UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Moral standing in environmental ethics Sullivan, Charles


This thesis in environmental ethics examines the question of what kinds of beings or entities can have moral standing in their own right. A being or entity with moral standing is one for which it is possible to give direct moral consideration, and toward which we can have moral obligations. Are direct moral considerations and obligations applicable only to humans, or human persons, i.e., moral agents? Can the scope of consideration and obligation be meaningfully extended to include all sentient animals, or all living things, or even further to species and such natural objects as mountains and rivers? These are the questions with which this thesis is concerned. I first consider humanism, which holds that the boundaries of moral standing cannot extend beyond humans or human persons. I argue that humanism fails because it is not consistent with our deeply held moral conviction that the reason why it is not morally permissible to torture humans typically has nothing to do with being a member of the human species, or with being a moral agent. Rather, the reasons for not torturing humans are that the infliction of unnecessary pain is bad for humans, and we would rather be free from such suffering. Since these reasons are applicable to all sentient animals, humanism is rejected as an inconsistent and mistaken theory of moral standing. The next view I consider, is sentientism, which holds that the boundaries of moral standing can be extended to include those with the ability to have conscious experiences, i.e., pain, pleasure, satisfaction, frustration. I argue that sentientism is by far the most consistent with our generally accepted ethical foundations. I then move on to vitalism, which holds that the boundaries of moral standing can be extended to include all living things. Vitalists argue that because conditions can be better or worse for plants they therefore have a good of their own, which is considered sufficient for moral standing. I reject vitalism by arguing that the good of plants is an empirical matter and not a normative one. I further maintain that because plants are incapable of having experiences that matter to them it is unclear how they can be morally wronged. Finally I consider attempts to extend the moral boundary to include such things as species, ecological systems, and natural objects such as mountains and rivers. These positions I reject also, except insofar as the moral standing of such things can be reduced to the interests of individual sentient beings.

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