SOPhiA 2022

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

The epistemic objection to sentience as criterion for moral status
(Ethics, English)

According to the received view, sentience is necessary and sufficient for moral status. In other words, whether a being has intrinsic moral relevance is determined by its capacity for conscious experience, especially valenced experience like pleasure and pain. Based on this assumption, it seems reasonable to use sentience as a criterion to ascribe moral status in practice. According to this method, if we want to know whether we might have ethical obligations to a being, we should consult the best available science to ascertain whether it is sentient. The epistemic objection to this view derives from our profound uncertainty about sentience. According to this objection, we cannot use sentience as a criterion to ascribe moral status in real-world situations. For we cannot know in the foreseeable future which animals and AI systems are sentient while ethical questions regarding the possession of moral status are urgent. Therefore, we need to formulate an alternative criterion.



I reject the epistemic objection. Specifically, I argue that the epistemic objection is dissolved once one clearly distinguishes between the question (a) what determines moral status and (b) what criterion should be employed in practice to ascribe moral status. I will argue that (i) epistemic concerns are irrelevant to what determines moral status and (ii) criteria of moral status have inescapably to be based on sentience, if one concedes that sentience determines moral status. It follows that doubts about our epistemic access to sentience cannot be used to motivate an alternative criterion of moral status. If sentience determines moral status, then there can be no alternative criterion for ascriptions of moral status. Thus, if proponents of the epistemic objection are correctly skeptical of our attempts to ascertain the distribution of sentience, then the sad truth is that we cannot know the distribution of moral status. However, I briefly argue against such strong pessimism.


Chair: Stephen Müller
Time: 16:00-16:30, 07 September 2022 (Wednesday)
Location: SR 1.005

Leonard Dung 
(Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany)



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