Moral Status: Definition, Philosophy & Criteria

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will define and describe the concept of moral status,and identify the suggested criteria for moral status, including Kantian and Cartesian theories.


Mahatma Gandhi said, ''To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than the life of a human being.''

Ghandi viewed all life as equal, but many believe that some organisms have a higher moral status than others. Moral status is a concept of relating ethics to the treatment of people, animals, and the environment through a hierarchy. It encompasses the degree to which various living things deserve consideration.

Full Moral Status (FMS) is the category for receiving full ethical consideration, which is usually applied to healthy, cognitively-able adults. Other organisms may have a degree of moral status, but not full moral status. Let's examine the grounds for determining moral status.


A variety of theories of emerged related to the ethical treatment of animals that are grounded in degrees of moral status. In this section, we will discuss some of these philosophies, including religion/philosophy, Kantian theories, and Cartesian theories.


Aristotle was one of the first to provide an opinion about the hierarchy of various organisms. Aristotle concluded that animals are superior to plants because animals are capable of conscious thought. Thus it follows that humans are superior to animals because of their ability to use reason in lieu of instinct.

St. Thomas Aquinas promoted the 13th century Christian view that animals exist only for the benefit of humans. According to this view, since animals are incapable of making thoughtful decisions, there is no moral obligation to consider their needs beyond what is necessary to serve our purposes.

Kantian Theories

In the 1700s, Immanuel Kant suggested that willpower is the key to having moral value. Animals and humans are both driven by instincts, but the human ability to consider their options and make decisions increases their intrinsic value.

Kantian theories focus on the characteristics that humans have that animals do not, such as autonomy, relationships, communication, and self-awareness. Consequently, animals do not have the same value of humans.

Cartesian Theories

In the 1600s, Rene Descartes theorized that while animals may appear to have conscious thoughts, in reality they only respond to instinct and learned behavior. In contrast, humans have the ability to generate new thoughts and actions rather than simple response reactions. Additionally, people are able to communicate these thoughts. Descartes' position further articulates that animals are comprised of their physical beings while people are immortal souls.

In the 1990s, theorists such as Peter Harrison and Peter Carruthers have backed up Descartes with thoughts that there are no logical arguments that animals are capable of conscious thought. Further, Caruthers proposed that only humans are capable of thinking at high cognitive levels.

Criteria for Moral Status

In ethics, moral status matters because it influences other debates, such as animal research, abortion, stem cell research, eugenics, and euthanasia. In this section, we will discuss the various grounds by which organisms are assigned moral status.

Sophisticated Cognitive Capacity

The Kantian theories of moral status propose an all-or-nothing view, meaning either an organism has full moral status or no moral status. The deciding factor that determines FMS is based on the intellectual or emotional abilities of the organism.

In its most extreme form, this view of moral status would put all unimpaired adult humans in a category of having moral status while plants, animals, cognitively disabled people, and infants would not.

Ability to Develop Sophisticated Cognitive Capacity

Some theorists suggest that moral status should be expanded to accommodate for infants and toddlers who do not yet have a sophisticated cognitive capacity, but have the potential to develop it. This view places the unimpaired fetus, infant, and toddler above plants and animals, but still does not accommodate for the cognitively disabled.

Rudimentary Cognitive Capacity

Another view applies moral status to any being that exhibits certain characteristics, such as sentience, which is the ability to feel pleasure, pain, and/or emotion.

In essence, this belief includes the cognitively disabled and infants, but also would encompass all animals and insects as having an equal moral status to humans. Whether a fetus or plant also shares in having moral status depends on how rudimentary cognitive capacity is defined by the theorist.

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