X is a moral agent if and only if X can be morally evaluated -- praised or blamed (broadly understood) -- for its motives and actions.
(Rowlands himself agrees with the orthodoxy that animals are moral patients but not agents; however he argues that animals do fall under a third category, moral subjects, which he defines as anything that can be motivated to act by moral considerations.)
Some people believe that animals can be moral agents; Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice is a recent defense of this view, but several other people have defended it as well (see the references in section 2 of Rowlands’ linked article). I want to consider a different kind of argument that I have not seen before; if someone else has already made it, please let me know in the comments.
The argument I want to consider here combines a position one of my students recently suggested with Susan Wolf’s “Asymmetrical Freedom.” (So none of it is original with me.) The key part of Wolf’s view is: “it seems that an agent can be morally praiseworthy even though he is determined to perform the action he performs” (158). She elaborates on this as follows:
“When we ask whether an agent’s action is deserving of praise, it seems we do not require that he could have done otherwise. … ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ ‘He couldn’t hurt a fly’ are not exemptions from praiseworthiness but testimonies to it. … If one feels one ‘has no choice’ but to speak out against injustice, one ought not to be upset about the depth of one’s commitment.” (156)
Wolf’s paper is titled “Asymmetrical Freedom” because, if an agent’s action is morally blameworthy, then that agent cannot be determined to perform that action, and we require that he could have done otherwise. That is, “The metaphysical conditions required for an agent’s responsibility will vary according to the value of the action he performs” (158).**
Now, one of the leading reasons people give nowadays for the view that animals can’t be moral agents is that it seems wrong to hold animals morally blameworthy for their actions; this rationale is often coupled with the imagined scenario of putting an animal on trial for a crime to heighten the sense of absurdity.
But if Wolf is right,*** then we can avoid this absurd consequence: a being’s actions can be morally praiseworthy even if its actions are determined and the being couldn’t do otherwise, then the fact that an animal acts ‘purely instinctively’ or automatically, without deliberative control, does not rule out that animal’s being a moral agent. (I am assuming we accept Rowlands’ definition of ‘moral agent’ (notice ‘praised OR blamed’ – not ‘and’).)
So far, this merely eliminates one obstacle to animals being moral agents: it is possible for a being to be morally praiseworthy without the possibility of being morally blameworthy (so we don’t have to put lions on trial), because an action can be morally praiseworthy even if the actor had no choice but to perform that action.
But I think we can go further than this mere possibility. The point my student stressed, and which is probably implicit in the long Wolf quotation above, is that lots of human actions that we consider morally praiseworthy are automatic, ‘system1’ actions, over which we do not exercise deliberative control. In this respect, they more closely resemble animal actions than our actions that result from deliberation, future-oriented planning, and (perhaps linguistically-aided) reasoning. I think there are at least two classes of these automatic actions in humans: (i) the several different little daily kindnesses we do for one another without thinking (e.g. you drop your pen, and before I’ve even thought about whether or not I should reach down, I’m handing it back to you), and (ii) massively heroic actions whose performers, when interviewed afterwards, report not even thinking about e.g. running into the burning building. Now, if we are willing to give moral praise to such automatic, non-deliberative behaviors when done by humans, then prima facie we should be willing to give moral praise to such automatic, non-deliberative behaviors when performed by non-humans too.
Of course, this is only prima facie evidence, because there certainly could be some relevant, important difference between a human’s automatic behaviors and a non-human’s that would invalidate the inference. But going through the entire list of all plausible candidates would require a much fuller treatment. I just wanted to get the basic argument clear: if some automatic human actions are morally praiseworthy, then some automatic non-human actions are morally praiseworthy too.
* Here is Rowlands’ definition of a moral patient: “X is a moral patient iff X is a legitimate object of moral concern: that is, roughly, X is something whose interests should be taken into account when decisions are made concerning it or which otherwise impact on it.”
** This formulation made me wonder whether there might be an interesting connection with the Knobe effect, since in Knobe effect situtations ‘the conditions required for an agent’s intentionality/performing an action ‘on purpose’ will vary according to the value of the action he performs.’
*** Of course, someone who finds the conclusion that animals can be morally praiseworthy absurd should take what follows as a reductio of Wolf’s claim that determined acts can be praiseworthy.