This essay, by Oxford graduate student Henry Phipps, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Can the Concept of Species Specific Animal Dignity Refute the Argument From Marginal Cases?
The argument from marginal cases notes that certain severely disabled humans have cognitive capabilities comparable to certain animals. These humans are not thought to have the status of rational persons, yet we believe that they possess significant moral status and rights. But simultaneously most people believe that animals with comparable cognitive capabilities are not possessed of the same moral status; for instance we regularly kill them for food and in medical experiments. The argument from marginal cases claims that these humans do not differ in any morally relevant respect from certain animals and that therefore we ought to treat these like cases alike. We are then faced with a choice of two options, either extend the moral status and rights that severely mentally disabled humans have to like cases of animals or deny that such humans have significant moral status and rights. Since the latter option seems repugnant, proponents of the argument then claim we have no choice but to adopt the former position that many animals have moral status and rights comparable to those attributed to severely mentally disabled humans.
One popular means of attempting to refute this argument is to argue that membership of the species Homo sapiens is morally relevant and entitles an individual to moral status that those not members of the species do not possess.
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