Materialism and the Moral Status of Animals

Philosophical Quarterly 72 (4):795-815 (2022)
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Consciousness has an important role in ethics: when a being consciously experiences the frustration or satisfaction of its interests, those interests deserve higher moral priority than those of a behaviourally similar but non-conscious being. I consider the relationship between this ethical role and an a posteriori (or “type-B”) materialist solution to the mind-body problem. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, if type-B materialism is correct, then the reference of the concept of phenomenal consciousness is radically indeterminate between a neuronal-level property that is distinctive to mammals and a high-level functional property that is much more widely shared. This would leave many non-mammalian animals (such as birds, fish, insects and octopuses) with indeterminate moral status. There are ways to manage this radical moral indeterminacy, but all of these ways lead to profoundly troubling consequences.

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Jonathan Birch
London School of Economics


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