in time, it is not feasible to transcend these constraints as a society. Specific individuals may be capable of following more ambitious moral programs, but it is not possible to implement these kinds of moral systems on a grand scale.

What would make more ambitious moral systems possible? In his Foundation novels, Isaac Asimov suggested that people in the distant future might use transhumanism to share their thoughts, feelings, wisdom, and knowledge with one another, allowing everyone to feel the happiness and suffering of others across wide distances. Under this kind of system, the distinction between the interests of the self and the interests of others collapses entirely, enabling moral actors to practice more altruistic moral behaviors without subjecting themselves to exploitation. But we are a long way off from anything of this sort. In the meantime, we should encourage people to follow the most inclusive moral system they can reasonably follow without subjecting themselves to exploitation and without extending moral concern on an arbitrary basis. That means we should aim for a sentience capacity view, but we must also recognize the legitimacy of reciprocity concerns.