Welcome to the fourth Journal of Moral Philosophy discussion here at PEA Soup (September 29th to October 1st). This is sure to be another insightful and productive discussion, this time on Jeff Sebo‘s “Agency and Moral Status” This paper is currently available in the “Advance Articles” section online at the Journal of Moral Philosophy. They have kindly provided free access to the paper, which can be viewed or downloaded here. José Luis Bermúdez wrote a critical précis and commentary which is posted below. Please join the fun!
Critical précis and commentary by José Luis Bermúdez:
Philosophers have become increasingly aware of the cognitive, affective, and agential sophistication of many nonhuman animals. Much of this discussion has focused on implications for debates about, e.g., the role of language in cognition, or the nature of nonconceptual content. But of course, there are also potentially important ethical implications, and Jeff Sebo’s interesting and provocative paper ‘Agency and moral status’ offers a way of thinking through some of them.
Jeff starts off with the following set of views that he claims to be widely held (presumably among philosophers):
- You have moral duties and a full set of moral rights, including the right to life, liberty, property, and autonomy, if and only if you are an agent.
- You are an agent if and only if you have the capacity for propositional thought.
- Many humans have the capacity for propositional thought, whereas many nonhumans do not.
- Thus, many humans have moral duties and a full set of moral rights, including the right to life, liberty, property, and autonomy, whereas nonhumans have, at best, a very limited set of moral rights.
As Jeff points out, the sharp distinction these views collectively draw between the moral status of human and nonhuman animals sits uneasily with what we know about agency in nonhuman animals.
Drawing on some work of mine on nonlinguistic cognition and levels of mindreading in the animal kingdom (in my 2003 book Thinking Without Words and subsequent papers) Jeff draws a distinction between propositional agency and perceptual agency. Propositional agency implicates not just propositional thinking, but the ability to reflect upon one’s own thoughts, to evaluate reasons for action and, in short, to be a reflective agent. Perceptual agency, in contrast, involves the ability to react to the environment in flexible and purposive ways, as well as (limited) capacities for inference. But perceptual agency remains fundamentally non-reflective.
It seems plausible that there should be levels of moral status corresponding to levels of agency. Jeff develops this idea in two ways that effectively split the moral rights identified in (1) above into two groups. First, he suggests that perceptual agency is sufficient for rights to life, liberty, and property – on the grounds, roughly speaking, that perceptual agents are sentient in ways that give them interests (in certain restricted dimensions), which in turn confers upon them the right not to have those interests thwarted. Second, he suggests that rights to autonomy require a degree of reflectiveness only available to propositional agents. Moreover, concepts of moral responsibility are only applicable to propositional agents (because moral responsibility requires the capacity to think about reasons). I must record a slight uneasiness with aspects of this discussion – the idea that nonlinguistic animals might have a right to property seems odd, on most standard ways of thinking about the social institution of property. But some sort of distinction along these general lines is surely correct.
What is most distinctive and interesting about Jeff’s paper is how he applies this basic distinction comparatively. His principal thesis is:
Moral equivalence If and when a propositional agent acts exclusively as a perceptual agent, they have the same kind of moral status that a perceptual agent has when they act that way. (p.16)
This certainly is a bold and unusual claim. One immediate consequence is that human beings cannot be held responsible for actions that do not directly engage their capacity for propositional agency. If true, it would require fundamental changes in how we think about moral status, and should probably inspire (among other things!) a complete retooling of the criminal code and sentencing practices, where ideas about legal responsibility and moral responsibility seem pretty closely intertwined.
It certainly looks on the face of it as if Jeff is giving agents acting purely perceptually a Get Out of Jail Free card. He starts from the principle (not accepted by mainstream jurisprudence, I should say) that moral responsibility does not apply directly to cases of intoxication, addiction, and compulsion and then describes his view thus: “my argument here implies that the moral structure of cases like intoxication, addiction, and compulsion is not exceptional but is rather representative of the moral structure of a wide range of everyday human activity.” The best (or worst, depending on your perspective) that we can hope for when dealing with individuals acting purely perceptually is that they can be held indirectly morally responsible for their actions – i.e. to the extent that those actions can be traced back to an exercise of propositional agency.
Here is the case that Jeff uses to motivate this unusual thesis:
Suppose that I accidentally, through no fault of my own, take a drug that temporarily disables my capacity for propositional agency. That is, while under the influence of this drug, I am not capable of thinking about what I have reason to do at all. Instead, all I am capable of doing is experiencing things as to-be-pursued or -avoided and acting accordingly. (p. 14)
He addresses two aspects of this case. One has to do with moral autonomy and the other with moral responsibility. I want to address the moral responsibility dimension. He comments:
I think that most of us would say that, in this case, I do not have the same moral responsibility with respect to my current activity that I normally have. If I currently lack the capacity to think about reasons, then, most of us would say, I currently lack moral responsibility for what I do. For example, suppose that, while under the influence of this drug, I experience someone as to-be-punched and I act accordingly. I think that most of us would agree that, in this case, it would not be appropriate for anyone to blame me for my behavior in the same kind of way that, under normal circumstances, it might be appropriate for them to blame me for punching someone in the face. (p. 15)
I’m not sure that most of us really do share the basic intuition here (who’s the “us”, for example?), but no matter. Let’s accept it for the sake of argument. The real issue is how far it generalizes.
Jeff’s description of the case has two significant features. First, he describes his propositional agency as having been disabled. This is not a neutral term. It clearly implies that there is no sense in which he could have exercised his capacity for propositional agency. Second, he says that the disabling has taken place “through no fault of his own”. Since to say that something has taken place through no fault of my own is only a notational invariant of saying that I am not responsible for it, the deck is starting to look a bit stacked. And so, I will focus on the first feature.
The obvious objection to generalizing Jeff’s claim about this case is that it is very rarely plausible to describe someone’s capacity for propositional agency as having been disabled, in such a way that it seems to make no sense to say that the agent could have exercised it. There are such cases, but they are extraordinarily infrequent. Crimes committed while sleepwalking seem to fit the bill. In November 2009, for example, the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service declined to continue prosecuting 59-year old Brian Thomas who had strangled his wife to death while dreaming that she was an intruder. This is an almost perfect example of an agent acting perceptually while his capacity for propositional agency was completely disengaged. It is plain that there is nothing that Mr. Thomas could have done to re-engage his capacity for propositional agency. You can’t wake yourself up deliberately. And, of course, it is completely inappropriate to blame him for not doing something that he could not possibly have done. So, on this score I completely agree with the Crown Prosecution Service, the judge, and the jury in the case.
I do not, however, agree with Jeff, since he plainly wants to say that most, if not all, cases of perceptual agency are comparable to the sleepwalking case. It just seems wrong to me to say that propositional agency is disabled in a typical case of perceptual agency in any way that would make it impossible for the agent to engage his more reflective and evaluative capacities. Suppose that while walking to my office one day, I slip into a non-reflective state of perceptual agency – I enter the perceptual agency zone, as it were. While reacting flexibly and purposively to my environment I happen to see a passing student as floggable and so start acting upon the affordance of floggability. Fortunately, there are other students there who overpower me and I am eventually called to account. How plausible would it be for me to say that my reflective capacities were disabled and so I am not directly responsible for my actions?
I think that most people would find my denial of responsibility rather unconvincing. Jeff, in contrast, sticks to his guns. He does accept that there is a sense in which I have the capacity to think about what I have reason to do, even when my agency is purely perceptual. But then he goes on to say:
Clearly we have the capacity to have this kind of thought. But do we have the capacity to have this kind of thought at will? The limits of perceptual agency are not compatible with this possibility. That is, whether or not we take the intentional ascent to propositional agency depends not on our choosing to do so (a choice which would require us to have already taken this ascent) but rather on our being shaken into doing so. Thus, it is simply not the case that we can, in the morally relevant sense, think about what we have reason to do in cases of exclusively perceptual action. (p. 18)
The argument seems to be this. The capacity for propositional agency can only be relevant to attributions of moral responsibility to perceptual agents if it is something that we can choose to exercise from within the perspective of perceptual agency. But only propositional agents can make choices in this sense, and so the capacity for propositional agency falls out of the picture.
But why would one think that choice is necessary? Jeff accepts that we can, as he puts it, be shaken into reflective propositional agency. So, for example, in the midst of flogging the poor student, I might suddenly snap out of purely perceptual agency and then, from the vantage point of my newly recovered propositional agency, I might realize the appallingness of what I am doing. But, says Jeff, even though that could happen, it would not be something that I can control, qua perceptual agent. And so, it cannot be relevant to ascriptions of moral responsibility.
I have to disagree, however. The contrast with the unfortunate Mr. Thomas is telling. Blaming Mr. Thomas for not having snapped out of his sleepwalking state is ludicrous. That is why the Crown Prosecution Service stopped prosecuting the case. But the same does not hold in the flogging case. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect an even moderately civilized person to snap out of it if they found themselves flogging a student (and preferably before the flogging begins). But coming to one’s sense while in the middle of flogging a student is not something that one would choose to do. It would simply be a reaction, perhaps instinctive, but more likely the product of normal human socialization. We might compare that reaction to the sudden realization that one has broken a social norm, or to the immediate response of helping someone who has fallen over in front of you.
And this tells us something important about responsibility. If I were to continue flogging the student because I lack that socialized response, then I am surely responsible for that omission. And, in so far as I am responsible for omitting to stop flogging the student, then I must be held responsible for flogging the student – just as someone guilty of a negligent omission is correctly held responsible for what happens because of their failure to act. So, despite Jeff’s ingenious argument, the capacity for propositional agency can, I claim, be relevant to moral responsibility, even for agents acting purely perceptually.
By way of summary, let me focus this discussion back on Jeff’s Moral Equivalence thesis. Suppose that my cat and I are sitting side by side. Each of us has a little bird that we have extracted from a nearby nest, and we are each torturing our respective fledgling. My cat is a paradigm perceptual agent, while I just happen to have zoned out of propositional agency and am acting purely perceptually. Jeff is committed to saying that we have the same moral status and (lack of) direct moral responsibility. Let me grant Jeff that neither of us can choose to engage propositional agency – the cat for obvious reasons, and me because choice presupposes propositional agency. It still seems to me that there is a palpable non-equivalence because I, unlike my cat, am capable of reactive attitudes that should (to use Jeff’s term) shake me back into propositional agency. And this has direct implications for my blameworthiness if I fail to have those reactive responses and as a result continue to torture the little fledgling bird. I have failed to react in a way that would snap me out of acting purely from perceptual agency, and that failure makes me responsible for the continued suffering of the little bird – just as I would be directly responsible if I were to be driving along purely perceptually and failed to react to the child crossing the road in front of me.
For these reasons, therefore, I don’t think that Jeff can possibly be correct when he claims that “If and when a propositional agent acts exclusively as a perceptual agent, they have the same kind of moral status that a perceptual agent has when they act that way.” His discussion raises important issues, however, and I am, grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate.
 For related ideas see Bermúdez 2007, 2011.
 As reported, e.g., in The Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/nov/20/brian-thomas-dream-strangler-tragedy.8