Spheres of Moral Concern

This is a post I have been meaning to write for a long time.  And the easy way out is just to replace the following with a list of links to the books and articles, written by people who I have a great deal of respect for precisely because they wrote the books and articles I would be pointing you to.  Instead, I am going to try to distill what really matters in what they say, because I know that (unfortunately) not everyone thinks that the prospect of hunkering down with a book about philosophy and the way it may impact your life is a whole lot of fun.

When one talks about an ethical defense for vegetarianism (or veganism, or anywhere in between), one is talking about spheres of moral concern.  And when one talks about raising our environmental consciousness, one is talking about spheres of moral concern.  When one talks about taxing the wealthy to provide basic services for the less-wealthy, one is talking about spheres of moral concern.  And when one talks about religious toleration or inter-religious dialogue, one is talking about spheres of moral concern.

This is because all of the above efforts can be seen as taking this statement by Peter Singer as self-evident, and base their goal of improving the world upon it:

“One should always be wary of talking of “the last remaining form of discrimination”.  If we have learnt anything from the liberation movements, we should have learnt how difficult it is to be aware of latent prejudice in our   attitudes to particular groups until this prejudice is forcefully pointed out.” (All Animals Are Equal, from Philosophic Exchange 1974)

While ‘prejudice’ is definitely an apt term for what Singer and others describe through this sentiment, ‘discrimination’ is more technically appropriate.  Formally, discrimination means “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things” (Oxford English Dictionary).  All “liberation movements,” as Singer calls them, at root want to eradicate one form or another of discrimination.  This is done through a concurrent widening of our sphere of moral concern.

I am not intentionally borrowing this term from anywhere, though I may be unconsciously using a phrase that stuck with me (if you know of the term being used in a published work, let me know).  For me, the term is self-explanatory.  Much of any moral theory is concerned with which beings are the appropriate recipients of which types of moral conduct on the part of an agent.  I would designate the group of beings who are due one’s ultimate moral respect that agent’s sphere of moral concern (though that is not to say that all beings within one’s sphere of moral concern are due equal treatment, but rather equitable treatment, as I discuss briefly below).  This would imply that, for example, at least in the eyes of the law, African-Americans became included in American’s sphere of moral concern when slavery was abolished, and women were included when they were given the vote and/or when they were officially considered to be equal under the law.

What does it take to widen the scope of one’s moral concern?  Not surprisingly, it takes what I consider to be a profoundly philosophical attitude, specifically a Cartesian attitude to the beliefs one holds — in other words, a desire to subject them to rigorous criticism in the hopes of discovering which of them one ought to continue to hold, and which should be discarded.  Again, in the words of Peter Singer: “If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to rethink even our most fundamental attitudes.  We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes” (ibid.).  And so, through a profound act of empathy, we can come to properly instantiate the principle of equality (or, to be rigorous in my use of language, ‘equity’ or what Singer calls “equality of consideration”) that is meant to represent the best of Western societies.

The specifics of what is entailed, exactly, by including group x in one’s sphere of moral concern is extremely theoretical and, arguably, impossible to agree upon in detail.  However, as anyone who compares the rights of African-Americans and woman over the past few centuries will attest, this does not preclude the possibility of progress.  What it means for every human being, and maybe even every sentient being (suitably defined) to be treated equitably will be different for different people considering the matter.  However, the opinions of all such people will, I am confident, be entirely different in kind from the opinions of those that believe (after reflection on the matter or only based on unreflective action) that a group x should not be included in their sphere of moral concern.  In other words, even if I hold that something like the Harm Principle is the bedrock of equitable treatment of non-human animals, and someone else thinks that, instead, autonomy is the bedrock of such equitable treatment, both of us will tend to converge on how non-human animals (which we both agree are within our spheres of moral concern) ought to be treated when compared to someone who thinks that non-human animals do not deserve to be considered within our sphere of moral concern.

Finally, I want to address a concern that occurs to some philosophers when dealing with issues such as this one.  The concern is whether expanding our sphere of moral concern is fundamentally an empathetic act, or whether it is, in fact, an act that is in our best interests for one reason or another, and hence, selfish.  This, to me, is simply the argument that empathy does not exist as we think of it, but rather that all acts that one may represent as being for the benefit of others before oneself are in fact selfish acts.  To this I reply that, as concerns this discussion, it is unimportant.  If you want to believe that including all human beings, and many non-human animals, in one’s sphere of moral concern — and actually living by such a belief — is truly a selfish act, go ahead.  The reason I abhor such a position is not on strictly logical grounds (i.e. that I think it is an unsound position) but rather because of the extremely bleak, Hobbesian view that it paints of humanity.

This list of applications of this understanding of morality are truly too long to enumerate.  Living with such a principle in mind is an ideal worth striving for, and I hope to point out connections between this admittedly abstract argument and more concrete applications in future posts.

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