Huget, Hailey Elizabeth (2017). 'Towards a Theory of Moral Community' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


“Moral community” is a frequently used—but under-theorized—concept both within the capabilities approach and within moral philosophy more generally. Philosophers who invoke the term often neglect to define it or distinguish it from other concepts. For example, philosophers often discuss “membership in the moral community” without explaining how that differs from terms that appear to be related, like moral status or moral standing (see, e.g., Bagnoli 2007; Frey 1987; Hacker-Wright 2007; Leiter 2013; Muraca 2011; Shoemaker 2007; Warren 1973). Others imply that the moral community is more or less equivalent to the set of all rights-bearers (see, e.g. Lomasky 1987) or the set of all human beings or persons (Bayertz 1999; Cohen 2001; Derpmann 2015, 110; Latinen 2015, 131; Nussbaum 1997, 6). Still others assert that the moral community is something its members participate in, contribute to, or preserve, without explaining what such activity would look like (Baier 1980, 139; Hardingham 2004; Lotz 2014, 242; Walker 2006).  

In section I, I aim to remedy the under-theorization of the concept by canvassing existing understandings of the term and explaining the main fault lines between these views. I then show, in section II, how these views – while limited on their own – should be seen as jointly providing the building blocks to crafting a genuinely satisfactory theory of moral community. In section III I canvass two possible candidates for just such a theory.

I begin by arguing that philosophers who invoke the concept typically have either a relational or descriptive view of moral community in mind. Descriptive views take the moral community to be a set of creatures with a shared moral trait or property, like being owed full and equal moral consideration (Leiter 2013), being the counterparty of a directed duty (Morris 2011), or having moral standing (Warren 1973). For Nussbaum, for example, “the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings” connects all human beings to the moral property of being owed equal respect and dignity (1997, 6). Descriptive views do not require the members of the moral community to stand in any relations to one another in order for the set members to count as a moral community. Relational views, by contrast, take the moral community to be defined by its members standing in certain kinds of relations – such as, for example, relations of recognition, trust, or solidarity (Kukla and Lance 2009; Ebels-Duggan 2009). On a relational view, the set of creatures that share moral properties is not sufficient to qualify as the moral community.

Philosophers on either side of the relational/descriptive divide typically put the term “moral community” to different theoretical purposes. Descriptive theorists use the concept of moral community to answer questions about what kinds of entities have moral entitlements – have rights, or are owed moral consideration, or have moral status. For example, cosmopolitans like Nussbaum typically invoke the term to argue that we have moral obligations to all human beings, and not merely to national compatriots (1997). Meanwhile, relational theorists use the concept to identify certain kinds of praiseworthy moral action (i.e., entering into, building, or sustaining certain kinds of moral relations).

I argue that both purposes – identifying the entities that have moral entitlements, and identifying praiseworthy moral relations -- are crucial to keep in view if we are to have a satisfactory understanding of moral community. I show how relational views typically fail to specify the extension of entities with whom we are supposed to enter into the relevant moral relations and thereby fail to give adequate action-guidance. Descriptive views, by contrast, succeed in picking out the entities that have moral entitlements. But I argue that descriptive views are unsatisfying by drawing on Ebels-Duggan’s (2009) view that in a world without certain kinds of moral relations – specifically trusting, end-sharing, and end-determining relations – is a world with merely provisional, insecure moral entitlements.

The upshot of this discussion is that a satisfactory view of moral community will combine relational and descriptive approaches. It will give guidance about the kinds of relations that constitute, sustain, and build the moral community, while also identifying the kinds of entities who are to take part in those relations.  

I argue that, with these criteria in place, we can start to bring candidates for a more satisfactory understanding of moral community into focus. I canvass two possible candidates in this paper: symmetrical and asymmetrical views.

Both symmetrical and asymmetrical views understand the moral community as an achievement: something that we constitute and sustain by entering into the kinds of relations that make moral entitlements determinate rather than merely provisional. In other words, the moral community does not exist in the absence of certain kinds of relations obtaining among its members. In this way, an adequate theory of moral community supports claims made by Hardingham (2004), Walker (2006), Lotz (2014) and Baier (1980) that the moral community is the kind of thing individuals can participate in or contribute to: the moral community depends for its existence on the activities of its members.  

Symmetrical and asymmetrical views differ, however, in how they pick out the extension of creatures that are to be members of that community. Symmetrical views claim that all and only those entities capable of partaking in the relevant relations are to be considered members of the moral community, with attendant entitlements. Asymmetrical views claim that all but not only the entities capable of partaking in the relevant relations are to be considered members of the moral community. While I do not take a stance on which candidate is preferable, I discuss considerations for and against both views in the paper.

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