By In Discussions, JMP Discussions, Normative Ethics Comments (26)

JMP discussion: Jeff Sebo’s “Agency and Moral Status”

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):

  1. 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.
  2. You are an agent if and only if you have the capacity for propositional thought.
  3. Many humans have the capacity for propositional thought, whereas many nonhumans do not.
  4. 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] For related ideas see Bermúdez 2007, 2011.

[2] As reported, e.g., in The Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/nov/20/brian-thomas-dream-strangler-tragedy.

26 Responses to JMP discussion: Jeff Sebo’s “Agency and Moral Status”

  1. Jeff Sebo says:

    Hi José, thanks so much for writing such a thoughtful and interesting reply to my paper! I really appreciate it. Here are some replies to some of your main comments (split into three comments because of space limits).

    – “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….”

    I agree that the idea that nonlinguistic agents can have a right to property seems odd on most standard ways of thinking about property. But I think that this reflects badly on most standard ways of thinking about property. Yes, we might not be able to enter contractual relationships with nonlinguistic agents regarding property rights. But we can find other ways to consider their interests when making decisions about how to fairly distribute access to territory and other material goods. Property is no different from life or liberty in this respect: In the case of linguistic agents our ability to think about these goods might affect how our rights to these goods work in practice. But they do not affect whether or not we have rights to these goods in the first place. As long as we have interests the satisfaction of which requires our having life, liberty, and property, we can qualify for having these rights. (Or so I am assuming for my purposes in this paper. This is related to a dialectical point that I will make about responsibility below.)

    – “…But some sort of distinction along these general lines is surely correct.”

    Thanks! By the way, if people are interested in learning more about the idea of nonhuman property rights, I recommend checking out John Hadley’s Animal Property Rights: A Theory of Habitat for Wild Animals (Lexington Books, 2015). A lot of other moral and political theorists are doing good work on this topic right now too. 

    – “It certainly looks on the face of it as if Jeff is giving agents acting purely perceptually a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

    This is not an implication of my argument, as I will explain below.

    – “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…”

    This principle may or may not be accepted in mainstream jurisprudence, but I think that it is in mainstream moral philosophy. In particular, if we stipulate that an agent is merely behaving (rather than acting), then many moral philosophers would say that this agent is not directly responsible for this behavior in the sense of being praise- or blameworthy for it. With that said, and I make this point in the paper too, an agent can still be accountable for behaviors they are not directly responsible for in many ways. For example, they can still be evaluable in light of them (if the behaviors reveal a character trait that merits positive or negative evaluation), they can still be liable as a result of them (if the behaviors merit reward or punishment), they can still be indirectly responsible for them (if the behaviors are a foreseeable consequence of a previous action or omission that they were directly responsible for), and more. Moreover, in cases of uncertainty about whether an agent acted or merely behaved, it can sometimes make sense to treat them as though they acted, and to praise or blame them accordingly. 

    The upshot is that we can reasonably hold an agent accountable for their behavior in many ways whether or not they are directly responsible for that behavior. (In fact, I argue elsewhere that most of our standard discourse and practice surrounding moral responsibility can be explained in terms of these other, related kinds of accountability. I also argue (this is a separate but related theoretical point) that this picture of moral responsibility / accountability supports a time-slice theory of agency, according to which each person-stage is a separate moral agent. Why? Because these other kinds of accountability can hold across agents, and therefore they can hold across time on a time-slice theory of agency. So insofar as our standard discourse and practice surrounding moral responsibility can be explained in terms of these other kinds of accountability, we can accept a time-slice theory of agency without disrupting our standard discourse and practice surrounding moral responsibility. Anyway.) 

    With that said, even if most of our standard discourse and practice surrounding moral responsibility can be explained in terms of these other kinds of accountability, there is still an important difference in theory, and sometimes in practice, between saying that an agent is praise- or blameworthy for an action they performed, on one hand, and saying that an agent merits positive or negative evaluation in light of an action, merits reward or punishment as a result of an action, and/or is praise- or blameworthy for foreseeably causing or allowing an action to be performed, on the other hand. My assumption in this paper is that in cases of mere behavior such as intoxication, addiction, and compulsion, these other, related kinds of accountability are all that can be warranted. If this is right, it follows from my thesis in this paper that the same is true in cases of pure perceptual action more generally. 

    One final, dialectical point for now (related to my point about the rights to life, liberty, and property above). Ultimately my thesis in this paper is that insofar as linguistic agents act purely perceptually, they have the same moral status with respect to those actions that nonlinguistic agents have. In order to explore possible implications of this thesis, I make what I take to be plausible and widely accepted assumptions about moral status in the paper (e.g. that propositional agency is necessary for a strong right to autonomy but not for a weak right to autonomy or a right to life, liberty, and property, and that propositional agency is necessary for a strong kind of responsibility but not for other kinds of accountability). But as I note in the paper, it would be fine if you rejected these assumptions. All that I want to say is that whatever assumptions you make about the relationship between perceptual agency, propositional agency, and moral status, you should apply them consistently. So if you think that propositional agency is necessary for fewer rights and responsibilities than I do, you should accept that nonlinguistic agents can have more rights and responsibilities. Whereas if you think that propositional agency is necessary for more rights and responsibilities than I do, you should accept that linguistic agents have fewer rights and responsibilities with respect to actions that they perform purely perceptually.

  2. Jeff Sebo says:

    – “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.”

    As I say above (and below), we can do more than attribute indirect responsibility in these cases, and the sum total of what we can do is still a lot (though perhaps not quite as much, or perhaps not quite the same, as attributing direct responsibility, understood as praise- or blameworthiness for this particular behavior).

    – “[Jeff] 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….’ I’m not sure that most of us really do share the basic intuition here (who’s the “us”, for example?)”

    Fair enough, I hate it when philosophers say what most people will find convincing! Retracted.

    – “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.”

    To be clear, I am open to the possibility that cases of pure perceptual agency are relatively infrequent (though I do think that they are frequent enough for my thesis to be interesting). My main claim is that if and when they occur (however frequently they occur), linguistic agents have the same kinds of direct moral status with respect to these actions that nonlinguistic agents have with respect to their actions (which, again, is compatible with their being evaluable, liable, indirectly responsible, and so on for various reasons). 

    – “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.”

    No, I want to say that all cases of *pure* perceptual agency are like that. My expectation is that standard cases of perceptual agency will be different, for a variety of reasons. To speak in terms of propositional and perceptual selves for the sake of convenience: Our propositional selves might participate in performing many of our perceptual actions. Even if not, they might foreseeably cause or allow many of our perceptual actions, either at the time of action or before the time of action. Even if not, our perceptual actions in standard cases might reveal more about our character, our about our fitness for certain projects and relationships, than our perceptual actions in nonstandard cases like sleepwalking. Consequently they might merit more by way of evaluation or liability in such cases. I expect that one or more of these further factors will be present in standard cases of perceptual action, and therefore that these cases will require a more nuanced moral response. 

    – “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.”

    Fair en- hey wait a minute! Who is this “most people”???

    Anyway, I agree. I would find your explanation of your behavior unconvincing too. But I also think that everything that I say here (and in my paper) is compatible with that. First of all, it is very unlikely that your perceptual self would perform this action in this situation without your propositional self being directly or indirectly responsible. In general, your propositional self performs, participates in performing, or foreseeably causes or allows most of your actions. Moreover, your propositional self will usually be activated in new situations that require reasoning about what to do. This makes it very unlikely that, if your propositional self does their work responsibly, then your perceptual self will ever be in a situation where they see a student as to-be-flogged and act accordingly. So if you were to flog a student and say “my propositional self had nothing to do with it!”, I would be skeptical. Moreover, even if I became convinced that your propositional self did, in fact, have nothing at all to do with this action, I would still think that you merit negative evaluation and punishment. For example, I would still say that your employer can reasonably fire you for cause, if not because you acted wrongly then at least because your propositional self is to weak and your perceptual self is too violent for you to be fit for this line of work. 

    In this kind of case, why does it matter to insist that your action merits negative evaluation and punishment but not blame? Because I think that it changes the kind of moral response that your action calls for. If your propositional self really did have nothing at all to do with your action, directly or indirectly (they neither performed this action nor participated in performing this action nor foreseeably caused or allowed this action), then it would be unreasonable for me to blame you for what you did. Instead, I should feel bad for you. More specifically, I should feel bad for your propositional self for being stuck in a body with a perceptual self whose actions they can neither endorse nor control, with the result that you will be reasonably regarded as unfit for many of the kinds of projects and relationships you might be interested in taking on. (But again, this is all on the assumption that your propositional self had nothing at all to do with this action, and in practice, I would be skeptical about that.) 

  3. Jeff Sebo says:

    – “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.”

    I agree with this (and I think that everything that I say above is compatible with this), with one qualification. Either your propositional self is capable of foreseeing and preventing your perceptual action (at the time of action or before the time of action), or they are not. If they are, then yes, they are blameworthy for allowing your perceptual self to perform this action (directly or indirectly). If they are not, then they are not blameworthy for doing this. So: If what you mean by “negligent omission” is that your propositional self negligently allowed an action that they could have foreseen and prevented, then I agree with you. If, on the other hand, what you mean is that your propositional self negligently allowed an action that they could not have foreseen or prevented, then I disagree (though I think you could still be evaluable and liable for this action).

    – “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. … 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.”

    My response to this case is the same as my response to the above case. If what you mean by “my blameworthiness if I fail to have those reactive responses” is that your propositional self (a) could have foreseen that you would need to have those reactive responses, (b) could have made it the case that you would have those reactive responses, and (c) failed to do so, then, yes, they would be blameworthy for that omission. (Also, if they (a) could have foreseen that your perceptual self would harm cats, (b) could have either trained your perceptual self not to harm cats or ensured that your perceptual self would never be around cats, and (c) failed to do so, they would be blameworthy for that omission too.) And either way, you would still be evaluable and liable. The same is true in the driving case: My presumption would be that your propositional self is responsible for either running over the child, participating in doing so, or foreseeably causing or allowing your perceptual self to do so. Either way, I would still say that the state can reasonably call you an unfit driver and respond accordingly.  

    – “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.”” 

    I want to make note of the dialectical situation here: In order for me to win this debate, all I need to have shown is that I can at least *possibly* be correct. Have I shown that? I think that most people would find it convincing that I have 🙂

    – “His discussion raises important issues, however, and I am, grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate.”

    Thank you so much again for writing this reply to my paper! As you know, your work on animal cognition has been very influential for me, so I appreciate being able to discuss these issues with you here.

  4. Jake Monaghan says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I enjoyed the paper. Do you think that perceptual agents are capable of manipulating or altering their rights? In the paper you deny that perceptual agents have a right to provide informed consent, but do you think perceptual agents have any moral powers at all?

  5. Dan Hooley says:

    Hi Jeff, I really enjoyed this paper. I’m wondering if your argument for moral equivalence might extend beyond cases where individuals are acting exclusively as perceptual agents, and how you think through these cases. Your focus seems to be on these “pure” cases, and in some of the examples we can point to (significant intoxication, sleep walking) I found your argument persuasive.

    I wonder, though, if its possible that in many of the more everyday cases, where we might describe agents as acting as perceptual agents, it isn’t all or nothing. That is, we might think that something more than just the mere capacity for propositional agency in some of these cases is there, but that we are (sometimes?) acting on the basis of propositional reasons, even though much of our actions fall much closer to the pure perceptual agents cases. I’ve been trying to think of an example that might illustrate this idea. Perhaps someone who is walking around their house after a heavy sleep?

    Anyways, I wanted to raise this idea because the extent to which your argument is truly revisionary might be seen to rest on just how often we act purely as perceptual agents. We might agree that in these cases we are “shaken” into propositional agency. But it seems possible, at least, that a lot of our everyday actions are more mixed. And here, I’m not as certain that describing us as being “shaken” into propositional agency would match the phenomenology of our experience.

  6. Do you think that the capacity for perceptual agency is the *sole* sufficient condition for the right to life? That is, is the capacity for autonomy also a sufficient condition for the right to life (as well as the right to autonomy)? If the capacity for autonomy is a sufficient condition for the right to life, then does this mean that humans have a stronger right to life than a possum? If the capacity for autonomy is a sufficient condition for the right to life, then is this view is giving up on the idea that humans have a stronger right to life than a possum. [I am understand that there can be “extrinsic practical, epistemic, and relational reasons “ (p.3) for treating them differently but that is not the same as having a stronger right]

  7. You seem to embrace a trichotomy:
    a) Acting for reasons (propositional agency) (seeing action as good to do)
    b) Purposive behavior (perceptual agency) (seeing the action as to be done)
    c) Mere behavior

    You characterization of (a) as what we do when “for example in the cool hour of deliberation, when we are new at a particular activity, or when we encounter a problem in a particular activity” (p.5). Whereas (b) is characterized as doing “what feels right or natural in the moment” (p.5). [sort of sounds like system1 and system 2 of Kahneman]. So all the times when we are not taking the time to consciously deliberate, we are doing (b) (or sometimes (c)). So, you conclude that (b) is going on in those other cases, which is why you conclude “that humans “merely behave” more than we have traditionally thought” (p.3).

    But, as you note (a) can occure when there is only “implicit propositional thought” (p.5) going on. Also, the work of people like Anscombe (in Intention) and Barbara Herman (see her paper on rules of moral salience as well as other papers in the The Practice of Moral Judgment) aim to show that (a) needn’t (and often doesn’t if one has been raised well) involve anything like time, explicit/conscious thought, etc.

    So How do you distinguish implicit forms of (a) from (b)?

  8. Your use of “sentientism” (p.9) is a bit unusual. Many have used it to mean the capacity for experiencing pain (and perhaps also pleasure). While the capacity for experiencing pain is sufficient for interests, which is sufficient for the capacity to be harmed, notice that the capacity for perceptual agency is not sufficient for the capacity to experience pain. And so, one might balk at the claim: “if we accept sentientism about moral status, then it follows that perceptual agency is sufficient for at least a prima facie right to life, liberty, and property” (p.10).

    But it turns out that really your view is really this: that perceptual agency is sufficient for having interest(s), which is a sufficient condition for the capacity to be harmed, which is sufficient for a right to life.

    Although is it the capacity for perceptual agency, or exercise of perceptual agency, that is sufficient for having interests?

    Do I only have interests when I exercise perceptual agency (see p.11)? Or does having the capacity for perceptual agency itself give me an interest (namely in protecting that capacity)? I ask since having interests is (according to you) a sufficient condition for the capacity to be harmed, which (according to you) is sufficient for a right to life (p.9).

    On p. 11 you move from an exercise of perceptual agency to the having of an interest: “that a lion experiences her cubs as to-be-protected, and she feels motivated to protect her cubs on the basis of this normative perceptual experience. In this case, we can say that (a) the lion has an interest in protecting her cubs” (p.11). And on p. 9 you claim that having interest(s) is a sufficient condition for the capacity to be harmed, which is sufficient for rights.

    But what makes something in X’s interest? Is it in the interest of all individual’s not to have their purposive activity frustrated? That seems too strong for this reason: a human adult sees children as to be tortured, sexually molested, and eaten (and even see these as good), but I do not believe that it is in his interest to have these goals fulfilled (I am not just saying that it is not in the interest of the children, or that there are extrinsic reasons for him not to do this, but rather his life will go worse because it will go morally worse and acting in these morally monstrous ways is to make one’s life morally worse). He does not have a right (not a prima facie right, pro tanto right, weak right) to such things.

  9. “Insofar as humans and nonhumans exercise the same kind of agency, do we
    have the same kind of intrinsic moral status… Insofar as human and nonhuman animals act
    exclusively as perceptual agents, we have the same intrinsic moral status” (p.2)

    I do not think moral status should be tied to the exercise of a capacity (exercise of agency). Otherwise people lose their status when they are sleeping, etc. So, moral status should be tied to something else.

    When you state “perceptual agency is sufficient for the right to life, liberty, and property but not for the right to autonomy or for moral responsibility” (p.3) are you talking about the capacity for perceptual agency or its exercise?

    In any event, am I right in thinking that you think that the right to life is grounded in the capacity for being harmed: “if you are capable of being harmed, then moral agents have at least a prima facie moral duty not to harm you” (p.9).

    So, you do in fact ground at least certain aspects of the right to life (the right not to be harmed) on a capacity, and not the exercise or manifestation of a capacity.

  10. “it is compatible with our still treating humans and nonhumans differently in cases of exclusively perceptual action for certain extrinsic practical, epistemic, and relational reasons” (p.3)

    I don’t think these kinds of reasons will always be able to differentiate treatment of humans and non-humans, though perhaps you are fine with that result. But I for instance think that even when these extrinsic reasons do not tell against the abandonment of disabled baby or a female baby, that they nevertheless have a stronger right than a cognitively similar animal. But perhaps your view is that this is not in fact the case.

  11. When you talk about “exclusively perceptual action performed by a propositional
    agent.” (p.14) it seems that there are two possible cases:
    1) A case where “I am not capable of thinking about what I have reason to do at all” (p.14) and so I lack the capacity for propositional agency (e.g. I’m drugged, p.14), that is, “propositional agency is disabled” (p.16).
    2. A case where “a person is acting not through their capacity to think about reasons but rather through other cognitive systems,” (p.16). In this case I can engage in propositional agency but I do not.

    So “exclusively” might mean “only one system *is* being used” or it might mean “only one system *can* be used.”

    One can grant that case type1 occur without thinking that all cases of exclusively perceptual action fall into 1. That is, there might be lots of type 2 cases. And you agree seem to agree that there type 2 cases, when you say, “in at least some cases of exclusively perceptual action, we at least have the capacity for propositional agency, and therefore we at least can think about what we have reason to do even if, as a matter of fact, we do not” (p.18). In which case, it would not be correct to conclude “all cases of exclusively perceptual action by a propositional agent have the same kind of moral structure as this clear case [drug case, type 1]” (p. 16) and “many of the actions that we perform in everyday life are exclusively perceptual in this kind of way [the drug case, type 1]” (p.17).

    If I only use my perceptual agency, and if rights (e.g. right to autonomy) is grounded on a capacity (the capacity for autonomy), and not on whether the capacity is exercised, then it would not follow that “when a propositional agent acts exclusively as a perceptual agent, they have the right to life, liberty, and property, but they do not, with respect to this particular action, have the right to autonomy” (p.16).

    While you agree that we have the capacity for autonomy in type 2 cases (“clearly we have the capacity to have this kind of thought” (p.18), but you ask, “but do we have the capacity to have this kind of thought at will?” (p.18) Why is this relevant? There are at least some philosophers who think that it is the capacity for autonomy, not the capacity to exercise autonomy at will, this is the grounds of the right to autonomy. If the former capacity required the later, then one could never get started.

  12. Jeff Sebo says:

    Thanks so much for the great questions and comments everyone! And sorry for the delay, I was in meetings all afternoon. Let me see how much I can catch up now, and then I can pick back up this weekend.

    Jake, this is a great question. I think that perceptual agents are capable of assent, which is a weak kind of consent. They can agree or disagree with certain kinds of treatment, without necessarily having all relevant information. In some cases assent can play the role of consent, e.g. if I try to play with my companion dog Smoky, he can tell me whether or not he wants to do that, and that can be decisive. In other cases it can play part of the role of consent, e.g. some people think that research on children is permissible only with assent from the subject and consent from a legal guardian (with other limits too of course). We might say the same about purely perceptual agents. And in other cases it might not play much of a role at all, e.g. if I need to make Smoky vomit because he ate a chocolate bar, he has no say in this, because he has no idea why I need to be doing this. So in general, I think that perceptual agents can express preferences based on information currently available to them, and to the degree that this is a reliable guide to what will satisfy their interests, we should defer to these preferences when deciding how to treat them. (And, if my argument in the paper is correct, the same is true for propositional agents when they act purely perceptually, with certain caveats.)

  13. Jeff Sebo says:

    Dan, this is such an interesting issue! Thanks for asking about it. I focused on cases of pure perceptual agency in the paper for the sake of clarity. But I agree that there are probably mixed cases too, and so the next step would be to account for those. A lot depends on the empirical facts here, which I think are unclear. But let me offer a way of thinking about it, and see how far that gets us.

    As I indicate in my reply to José, I find it useful to think of the interaction between propositional and perceptual agency in terms of interaction between propositional and perceptual selves. I also argue elsewhere that propositional and perceptual agents can share agency. i.e. they can act together in a way that constitutes them as a shared agent, with possible implications for moral status. So in mixed cases, where our propositional and perceptual agency both contribute to our behavior, I find it useful to think of our propositional selves and perceptual selves as sharing agency, i.e. as acting together in a way that constitutes them as a shared agent. Questions about the moral status of these actions would then depend on (a) what we think about moral status in cases of shared agency in general, and (b) how this framework applies in the case of shared propositional-perceptual agency.

    These are contested issues. For example, everyone agrees that when people act together, they are individually responsible for their contribution to these shared actions. But are they also collectively responsible for their shared actions? Are they individually complicit in their shared actions? A lot depends on background philosophical issues and on the details of the case. But whatever we say about these issues, I think it would be interesting to ask how these frameworks apply to mixed propositional-perceptual agency cases. For example, suppose that I intend to play with Smoky, Smoky experiences me as to-be-played-with, we play with each other on the basis of these attitudes, and we make a mess of the living room as a result. What should we say about that case? I might be blameworthy / accountable for my behavior, and Smoky might be accountable for his. But is there a further sense in which Smoky and I are collectively responsible / accountable for our shared behavior, and in which either or both of us is individually complicit in our shared behavior?

    I have a hard time wrapping my mind around these questions. But I think that these are the questions that we would need to answer before we can answer your question here. In particular, we can grant that my propositional self is responsible / for his contribution to mixed actions, and that my perceptual self is accountable for his. But is there a further sense in which they are collectively responsible for their shared actions, and in which either or both of them is individually complicit in their shared actions? At least as a theoretical matter, I think that this might be a useful way of framing questions about moral status in the case of mixed propositional-perceptual agency. As for the practical details, that will depend on how we answer these background questions as well as on how mixed propositional-perceptual agency works in practice. There might not be any general answer to that question. (Or there might be a general answer, and I have no idea what it is.) But I agree with you that this is crucial to my project, and I would love to try to think through it more.

  14. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, thank you so much, these are such wonderful questions and comments! (Some of them are questions that I have myself, and I was wondering if anyone would bring them up :)) Let me try to answer the first now, then I can work through the rest over the weekend.

    I feel unsure about whether propositional agency is sufficient for the right to life, because I feel unsure about how propositional agency even works without perceptual agency. I think of the relationship between perceptual and propositional agency in the way that (as I recall) Kantians such as Korsgaard describe the relationship between our animal / heteronomous nature and our rational / autonomous nature: Perceptual agency proposes ends to be pursued, and propositional agency decides whether and how to pursue those ends. Without perceptual agency I wonder what inputs propositional agency would have to work with, in order to decide what ends to pursue and how to pursue them. Maybe purely passive normative perceptual experiences (i.e. experiences that have a positive or negative valence but no affordances)? I think the answer to your question might turn on that issue for me. If we can show that propositional agency can set ends without perceptual agency, then I would be happy to say that propositional agency (plus whatever provides these inputs) is sufficient for the right to life (among other rights). Then the question would become: (a) can a purely propositional agent have a stronger interest in life than a purely perceptual agent (that would depend on the details, but I find it plausible that the answer could be yes), and (b) does the strength of a right depend on the strength of the interests the satisfaction of which the right is meant to protect (more on this in a moment)?

    In any case, regardless of whether propositional agency is sufficient for the right to life, it seems plausible to me that perceptual + propositional agents can have a stronger interest in life than purely perceptual agents, all else equal (since they can have more interests the satisfaction of which depends on their survival). So if we think that the strength of a right depends on the strength of the interests the satisfaction of which the right is meant to protect (which I think may be a good way of thinking about rights in some contexts but not in others), then it would follow that perceptual + propositional agents have a stronger right to life than purely perceptual agents do, all else equal. Otherwise it might not. (FWIW part of my challenge here is that while I try to be ecumenical in this paper, my own preferred moral theory is utilitarianism, so I personally like to think of rights in terms of the instrumental value of having social and political practices involving rights. For people who actually believe in rights, they might want to think about these issues differently than me :))

    Okay, I need to go for now, but more this weekend! Thanks again everybody, this is both really fun and really helpful and interesting for me.

  15. Eric Moore says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Very interesting paper! Jose and Julie have already made the two points that leapt to my mind when I was reading your paper. (They made the points more coherently than I could): Jose’s point about whether your claim gives us a “get out of jail free” card with respect to moral responsibility, and Julie’s point about whether moral status should be tied to the exercise of a capacity. I’d like to respond to your response to Jose to see if I understand you correctly, and then to guess how you might respond to Julie’s point.

    Jose’s example: slipping into a merely perceptual state of agency and flogging a student. I agree with his assessment that if he did that then Jose would be morally responsible for flogging the student. Jose thinks your view commits you to the claim that he isn’t morally responsible, but you respond that in fact, unless he had slipped into a purely perceptual state (which would be akin to the sleepwalking murderer, which we all seem to agree is both purely perceptual, and where the murderer isn’t morally responsible), he would be morally responsible. But, unless there’s some special circumstances not specified in the example, there’s no reason to believe that Jose’s state was purely perceptual. Have I got that right? If so, then I agree with you. But then I wonder whether humans really act very often in such purely perceptual states – in fact, it seems we rarely do, which appears to contradict your claim that we often do:

    “What makes moral equivalence revisionary…But I think it is safe to say that many of the actions that we perform in everyday life are exclusively perceptual in this kind of way.”

    I can’t think of many of our everyday acts that are exclusively perceptual in the way that removes moral responsibility.

    Julie’s point about moral status tied to the exercise of a capacity (rather than, presumably, to the capacity itself). She thinks that’s a mistake because it would mean we lose status while asleep. I imagine you replying: exactly – in fact we are not morally responsible when we are sleeping, as the case of the murdering sleepwalker shows. This is a way in which your view is revisionary and interesting and provocative.

    OK, now for my own question: I don’t understand the distinction between perceptual and propositional agency when you describe the following example as perceptual: “Our memories, anticipations, beliefs, desires, and other psychological dispositions shape our perceptual experiences…” So my problem with this (and I think it’s just my confusion, so please straighten me out): aren’t beliefs and desires propositional attitudes? And if so, then it seems like propositional agency is built into perceptual agency.

  16. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, regarding how to distinguish implicit perceptual and propositional agency, this question concerns me a lot. As I say in response to Dan above, I focus on clear cases of perceptual and propositional agency in the paper for the sake of clarity, but the next step is to consider more complex cases, including mixed cases and implicit propositional cases.

    With respect to implicit propositional cases, there are at least two questions here. One is epistemic: How can we tell the difference (subjectively and objectively) between implicit perceptual agency and implicit propositional agency? In at least some cases this question might be easy to answer. For example, when I get caught up in the flow of having a conversation, I am clearly using at least some implicit propositional agency. But what about when I get caught up in the flow of driving a car, or playing a sport, or playing an instrument? In many cases it might be difficult to tell, and so a lot will depend on what we think about the ethics of risk and uncertainty. In particular, in cases of uncertainty about what kind of agency is operating, should we err on the side of attributing perceptual or propositional agency? As I say at the end of the paper, that may depend on the context in which this question is being asked. (Of course, this is not a problem for my view in principle, but it may be a problem for the implementation of my view in practice.)

    The other question is normative. What should we say about the moral status of implicit propositional agency? That is, when I act implicitly propositionally, what kind of moral status do I have relative to these actions? In particular, do I have the same kind of moral status that I have when I act explicitly propositionally, do I have the same kind of moral status that I have when I act implicitly perceptually, or do I have a different kind of moral status altogether? On one hand, it seems plausible to say that if I act propositionally, then I should have all the rights and responsibilities that come along with propositional agency relative to that action. On the other hand, it seems plausible to say that if I act without basing that action on a normative judgment, then I should not have all the rights and responsibilities that come along with propositional agency relative to that action. Maybe one of these is the right thing to say all things considered, or maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    For me, part of this depends on what actually happens when we act implicitly propositionally. Do we implicitly make normative judgments? Do we have the capacity to act explicitly propositionally at will, or would we still need to be “shaken” into doing so, as seems to be the case with perceptual agency? Having more clarity about these issues would help me figure out exactly what I think about the moral status of implicit propositional agency.

  17. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, regarding sentientism, I think that this is a great issue to push me on, since I was definitely speaking a bit loosely here. I think of sentience as the capacity to phenomenally consciously experience positive and negative states, including but not limited to pleasure and pain. So the question is: Is perceptual and/or propositional agency sufficient for sentience, and therefore for moral status according to sentientism? For me this turns on whether or not perceptual and/or propositional agency are sufficient for phenomenal consciousness, which I feel unsure about. For my purposes in this paper I decided to bracket this issue and simply assume that all of the human and nonhuman animals I mean to be talking about are sentient and therefore have interests (where the kind of agency they have then determines what kinds of interests they can have, and so what kinds of rights they should have). But in a full discussion of these issues I would need to consider this question as well.

    As for the relationship between normative perceptual experiences, interests, and rights, these are great points too. I would definitely not want to say that seeing x as to-be-pursued is sufficient for having an interest in x all things considered (though I might be willing to say that it would be sufficient for having an interest in x all else equal), and I would also not want to say that having an interest in x all things considered is sufficient for having a right to x all things considered (or even all else equal, in any conventional sense of ‘right’), for exactly the reasons you mention. What I would instead want to say is something more like: We should equally consider the interests of everyone who has interests, and for those interests that are especially vital, we should say that individuals have a right to have those interests satisfied / not frustrated (where this right functions as a strong presumption). I decided to leave a lot of these details out of the paper for the sake of space (and for the sake of being ecumenical), but, as above, in a full discussion of these issues I would need to say more about what the relevant interests are and how the relevant rights function.

  18. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, regarding whether moral status attaches to possession or exercise of capacities, I think it depends on the kind / aspect of moral status in question. Some rights, such as a right to life, are all or nothing, and so it makes sense to attribute them to animals (including humans) either all the time or not at all. Others, such as a right to liberty or property, are not all or nothing, but it might still make sense to attribute them to animals on the basis of possession rather than exercise of the relevant capacity (since it would not be at all harmful to treat them as having the right even if they are not currently exercising the capacity). Others, such as a right to autonomy, are not all or nothing, and it might make sense to attribute them to animals on the basis of possession of the relevant capacity in some situations and on the basis of exercise of the relevant capacity in others (e.g. in situations where it would be harmful to treat them as having the right if they are not currently exercising the capacity). For my purposes in this paper I focused on questions involving autonomy and responsibility, where possession of the relevant right or responsibility does seem to depend on exercise of the relevant capacity. When people are sleepwalking, for example, I think it makes sense to say that while they have at least a weak right to autonomy and accountability in this context, they do not have a strong right to autonomy or responsibility in this context, because they do not, in this context, have an (active, in-control) capacity to make and act on judgments about reasons.

  19. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, regarding comparisons between nonhumans and “cognitively similar” humans, I want to be careful here, because I think that animal ethicists sometimes make these comparisons in simplistic, reductive, and appropriative ways (especially in the case of disabled humans), and when they do that it can distort the relevant issues and do more harm than good. But I can say a few things that might be helpful. First, and on one hand, I reject speciesism, so yes, I do reject the permissibility of discrimination on the basis of species membership alone in principle. Second, and on the other hand, I think that there are almost always many differences between nonhumans and “cognitively similar” humans that affect their moral status, intrinsically and extrinsically, in practice. These differences vary from case to case, so I would rather not try to say anything in general about them here. Third, in case anyone is interested, I very highly recommend Sunaura Taylor’s Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, which brilliantly explores the many ways in which animal liberation and disability liberation are entangled.

  20. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, you write: “[Y]ou agree that we have the capacity for autonomy in type 2 cases (“clearly we have the capacity to have this kind of thought” (p.18), but you ask, “but do we have the capacity to have this kind of thought at will?” (p.18) Why is this relevant? There are at least some philosophers who think that it is the capacity for autonomy, not the capacity to exercise autonomy at will, this is the grounds of the right to autonomy. If the former capacity required the later, then one could never get started.”

    I disagree that mere possession of the capacity for autonomy (i.e. propositional agency) is enough. If my perceptual self performs an action that my propositional self has no say at all in (as well as no say at all in whether or not they have a say at all), then why should the mere existence of my (inactive and/or impotent) propositional self be enough for me to have a strong right to autonomy in this case? I find it more plausible to say that I have a strong right to autonomy when and only when I act propositionally, and that I act propositionally when and only when I happen to be shaken into doing so. Granted, the idea that our propositional selves may not always have control over when they have control may seem strange (your final sentence suggests a bootstrapping worry for example), but I think we should accept it. Especially since, once our propositional selves do have control, one of the things that they can and should do is (a) make sure that systems are in place that will allow them to take control whenever possible / necessary (e.g. cultivate the habit of counting to 10 when angry), and (b) make sure that systems are in place that will lead our perceptual selves to act well otherwise.

  21. Jeff Sebo says:

    Eric, thanks so much for these questions! To take them in order:

    Regarding the exchange with José, yes I think you have it right, and I agree that this exchange puts pressure on how frequently we act purely perceptually. For example, many of our actions may be mixed, as Dan mentions, or implicitly propositional, as Julie mentions. If so, then the question becomes what kind of moral status we have when as we act these ways. As I say in my responses to Dan and Julie, I think that these questions are still open. My arguments in this paper suggest a way of framing them, but even if we accept this way of framing them, we need to go beyond what I say in the paper in order to answer them.

    Regarding the exchange with Julie, thanks! I agree. As I say in my response to her, I think that it makes sense to treat some aspects of moral status, such as a right to life, as holding across contexts, but not to treat other aspects of moral status, such as a strong right to autonomy or moral responsibility, as holding across contexts, for exactly the reasons you mention.

    As for your own question: Sorry if my initial description of perceptual agency was confusing. I meant to be describing perceptual agency in the case of linguistic agents there. As I say a bit later on, in the case of nonlinguistic agents perceptual agency might be shaped by a more limited set of dispositions, including but not necessarily limited to “perception and belief- and desire-like drives.”

  22. Hi Jeff, thanks for your detailed responses. I have some follow ups.

    “Without perceptual agency I wonder what inputs propositional agency would have to work with, in order to decide what ends to pursue and how to pursue them.”

    My understanding of Kant (which is not all I want it to be!) is this: pure practical reason, wand hence without the exercise of perceptual agency, sets at least these two ends: the end of supporting and the end of not undermining practical rationality. We do need the exercise of perceptual agency to learn what support particular rational beings need and what might undermine their rationality.

    “If we can show that propositional agency can set ends without perceptual agency, then I would be happy to say that propositional agency (plus whatever provides these inputs) is sufficient for the right to life (among other rights).”

    Ok.

    “Then the question would become: (a) can a purely propositional agent have a stronger interest in life than a purely perceptual agent… and (b) does the strength of a right depend on the strength of the interests the satisfaction of which the right is meant to protect (more on this in a moment)?”

    There is also be the question, as you point out, of (c) whether a propositional + perceptual agent has a stronger right than a merely perceptual agent.

    Your answer to (a) is: “that would depend on the details, but I find it plausible that the answer could be yes”

    It seems like you are thinking the answer to (b) is yes and then using that to answer (c): “it seems plausible to me that perceptual + propositional agents can have a stronger interest in life than purely perceptual agents, all else equal (since they can have more interests the satisfaction of which depends on their survival.” But the question is whether (c) is argued for by appeal to capacities and their exercise vs. by comparing interests.

    Also, the answer to (c) is presses on the equivalence thesis when it is put this way: “Insofar as humans and nonhumans exercise the same kind of agency, do we have the same kind of intrinsic moral status?” (p.2) is ambiguous between (i) they exercise *only* the same agency and (ii) one of them is exercising perceptual + propositional agency and the other is exercising only perceptual agency. I think you have in mind only (i), and it comes through when you state the equivalence thesis this way: “Insofar as human and nonhuman animals act exclusively as perceptual agents, we have the same intrinsic moral status” (p.2).

    “For people who actually believe in rights, they might want to think about these issues differently than me :))”

    Yes, that’s me 🙂

    “One is epistemic: How can we tell the difference (subjectively and objectively) between implicit perceptual agency and implicit propositional agency?”

    I was leaving the epistemic issues and just focusing on the metaphysics, i.e., the metaphysical grounding of, moral status.

    “when I get caught up in the flow of having a conversation, I am clearly using at least some implicit propositional agency. But what about when I get caught up in the flow of driving a car, or playing a sport, or playing an instrument?”

    I don’t see that it is any different. Is it because you think the conversation involves language and so it has to be using propositional agency whereas you think activities that don’t involve language might not be doing so. But one might think that just as once you learn a visual concept like “brown,” and so can’t help but see things as brown, so too once you learn the concept good, you can’t help but see things as good/bad, etc. (at least in some respect).

    “when I act implicitly propositionally, what kind of moral status do I have relative to these actions? In particular, do I have the same kind of moral status that I have when I act explicitly propositionally”

    What do you think the difference between these is? I would have thought that both involve the application of normative concepts, the issue is how conscious the person is of their doing so. Since both forms involve the exercise of propositional agency, I would assume that both ground moral status.

    Also, I’m not sure now whether it is the proposition agency = the making of normative judgments or whether proposition agency = making normative judgments at will (where I guess this means: I chose to make a normative judgment? I would think that work of Pamela Hieronymi is relevant here for *not* understanding practical reasoning as under one’s control in this sense)

    I am also not unsure what perceptual agency involves. You describe it as “the capacity to phenomenally consciously experience positive and negative states.” Does this the animal needs the capacity for self-consciousness in order to have perceptual agency (or what does adding in the word “consciously” do/mean)? Many animals lack the capacity for being awareness of their own mental states (but many can simply have a positive or negative mental experience).

    I’m not sure what you mean by saying the right to life is “all or nothing” whereas the right to liberty and property are not. It is true that one either has life or not, but rights to all of these things might come in degrees (one might have a strong or weak right to life).

    Also, what is covered by right to life. I figured this was shorthand for more than just the right not to be killed, but maybe I was wrong to assume that. For instance, I think animals have a right not to be experimented upon and a right not to be tortured and I thought this too would be covered (and notice that these things come in degrees – how often, in what ways, etc. one is tortured).

    In any case you agree that “a right to liberty or property, are not all or nothing, but it might still make sense to attribute them to animals on the basis of possession rather than exercise of the relevant capacity” so why the difference when it comes to the right to autonomy – why does this right require the exercise of the capacity? (Another paper for you to write!)

  23. Jeff Sebo says:

    Julie, first of all, thanks so much again for all your detailed questions and comments here. This is really helpful and interesting. I really appreciate your taking the time.

    I agree with most of what you write here, so let me focus on the issues where we may still have disagreement or where I still feel unclear about things.

    – “Is it because you think the conversation involves language and so it has to be using propositional agency whereas you think activities that don’t involve language might not be doing so. But one might think that just as once you learn a visual concept like “brown,” and so can’t help but see things as brown, so too once you learn the concept good, you can’t help but see things as good/bad, etc. (at least in some respect).”

    Yes, I was thinking that when I get caught up in the flow of conversation, my propositional self must be at least partly in control. Whereas when I get caught up in the flow of driving a car, or playing a sport, or playing an instrument, that may or may not be the case depending on the details. (In some cases an activity might be complex enough that being caught up in it requires propositional thought, in other cases it might not be. Probably some of the activities that I mentioned can go either way, so for our purposes here we can focus on simpler examples, like driving on an open road or shooting free throws or playing scales on a piano.) So yes, with all that in mind, my thought was that if I get caught up in an activity that requires propositional thought, then I can trust that my behavior is at least partly propositional. Otherwise I might not be able to tell.

    When you compare the concept “brown” to the concept “good,” I take it that your point is that propositional agency affects what concepts you have, and that what concepts you have affects what perceptions you have. So your propositional agency shapes your perceptual agency: Even when a linguistic agent acts purely perceptually, they may see things and do things in ways that nonlinguistic agents would never be able to. If this is your point. I agree. And as with previous points, my question would be: What are the implications for moral status? If my perceptual self is performing an action, yet they are using concepts that my propositional self conditioned them to have, then do I have only the kinds / aspects of moral status that come along with perceptual agency, or do I also have the kinds / aspects of moral status that come along with propositional agency, with respect to those actions?

    I think that as before, my answer would be: It depends on how those concepts affect the mechanisms through which I act. To the degree that seeing things as “good” allows for perceptual judgments that more closely resemble propositional judgments, I would probably want to say that my moral status is closer to the kind that comes along with propositional agency in those cases. To the degree that seeing things as “good” makes my perceptual judgments different and more complex but still fundamentally non-propositional, I would probably want to say that my moral status is closer to the kind that comes along with perceptual agency in those cases. So we now have at least three middle ground categories where my assessment would depend on the relevant empirical facts as well as further moral questions: mixed perceptual-propositional actions, implicit propositional actions, and perceptual actions that make use of propositional concepts. Are there any others we may be missing? 🙂

    – “What do you think the difference between [implicit and explicit propositional agency] is? I would have thought that both involve the application of normative concepts, the issue is how conscious the person is of their doing so. Since both forms involve the exercise of propositional agency, I would assume that both ground moral status.”

    I think that this is an open question for me. It depends, empirically, on how implicit propositional agency works (how do we apply normative concepts in implicit cases?), and, normatively, whether or not the differences between implicit and explicit propositional agency are relevant to, e.g. our having a strong right to autonomy or moral responsibility for what we do in those cases.

    I want to be open to the possibility of going either way here. In particular, I want to be open to the possibility that implicit propositional agency is more like perceptual agency than like explicit propositional agency in at least some relevant respects. For example, do we really, in implicit cases, step back from our beliefs, desires, and intentions and ask whether or not we have reason to endorse them and act on them all things considered? If not, are we really, in those moments, evaluable in the same kind of way as we are in those moments when we do think about them this way?

    – “Also, I’m not sure now whether it is the proposition agency = the making of normative judgments or whether proposition agency = making normative judgments at will.”

    I think of propositional agency as the former. You have a strong right to autonomy and moral responsibility for what you do only when you make normative judgments. And you can make normative judgments at will (i.e. make normative judgments about whether to make normative judgments) only when you are already making normative judgments. What this means is that you can be blamed for what you do propositionally (including what you do propositionally to ensure that you continue to act propositionally), but you cannot be blamed for not doing anything propositionally in the first place. In other words, if your propositional self happens to be in control, then they can be blamed for not ensuring that they remain in control. But if they happen to not be in control, then they cannot be blamed for that, nor can your perceptual self be blamed for that (since your perceptual self is not an apt target for praise or blame to begin with).

    – “I am also not unsure what perceptual agency involves. You describe it as “the capacity to phenomenally consciously experience positive and negative states.” Does this the animal needs the capacity for self-consciousness in order to have perceptual agency (or what does adding in the word “consciously” do/mean)? Many animals lack the capacity for being awareness of their own mental states (but many can simply have a positive or negative mental experience).”

    I was meaning to define sentience, not perceptual agency, as the capacity to phenomenally consciously experience positive and negative states. I mentioned that to grant your point that sentience and perceptual agency may or may not always come together. It depends on whether or not we think that perceptual agency requires phenomenal consciousness. If so, then most if not all perceptual agents will be sentient beings, and most if not all sentient beings will be perceptual agents. (Though if we imagine purely passive sentient beings, they might not be perceptual agents.) If not, these categories might come apart more.

    Regarding phenomenal consciousness, the reason I think that phenomenal consciousness is relevant is that I think that phenomenal consciousness is what allows for morally relevant interests. Regarding whether animals have phenomenal consciousness, that depends on your theory of phenomenal consciousness. If you (a) accept a higher order thought theory of phenomenal consciousness and (b) think that higher order thought requires propositional language, then you might be skeptical that any nonhuman animal is phenomenally conscious. If, on the other hand, you reject either or both of these claims (I reject (a) but not (b)), then you should be less skeptical about that. (Also, FWIW, while I think that higher order thought might be rare among nonhuman animals, I think that higher order awareness more generally is very common.)

    – “I’m not sure what you mean by saying the right to life is “all or nothing” whereas the right to liberty and property are not. It is true that one either has life or not, but rights to all of these things might come in degrees (one might have a strong or weak right to life). … In any case you agree that “a right to liberty or property, are not all or nothing, but it might still make sense to attribute them to animals on the basis of possession rather than exercise of the relevant capacity” so why the difference when it comes to the right to autonomy – why does this right require the exercise of the capacity? (Another paper for you to write!)”

    Thanks for pressing me on this. I need to find a better way to put this point. Let me try to put you into my headspace and then see if we can find a way to say what I want to say 🙂

    Okay, so, suppose that the human mind is like the control center in Inside Out. But instead of emotions taking turns controlling a human body, my dog Smoky and I take turns controlling a human body. Sometimes we control things separately, sometimes we control things together. But unless I am currently controlling things, I have no control over whether I control things. I simply gain and lose access to the control panel according to how the human body responds to various stimuli. Now suppose that, as it happens, Smoky is in control of the human body right now. All I can do is watch helplessly from the other side of the control center while Smoky makes the human body run around the room, knocking over lamps and eating socks. Now imagine that the human body’s partner comes home and says, “Why did you knock over all the lamps and eat all the socks?” Being back in control now, I make the human body say, “My capacity for perceptual agency did that, not my capacity for propositional agency!” And the human body’s partner responds, “Well you at least *had* a capacity for propositional agency at the time. It at least *existed.* So you count as morally responsible for everything that you did.” At that point I think that it would be perfectly reasonable for me to make the human body insist, “So what if I had a capacity for propositional agency at the time? It had nothing whatsoever to do with this action, nor did it have anything whatsoever to do with its having nothing whatsoever to do with this action. Why should I be blamed for failing to meet certain standards, when the part of me that could have met them had no control, and the part of me that had control could never have met them?”

    I think that all cases of pure perceptual agency are like this, though of course not as extreme. Yes, I have a capacity for propositional agency. It exists. But if and when it has nothing to do with a particular action, and nothing to do with its having nothing to do with that action, it would be inappropriate to treat me as a full rational agent, with a strong right to autonomy and moral responsibility for what I do. At least a weak right to life, liberty, and property (and maybe weak autonomy and accountability) make sense either way, because these things are good no matter which part of me is in control (though the details may vary). But when it comes to strong autonomy and accountability, these aspects of moral status make sense only when my propositional self is in control, so I think that we should be more fine-grained about how we apply them, insofar as we epistemically and practically can be.

  24. Hi, Jeff.

    Awesome paper! Here is one thought I had.

    In your paper, you write that cases of intoxication, addiction, and compulsion “are all cases of exclusively perceptual action performed by a propositional agent, and they are all cases where we find it plausible to say that we do not – in these moments, with respect to these particular actions – have the same kind of right to autonomy or the same kind of moral responsibility that we normally have.”

    This might be true for cases of extreme intoxication, but it’s not clear to me that cases of addiction and compulsion are cases of “exclusively perceptual action.” Take a case in which Jones is addicted to alcohol, and although he does not drink during the workday, he stops by the liquor store every day at 4:45 p.m. When is it that he is performing an exclusively perceptual action? Is it at 4:45, when he walks into the liquor store? But when he walks into the store, he is probably thinking something like this: “I should purchase two bottles of whiskey so that I have enough whiskey to make it through the rest of the day.” And then he probably purchases two bottles of whiskey on the basis of this judgment.

    You write earlier in the paper, “Thus, for example, if you think to yourself, explicitly or implicitly, ‘I should eat a sandwich so that I have enough energy to make it through the afternoon,’ and then you eat a sandwich on the basis of this judgment, then you are thinking and acting as a propositional agent.” So by analogy, it looks like, at 4:45, Jones is thinking and acting as a propositional agent.

    Is he performing an exclusively perceptual action later on, after he has already started drinking the whiskey? But if that’s the case, then he is performing an exclusively perceptual action in virtue of being intoxicated, not in virtue of being addicted.

    I think the same reasoning might go for cases of compulsion. Take a case in which Sally is a compulsive hand-washer, and her kitchen faucet is broken. I imagine she is going to think something like this: “I should get this kitchen faucet fixed so that I can wash my hands here instead of walking into the bathroom to do it.” And then she gets the faucet fixed on the basis of this judgment. It looks like, in this case, too, she is thinking and acting as a propositional agent.

    As Dan Hooley points out, “the extent to which your argument is truly revisionary might be seen to rest on just how often we act purely as perceptual agents.” I’m worried that we act purely as perceptual agents less often than your paper suggests.

  25. Actually, I don’t think I need to add the complication of the broken faucet. Suppose Sally thinks, “I should wash my hands,” and then she washes her hands on the basis of this judgment. Even in that moment, it looks to me like she’s acting as a propositional agent.

  26. Jeff Sebo says:

    Molly, thank you! These are great cases, in part because they show that the “actions” that tend to be the target of moral evaluation are really sets of actions, where some members of these sets may be resulting from different cognitive processes than others.

    When I was talking about addiction, compulsion, and intoxication, I meant to be talking about clear cases where most philosophers would agree that an agent is merely behaving rather than acting. But of course, in most real life cases, even addiction, compulsion, and intoxication involve a lot of rational agency. In a 30 minute sequence during which a person gets a drink, they may perform some purely propositional actions, some purely perceptual actions, some mixed actions, and so on. My claim about these cases would be that to the degree that the agent is acting propositionally, they are responsible for what they do, and to the degree that they are acting perceptually, they are not (though they are still accountable in other ways).

    In many cases propositional agency will be involved enough for attributions of responsibility to be appropriate (even if it should be direct responsibility for some actions and indirect responsibility for (foreseeably causing or allowing) others). Even so, it can still help to make more nuanced evaluations, so that instead of simply blaming a person for drinking too much, we can blame them for knowingly and willingly placing themselves in a situation in which, they should have expected, they would drink too much (and then beyond that, we can update our view about how reliable a person they are, about whether we still want them to be playing certain roles in our lives, and so on).

    In other cases propositional agency may not be as involved. This is true not only about addiction, compulsion, and intoxication but also about other cases of perceptual agency. For example, an agent may encounter a novel situation they could not have foreseen, and they may act perceptually in the heat of the moment without having time to think propositionally about what to do at all. Maybe some cases of breaking up a fight, or pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming train, are like that. In these cases, if the agent really did act purely perceptually, they would not be praiseworthy for what they do. But they would still merit positive evaluation, they may still merit a reward, and so on.

    At the end of your comment you suggest that we may not act purely perceptually as often as I suggest, and so my thesis may not be as revisionary as I suggest. I think this is fair. But three things.

    First, as I say in the paper, my main goal in the paper is to defend my thesis about agency and moral status. If it turns out that this thesis has less revisionary implications than I suggested, that would be fine with me.

    Second, even if we do not act purely perceptually as often as I suggested, we may act in other ways that are at least partly relevantly similar. For example we may perform mixed actions, implicit propositional actions, and so on. If so, and if we think that these middle ground cases have implications for moral status too, then that would have revisionary implications too.

    Third, and with all of that said, I do still think that many of our actions are purely perceptual. Many of them may be foreseeable consequences of propositional actions, and therefore we may be indirectly responsible for them. But I think that we act purely perceptually more often than the phenomenology suggests, because we tend to construct rationalizing explanations of our behavior whether or not our behavior resulted from rational deliberation. But even if this is right, I have no idea how far it goes in practice.