We all treat some things as having moral standing, while denying it of others. Humans got it and chairs lack it. Why? Many of us feel it is morally wrong to harm chimpanzees, but few lose sleep over swatting a fly. Why?
More generally, how do we determine which beings have moral standing and which do not?
Philosophers have largely been of two minds about the question of moral standing: One tradition emphasizes Experience (the capacity to feel pain and pleasure), the other emphasizes Agency (complexity of cognition and lifestyle). Edouard Machery and I attempt to explain this divide in our new paper for the special issue of Review of Philosophy and Psychology on Consciousness and Moral Cognition being edited by Mark Phelan and Adam Waytz (preprint available here). We hypothesize that lay judgments about moral standing depend importantly on two independent cues (Experience and Agency), and that the two philosophical traditions reflect this aspect of folk moral cognition. Support comes from a series of new experiments looking at lay moral judgments in different situations. We find, for example, that Experience (but not Agency) has a significant effect on moral judgments concerning experimentation on monkeys, while Agency (but not Experience) has a significant effect on moral judgments concerning experimentation on aliens. And we argue that such results lend plausibility to the proposed causal link between folk moral cognition and the philosophical traditions.