Moral Status, Luck, and Modal Capacities: Debating Shelly Kagan

Journal of Applied Philosophy 38 (2):273-287 (2021)
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Shelly Kagan has recently defended the view that it is morally worse for a human being to suffer some harm than it is for a lower animal (such as a dog or a cow) to suffer a harm that is equally severe (ceteris paribus). In this paper, I argue that this view receives rather less support from our intuitions than one might at first suppose. According to Kagan, moreover, an individual’s moral status depends partly upon her ‘modal capacities.’ In this paper, I argue that the most natural strategy for justifying Kagan’s theory faces some important challenges. More generally, I argue that philosophers who wish to defend the view that human beings have a higher moral status than that of the lower animals face a dilemma. Either their theory of moral status will imply (unacceptably) that some severely cognitively impaired human beings have a significantly lower moral status than that of typical human beings, or these philosophers will be forced to ground moral status in a set of properties so far removed from a subject’s actual capacities that it will become difficult to see why these kinds of properties should have such moral importance.

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Harry R. Lloyd
Yale University


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