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Sentience and rationality

What is correct and salvageable in utilitarianism is its impartiality, its resistance to corruption. Rachels sounds right about this.1 It appeals rigidly to a principle appreciable to all sentient creatures, skirting the tendency to cave in to local impulses that plague theories such as virtue theory or, in some fetishistic forms, reason-based theories.

Sentience casts a pretty broad net; cf. Peter Singer’s work in animal liberation. Sentience is a biological predicate. It sorts entities according to one common trait of higher animals. Why this cut off? Rational capacity, a possibly non-biological predicate, sifts out a much narrower group. Both are arbitrary when viewed from a perspective of beings neither rational nor sentient, sub specie aeternitatis. It’s no coincidence we are both.

But is it true that rational capacity captures a smaller class? Kant was confident that even rational creatures, otherwise utterly unlike us, might still partake in the respect for rational capacity that founded his moral vision. Are we not opening the door for moral consideration to artificial or extra-terrestrial intelligences that may not be sentient? (Or perhaps even natural and terrestrial ones we have yet to detect?) It is easier to believe we may author artificial creatures with rational capacities before we make artificially sentient ones. An instance of reasoning can be exhausted by external description; not so the qualia of pleasure or pain. We have so far had better luck at articulating the conditions of the former than the latter. (Or is respect2, the feeling, the limiting factor here? Creatures incapable of this feeling, no matter how rational their behavior, cannot become moral actors? If so—and we believe Kant was aware of this—his famously non-sentimental theory is irremediably founded on a feeling, albeit, a particularly rarified one.)

It seems not at all clear that sentience casts a wider net than rational capacity.

But perhaps both are too wide. As such they are challenges to what we may be inclined to consider worthy of moral consideration—first, second and third inclinations tending toward the myopic. As challenges they offer valuable moral lessons. Nevertheless, we show few signs of being in a position to learn them….

Since we mentioned “biological predicate,” what about feminine and masculine principles or systems of value? Now we are no longer stretching things too far beyond the ordinary moral world we inhabit which consists of—not humans—but women and men. Perhaps, before we challenge ourselves too seriously, it may behoove us to understand moral climates more native and less exotic or remote than those of all of the sentient world or all of the realm of actual and potential rational agents. We might confine ourselves to understanding how it is we thrive or don’t, as the case may be, in the two distinct and domestic realms of value that stem from the fact that we are a dioecious species.

The significance of this change of direction is that talk of “impartiality” is premature and irrelevant if not pernicious. Getting clear about what is partial and how it is partial becomes the first and critical step. We cannot legitimately dream of crossing over to “impartiality” until this is done. We cannot begin to formulate a legitimate theory of morality for humans until we have gotten clear about what we have to work with. What we have to work with are women and men. They are not the same. They cannot stand in for each other. They are basic. This duality is where it begins.

1 James Rachels, “The Debate over Utilitarianism”, in Contemporary Moral Problems, 5th Ed., James E. White (ed), (Minneapolis: West Publishing Co., 1985), 31.

2 The critical role of the feeling of respect in Kant’s moral theory consumed Luno’s attention as far back as the early 1980s. (vm)

Posted by luno in animals, Deontology, Utilitarianism, Moral Theory (Friday January 7, 2005 at 9:44 pm)
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