Douglas MacLean

Is Being Human a Moral Concept?


1.      Defends speciesism (prefers to call it “humanism”)

         a.      Bias humans have in favor of their own kind

         b.      “Being human gives us special moral status”


2.      Assumptions of the critics of speciesism that he rejects (I believe?)

         a.      Moral individualism: Individual, never group properties, are what mater morally

                   i.       Moral status is conferred by individual properties of the being with the status and never by group (or relational?) properties

                   ii.      Rachels: How an individual may be treated is determined not by group membership, but considering his/her own particular characteristics

         b.      Moral reasons must be agent-neutral rather than agent-relative

                   i.       That is, they must be a reason for anyone to behave in a certain ways rather than only a reason for certain agents

                   ii.      Special relations idea, which rejects impartiality, suggest that moral reasons are sometimes agent-relative: the mother has a moral reason to help her child that the stranger does not have

3.      MacLean’s alternative

         a.      Ethics tied to practices that define what it is to live a human life

                   i.       So group properties matter

         b.      Moral reasons are human reasons –norms for creatures like us (not intelligent aliens)–agent relative, not agent neutral


4.      MacLean does think animal suffering has moral significance and objects to common mistreatment of animals even though he is a speciesist

         a.      “A decent human life takes seriously cruelty, callousness, indifference to nonhumans”

         b.      MacLean a virtue theorist? Cruelty to animals wrong not because it harms the animals but because it is not virtuous (part of a decent human life)?

5.      Maclean rejects “equal consideration of interests of animals”

         a.      This is a requirement Singer gives to avoid speciesism

         b.      “Reasonable concern for lives suffering of animals not doled out on equal basis”

         c.      “Different from concern for life and suffering of fellow humans”



7.      Marginal case argument (MC argument)

         a.      Severely retarded humans have moral status conferring properties to a lesser extent than do some animals (so we either have to treat the animals better or treat these humans like we do animals)

8.      MacLean seems to reject the “sterotype reply” to MC argument

         a.      Yet he seems to buy group properties as being relevant above

         b.      Stereotype reply “We should grant moral status to individuals on the basis of properties they do not possess as individuals but that are norms for groups of which they are members”

                   i.       E.g., most humans are rational moral agents and this gives them moral status and though severely retarded humans are less rational moral agents (than many animals), they get moral status because they are members of a group (humans) who normally have that capacity (while the animals do not)



10.    Only when separate ourselves from nature that we gain a sense of dignity, become suitable objects of respect

11.    Taboos (like not eating human flesh)

         a.      Simply accept taboos, don’t try to justify them

                   i.       Not practices we attempt to support with moral reasons

         b.      Taboos humanize our existence and give us a sense of what it means to live a human life

         c.      Taboos humanize our lives in ways that are necessary for making sense of morality

         d.      Taboos we accept tell us something about ethical significance of being human

12.    Examples of humanizing taboos

         a.      Part of what it means to be human is

                   i.       We don’t eat off ground, defecate in public or in other ways “behave like animals”

13.    Rituals attached to events (birth, death, sex, eating) that express our animal nature allow us to transcend our animal nature


14.    Point of these practices is to make it possible for us to see ourselves as something other than natural creatures whose behavior is governed solely by requirements of survival

15.    As we construct a moral universe around these practice, can’t help but include all humans

         a.      For these morally foundational practices aim to humanize the existence of our species

16.    Thus “it’s a human being” can be a moral reason




18.    Differences in our relations with animals and humans (based on our distinguishing ourselves from animals)

         a.      Rights to assistance: A human infant whose life is in peril has a right to our assistance, while a dolphin in the sea whose life is in peril does not

                   i.       Status conferring properties can’t make sense of this notion of basic human right

                            (1)    Unless “being human” is morally relevant

         b.      Value predation of animals not humans: Pain/predation of animals in the wild is something we react to with awe and respect for nature, not moral outrage as we would the infliction and predation on humans

                   i.       Pain in the natural world makes no moral claim on us at all

                            (1)    Is this true?

19.    Is it speciesist (using being human as a moral reason) to want to alleviate human suffering but not natural suffering in nature?



21.    As life is farther removed from human beings and human society moral reasons cease to govern our relationships with it

         a.      Morality dealing with moral agency, perhaps

         b.      But not morality dealing with moral status, having value and being owed obligations

         c.      ET?

22.    More highly evolved alien species determine that things go better in universe if life on earth destroyed   

         a.      From agent neutral perspective ought to consider cooperating

                   i.       Resisting is just a self-serving prejudice

23.    Both sides in the pro and anti-speciesism debate beg the question

24.    But need to ask: Which side are you on?



26.    Mistakenly claims preference for endangered species over more plentiful species, or for natives over exotic species, is speciesist

         a.      But it is not in the sense that the reason for preferential treatment isn’t solely because they are a member of a certain species, but rather because they are endangered or invasive, not native


27.    Christianity’s idea that humans are of “cosmic significance/value”


28.    Even if one accepts (obligations due to) special relations and the related agent-relative reasons for action, shared species membership (e.g., being human) doesn’t seem to be able to ground such obligations

         a.      MacLean later finds a different sort of reason to conclude being human is morally relevant


29.    Argument that meat eating is not a trivial matter, “but something deep indeed”

         a.      True we don’t need meat for nutrition

         b.      But eating meat has shaped and transformed human biology and culture

         c.      Pollan’s analogy desire for sex and to eat meat: If desire to eat meat is trivial then so is the desire to have sex; a mere recreational preference

                   i.       Isn’t what is analogous the desire to eat and the desire for sex, not the desire for a specific type of food?


30.    Pests don’t count?

         a.      Object to causing pain to other humans but “Don’t object to killing or inflicting suffering on vermin/pests/natural enemies”

         b.      Doesn’t matter that the poison we use to kill rats cause them pain?