This lesson explains the concept of moral standing. Using modern examples and history, it also defines the terms anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, and biocentrism.
Today's lesson on moral standing is both simple and complex. It's simple because the definition of moral standing is pretty easy to grasp. It's complex because there are very, very differing and heated opinions on the topic. With this little oxymoron of sorts, let's jump into what the term moral standing actually means. We'll then take a look at how it plays out in our world.
Academically speaking, moral standing is the system we use to place value on the people and things around us. It's the measuring stick we use to decide whether or not something stands alone as worthy of respect. If we believe someone has moral standing, we are saying It makes a moral difference how we treat them. Going a step further, if we give someone or something moral standing, we are claiming our behavior toward them should take their best interests into account for their sake and not just because it benefits us. In other words, they have intrinsic value all on their own. They are not mere tools to be used or factors to be manipulated. If we believe something has moral standing, it matters simply because it matters and therefore, should be treated as such. Things that are assigned moral standing by a society or culture are expected to be treated with morality, or to make it simple, with kindness and consideration.
Real World Example
Working to bring this definition home, here's a modern, yet slightly absurd, scenario. A young couple buys a dog. They love and enjoy the dog. They take it everywhere they go, and they call it their baby. Fast forward three years, and the couple brings home their first real baby.
Unfortunately, the dog growls when the woman holds the baby and snarls when the man pays attention to the baby. Eventually, the dog bites the baby, and the once beloved dog goes bye-bye. After all, you can't have a dog biting a baby! Yes, they may have enjoyed the dog, but when push comes to shove, the dog gets the boot. He's worn out his welcome.
Fast forward three more years. The same couple brings home their second baby. Their now toddler acts aggressively toward the baby. He cries when his mom holds it, and yells when his dad plays with it. Eventually, he gets so jealous he bites the baby and bites him bad!
Question? Does the toddler go the same way as the dog? Is he hauled off to the nearest kid version of the SPCA? Of course not! That would be absurd! Instead, the parents explain that biting is bad, tuck little Bobbie the Biter into bed, and then they read as many books as they can find on sibling jealousy and aggression.
Now, why the difference in reaction between the biting dog and the biting child? Why does the dog get the boot while the child gets to stay? Although it's a bit of a ridiculous question, our answer for today is 'moral standing.' The child has moral standing, while the dog does not.
The child's parents (along with society) believe it makes a moral difference how he is treated. Unlike the dog, they won't just get rid of him because he misbehaves. They will continue to act in a way that is best for him without regard to what he can give back. The same can't always be said for the poor Fidos of the world. Although the couple once said they loved their dog, it could be argued they really just liked the benefits of him. They liked his wagging tail, and they liked being dog owners. However, as soon as his negatives outweighed his positives, poor Fido was out of luck! On his own, he didn't have the moral standing needed to put up with his behavior. For this reason, giving him away (or even worse) did not seem like an immoral decision.
Moral Standing in History
Unlike the differing opinions on the moral standing of animals, modern culture (at least on paper) declares that all humans should be treated with respect, morality, and dignity. In other words, human life equals moral standing. However, one only needs to turn on the evening news to see that this is not always the case. From genocide to racial prejudice, we see instances where humans are treated as though they have no value.
Even worse, history has given us countless cases of moral standing being used to not only cause, but also justify, atrocious abuse. For instance, in ancient Rome, prisoners and slaves were sent to the arena to die while spectators cheered. Why? Because to the Romans, these groups had no moral standing. They were toys, mere objects of entertainment with no right or need for moral treatment.
In our very history, countless African Americans were ripped from their families and sold into slavery. Why? Because to Western society, at large, the dark skinned man had no moral standing. Therefore, treating him as cattle to be bought, branded, and sold mattered not.
Schools of Thought
This leads us to a discussion on how moral standing is assigned. Since there are so many opinions on this matter, we will take a quick look at three of the most popular schools of thought. As we do this, we will stick to definitions only. Yes, many opinions abound, but for today, they'll stay on the sideline.
The oldest view of moral standing is that of anthropocentrism. With 'anthro' meaning man and 'centrism' denoting center, the anthropocentrism school of moral standing holds that humans, and only humans, have moral standing. Short and to the point, moral consideration is reserved for humans alone.
A more inclusive school of thought is that of sentiocentrism. With 'sentio' denoting feelings or sensation and 'centrism' again denoting center, we can say sentiocentrism maintains that anything that feels has moral standing. Since a dog can feel, it has moral standing. So does a pig, a goat, and an owl. However, a tree does not have the capacity to feel; therefore, it lacks moral standing.
Our last, an even more generous view on moral standing, is that of biocentrism. With 'bio' meaning life, bio-centrism maintains that all life has moral standing. Whether it be a person, a dog, a tree, or a plant, if it's alive it is worth our moral consideration. In other words, we should give it value and treat it with respect.
If someone or something is believed to have moral standing, it makes a moral difference how we treat them. For this reason, our behavior toward them should take their best interest into account for their sake and not just because it benefits us. If something has moral standing, it has value all on its own, and it should be treated morally, with respect and consideration.
There are several different schools of thought when it comes to moral standing. Three of the most popular are anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, and biocentrism.
- Anthropocentrism, the oldest school of thought, maintains that humans, and only humans, have moral standing.
- Sentiocentrism holds that anything that feels has moral standing.
- Biocentrism argues that all life has moral standing.