Commentary by Margaret Olivia Little and Jake Earl
Does a human baby have more moral status than a cat if they have similar occurrent cognitive and emotional capacities? For those not wishing to argue that mere membership in the kind ‘human being’ confers moral status, the question is a famously vexing one. It might seem that the difference in status between the cat and those reading this commentary, say, is explained by the latter’s sophisticated cognitive and emotional capacities (to reason, to care, to choose, etc.), which the cat lacks. Yet infants obviously have not (yet) obtained these capacities. More troubling still, there are humans with severe cognitive disabilities that will prevent them from ever obtaining these capacities. Must we then say infants and the cognitively disabled have the same moral status as cats?
In their article, Agnieszka Jaworska and Julie Tannenbaum offer a novel, deeply sophisticated, and fascinating theory to defend the intuition that such humans do have at least some degree of higher status than cats. The theory anchors that status in the infants’ capacity to engage in activities that could count, by virtue of reasonably being subsumed in a “person rearing relationship,” as the early, proto-stages of the very kinds of activities (reasoning, caring, choosing) whose value grounds the robust moral status of humans like you. Human infants have this capacity; no cat does. The capacity to engage in proto-versions of such status-grounding activities shares in at least some of the value of the capacity to engage in their matured versions, thus conferring higher moral status on those capable of them.
The theory begins with three key claims: First, the end that guides an activity can change what that activity is and the value that it has. Two physically identical activities can nonetheless differ in their nature and value depending on the aims under which they are subsumed: typing sentences can have the value of struggling to write one’s dissertation, or can be a much less valuable exercise of merely writing loosely related statements (246). Of course, there are various conditions that must be met for an end to transform the nature and value of activities in this way; critically, there must be a reasonable possibility of achieving the end (246-49). But when these conditions are met, ends have the power to alter or transform the value of a wide range of activities.
Second, our ends can be supplied by others besides ourselves. The ends of our teacher might transform our waxing a car into practicing martial arts; similarly, our otherwise praiseworthy activities might be worthy of regret when they have been unwittingly enlisted in a villain’s scheming. Though we may be ignorant of those ends, just in case they do counterfactually shape the form of our activities, our activities become subsumed by others’ ends and can thereby inherit at least degrees of their value (or disvalue) (246).
Third, efforts to model more sophisticated activities in an attempt to “learn by doing” qualify as incomplete realizations of the modeled skill or practice, and in so doing acquire some degree of its value (249). Even the earliest attempts can be proto-instances of a matured activity if they are directed toward developing that matured version. Efforts of a society to become just (think South Africa circa 1994), or playing to become a great tennis player, seem to share in at least some degree of the nature and value of the matured forms of the practiced activity, quite unlike half-hearted social reform or lazy tennis-playing (250-51).
Apply these three key claims to Jaworska and Tannenbaum’s central case of a cognitively normal infant – say, a 9-month old being reared by her parents (253). Many of the infant’s activities are incomplete realizations of the valuable activities of reasoning, caring, and choosing (253-55). Why? Because those activities are directed, and reasonably so, in part by the parents’ ends of teaching and developing the child into a mature (“self-standing”) person. It is more than simply peek-a-boo, it is an early lesson in rule-following; it is more than cuddling, it is an early form of emotional attachment and care for another. Playing peek-a-boo is not just a fun way to spend time, that is: like any number of other small and large efforts, it is also subsumed under the parents’ broad end of turning the infant into a reasoner, carer, and chooser. They are instances, as it were, of practicing, learning, and developing into a matured person. This is something one cannot do with a cat, however much one may try, for engaging with a cat cannot meet the reasonability constraints on the transformative power of ends. As early forms, these activities share in at least some degree of the value of those very activities more fully realized.
Now, often it is only activities, not the capacity for them, that carries value – it is the excellent tennis playing, not just the capacity to engage in it, that carries value. But the issues relevant to moral status are different. It is the capacity for reasoning, caring, and choosing – not just their discrete exercises of them – that carries value (256).
Just so with the infant’s capacities: The infant has the capacity to perform highly incompletely realized versions of status-conferring activities, whether or not any adult has actually subsumed the infant’s activities as part of a person-rearing relationship. She has those capacities just in case someone could reasonably subsume them under the end of developing her into a cognitively and emotionally mature human – a “self-standing person,” as they put it. Hence, whether or not a cognitively normal infant is being reared, she now has the capacity to engage in those proto-versions of status-conferring activities. (256-57). Exercising the capacity requires being in relationship, but the capacity for such activity inheres in the child herself. Hence, while Jaworska and Tannenbaum’s theory grounds the higher moral status of infants in a relational element, it yields objective and impartial reasons for moral regard of infants even in cases where no such relationship actually exists. (256-7)
It is a rich and fascinating theory. Some will balk at the claims about how ends, including those of others’, can transform the nature and value of activities and capacities. But the theory is deeply important for those who are friendly to these ways of understanding ontology, since it shows that such approaches have the resources for dealing with difficult questions about moral status. Indeed, much of their theory overlaps with the psychological notion of proleptic engagement – engagements that turn someone into (the next stage of) a person by treating them as already belonging in that next stage. In this article, the general idea of proleptic engagement cantilevers the intuition that it is our capacities for sophisticated cognitive function that grounds our higher moral status, thereby extending it to possession of the capacity to engage in proto-versions of the activities indicative of high moral status.
What, then, should we think of the theory? In particular, what should we think of the relational element in the explanation of infants’ high moral status? Given the modality of this grounding (it is the capacity to be in a person-rearing relationship), it does not require that there currently be a person on the scene who could engage in a relationship of developing, but that there could be. This is crucial to the view’s intuitive appeal, since most will want to say that the infant now has the capacity, even if there is no one now available to engage in the relationship.
Still, one may begin to wonder how far this goes. If there were creatures who were able to take our modest abilities and scaffold them into a matured activity valuable beyond our current ken, does that mean we (currently) have higher moral status than we thought? It seems that determining relative moral status could be difficult, if my status is fixed by my capacities to participate in relationships, and the possibility space for relationships is an unknown variable, given that it depends in large part on the abilities of possible rearers.
In the same vein, what kinds of activities count as learning depends in part on various contingent factors in the environment. Does a child with severe ADHD have the capacity to learn calculus? Many will say yes, even if it can only be achieved with the aid of medicine. But if the alien beings had a medicine that could similarly help us, in conjunction with a relationship, to develop a yet higher valued capacity (not just reasoning and caring but some jazzy, even angelic capacity), does that now give us that higher value? Or does the fact that they have an enhancement drug that would allow us to rear our cats now give them higher status?
We ask these questions to point to a broad question about just how extensive the capacity for incompletely realized activities might be, given that whether one has the capacity depends upon what others – and potentially factors in the contingent environment – are able to do.
The second half of the paper goes further yet, extending higher moral status to human beings that are now the cognitive equivalent of that 9-month old, but have no chance for developing sophisticated cognitive capacities, whether because of severe disability or a fatal disease. It might seem that Jaworska and Tannenbaum have painted themselves into a corner here, given that it is unreasonable for someone to engage such infants in a person-rearing projects (since they will never be sophisticated reasoners, carers, choosers, no matter what we do with them). However, the authors argue for an ingenious work-around for this difficulty.
Parents of infants have a special obligation to adopt the end of their flourishing, which includes developing them into a self-standing person; if the infant has some tragedy that impairs the possibility of her developing – a cognitively disabling condition, or an illness that will strike her down before she can fully develop, the parents still have an obligation to regulate the relationship by a ‘second best’ standard, doing what they can to approximate the (admittedly unreachable) goal of their child’s flourishing (259-62). Taken together, these considerations argue that the reasonability requirement for the transformative power of ends can be met in the case of children without hope of ever developing sophisticated cognitive and emotional capacities: given a parent’s special obligations to a child, it is reasonable, as a second-best option, to engage the child in a person-rearing project, which in turn confers higher moral status (264-67).
On this extension of the central account, then, the child’s higher moral status does not merely depend on her capacity to do an activity whose value can be transformed by a person-rearing relationship: it also depends on a prior moral obligation of someone to be in that relationship with her. This is a significant further condition, and warrants a few thoughts.
First, some will wonder whether the claim about parental obligation doesn’t put the cart before the horse. On many theories of special obligations, including parental ones, such obligations essentially serve to offer special protections of morally important interests; but the parental obligations cannot serve that purpose here, since they are antecedent to the very interests whose moral importance we are trying to establish. In other words, if the child does not have high moral status (higher than cats, that is) prior to her parents being specially obligated to care for her, then why should we take those obligations so seriously?
Another question is whether one party’s special obligation is the right sort of thing to ground impartial moral status. An alternative theory might say that the obligations Jaworska and Tannenbaum cite explain why parents, and by extension we, have obligations to their highly compromised infants – because whether or not they are persons, they are children, and that this explains why other participants in our form of life (but not, say, Martians) owe stronger protections to them than to cats with similar capacities. An alternative theory, that is, might say that the appeal to obligations of the second-best are insightful explications of deep obligations that are nonetheless partialist.
Assuming these concerns can be addressed, what are we to think about severely cognitively disabled children who have no moral parents? Perhaps someone is specially obligated to enter into a parent-child relationship with such children, but absent someone actually entering into such a relationship, it would seem that the cognitively disabled orphan has a lower status that that of his parented counterparts. Here it seems that we cannot advert to the capacity of the child to be engaged in a person-rearing project, as was done in the case of orphaned cognitively typical children, since the disabled child has no such capacity absent the existence of an adult who has special obligations to provide for his flourishing.
A final point. In the course of defending the moral obligation of parents to rear children like Ashley, we noted that the theory makes two key claims: that parental obligation here is conceptually prior to and exists independent of children’s moral status, and that parents have an obligation to protect and further the flourishing of their children. While questions of abortion are not the focus or interest of this paper, we wonder whether these two claims carry independent implications for that issue. Just in case one believes (as we think Jaworska and Tannenbaum may, given the Aristotelian flavorings they embrace) that the human organism at even its early stages has conditions of flourishing, it may well be that, whatever the impartial reasons others have toward the fetus, it would thus be highly problematic for a woman to abort the fetus she carries. This points to interesting – and themselves vexed issues in status – about when in the life of a human organism it has the capacity for flourishing, in general, when that life counts as a child, and the whether and in what sense the gestating woman is a parent.