Shifting the Moral Burden: Expanding Moral Status and Moral Agency.

Health and Human Rights Journal 2 (23):63-73 (2021)
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Two problems are considered here. One relates to who has moral status, and the other relates to who has moral responsibility. The criteria for mattering morally have long been disputed, and many humans and nonhuman animals have been considered “marginal cases,” on the contested edges of moral considerability and concern. The marginalization of humans and other species is frequently the pretext for denying their rights, including the rights to health care, to reproductive freedom, and to bodily autonomy. There is broad agreement across cultural and philosophical traditions about the capacities and responsibilities of moral agents. I propose an inclusive and expansive way of thinking about moral status, situating it not in the characteristics or capacities of individuals, but in the responsibilities and obligations of moral agents. Moral agents, under this view, are not privileged or entitled to special treatment but rather have responsibilities. I approach this by considering some African communitarian conceptions of moral status and moral agency. I propose that moral agency can also be more expansive and include not just individual moral agents but collective entities that have some of the traits of moral agents: power, freedom, and the capacity to recognize and act on the demands of morality and acknowledge and respect the rights of others. Expanding who and what is a moral agent correspondingly extends moral responsibility for respecting rights and fostering the conditions for the health and well-being of humans and animals onto the collective entities who uniquely have the capacity to attend to global-scale health threats such as pandemics and human-caused climate change.

Author's Profile

L. Syd M Johnson
SUNY Upstate Medical University


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