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Capacities, Context and the Moral Status of Animals

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According to a widely shared intuition, normal, adult humans require greater moral concern than normal, adult animals in at least some circumstances. Even the most steadfast defenders of animals’ moral status attempt to accommodate this intuition, often by holding that humans’ higher-level capacities (intellect, linguistic ability, and so on) give rise to a greater number of interests, and thus the likelihood of greater satisfaction, thereby making their lives more valuable. However, the moves from capacities to interests, and from interests to the likelihood of satisfaction, have up to now gone unexamined and undefended. I argue that context plays a morally significant role both in the formation of an individual's capacities, and in the determination of the individual's interests and potential for satisfaction based on those capacities. Claims about an individual's capacities and interests are typically presented as unconditional; but on closer examination, they are revealed to be contingent on tacit assumptions about context. Until we develop an understanding of how to account for the role of context within our moral theories, attempts to defend special moral concern for human beings based on their superior capacities are less firmly grounded than is commonly thought.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, University of Ottawa, Canada

Publication date: January 1, 2004


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