Agency as the Grounds for Moral Standing

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


If we have, or can have, directed obligations to an individual, then she has moral standing. Do non-human animals have moral standing? If so, why? Prevailing accounts hold that animals have moral standing because they are sentient. I develop and defend an alternative account which appeals to the kind of capacity for agency we share with other animals.

I argue for three claims. Firstly, I argue that appeals to sentience as the grounds of moral standing are less convincing than many philosophers have thought. On the one hand, many sentience accounts are ‘indirect’ accounts, which hold that animals have moral standing because they are sentient, and that sentient beings have interests which matter intrinsically — I argue that indirect accounts reverse the proper explanatory relationship between interests and moral standing. So, we should instead pursue ‘direct’ accounts, which start by explaining why individuals matter. But on the other hand, direct accounts which appeal only to sentience do not work either. Sentience does not plausibly explain why we, human persons, matter; and a common appeal on the part of sentientists to the selfhood of sentient beings is plausible only if agential properties are packed into the relevant notion of selfhood. I take this is as good motivation to pursue a direct agency account.

Secondly, then, I argue that humans and animals are ‘volitional’ agents: due to the nature of their abilities, they can, and must, choose to act on the basis of their desires. Finally, drawing on accounts from Christine Korsgaard and Evelyn Pluhar, I argue that we have good reason to think that volitional agency is the grounds for the moral standing of humans and animals. For some moral rules are justified just by our being volitional agents. If other animals are volitional agents, then we should expect them to be covered by the same rules.

Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Owens (Supervisor) & Maria Alvarez (Supervisor)

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