Are Non-Human Entities Entitled to Moral Consideration?

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Perhaps the most important question moral philosophy can ask is: who or what is entitled to moral rights? When we discuss differing moral philosophies such as utilitarianism or deontology we do so with the underlying assumption that human beings are centric to the moral code. Should we assume this? Historically speaking humans have only been present on this planet for 100,000 years. The planet itself has been around 4.6 billion years, so the environment and animal life existed long before intelligent human life emerged. Why then, is morality generally accepted to be applied solely to humans? To answer this question I intend to discuss some of the basic tenets of morality, such as the moral community. What does membership in the moral community entail? Does not being a contributing member to the moral community mean that you are not entitled to moral consideration? The way humans deal with the topics of animal rights and environmentalism hinge upon the answer to these questions.

The moral community is comprised of a body of people who are self-aware enough to make moral decisions and contribute to and obey moral mandates laid down by the community. According to philosopher Carl Cohen, human beings are the only known moral creatures that, "lay down moral laws; for others and for themselves. Human beings are self-legislative, morally auto-nomous" (897). It is important to distinguish that it is being self-legislative and morally autonomous and not the mere fact of being biologically human that distinguishes members of the moral community. Theoretically, any species of creatures that had the same measure of self-awareness and moral thought should be granted equal membership into the moral community and all the privileges that member...

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...ogy: people may or may not be willing to make the trade-off now, but at some point humanity will.

Perhaps how the moral community treats outside entities is important in what it says about the moral community. Is it the ultimate goal of the moral community to shape society into people with empathy for other creatures, no matter how much intellect they have? It is the goal to mold humanity into people who employ responsible long-term thinking and use their resources wisely? Mistreating animals for our own purposes and exploiting the environment to an irrecoverable degree may not be morally wrong, but I cannot imagine it is a good practice to cultivate in humans either. From a logical standpoint entities outside the moral community may not be entitled to rights, but for the good of the moral community, perhaps it is better if they should be treated as if they are.
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