Monday, February 12, 2018

Taking the Relational Turn: How should we think about the moral status of animals, robots and Others?

How should we think about the moral status of non-human (or pre-human) entities? Do animals/robots/foetuses have moral status? If so, why? It is important to get the answer right. Entities with moral status are objects of moral concern. We typically owe duties to them and they may have rights against us. Furthermore, we don’t want to make any moral errors. We don’t want to mistreat a proper object of moral concern or impose burdensome and unnecessary duties. How can we avoid this?

David Gunkel and Mark Coeckelbergh try to provide some answers in their paper ‘Facing Animals: A Relational, Other-Oriented Approach to Moral Standing’. As you might guess from the title, the paper is primarily about the moral status of animals, but the position defended therein is of broader ethical significance. In essence, Gunkel and Coeckelbergh argue that when thinking about the moral status of animals (and other entities) we should take the ‘relational turn’:

The Relational Turn: When thinking about the moral status of non-human entities we should focus less on their intrinsic metaphysical properties and more on how we relate to them.

In the remainder of this post, I want to set out Gunkel and Coeckelbergh’s case for the relational turn, explaining what that means in more concrete terms, and offering some critical reflections of my own.

1. Against the Properties Approach
Gunkel and Coeckelbergh present the relational turn as an alternative to what they claim is the dominant approach in the field of animal ethics: the properties approach. The properties approach answers questions of moral status of by focusing on the ontological properties of the entity in question. To give an example, two of the most famous voices in the field of animal ethics are Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Both make strong arguments in favour of the moral status of animals, but do so from different moral traditions. Singer is a utilitarian; Regan is a Kantian. Nevertheless, both build their arguments from claims about the ontological properties of animals. For Singer, what matters for moral status is the capacity for suffering. If animals have this capacity, then they are proper objects of moral concern, and we have a duty to prevent their suffering. For Regan, what matters is whether animals can be the ‘subject of a life’. If they can express this property, then they are proper objects of moral concern and we have corresponding duties toward them.

Both arguments are quintessential examples of the properties approach in action. To put that approach on a more formal footing, we can say that the following represents the Singer/Regan-style argument for moral status:

  • (1) Any entity that exemplifies property P [‘capacity for suffering’/‘being the subject of a life’] has moral status.

  • (2) Animals exemplify property P.

  • (3) Therefore, animals have moral status.

This is an abstract template. Singer and Regan fill it out in particular ways, and those ways have proven quite influential, but you could dispute their take on it. Perhaps it is some other property (or combination of properties) that really matters when it comes to determining moral status (e.g. the capacity for conversation/speech or the capacity for religious belief)? It is important to stress the flexibility of the properties approach here. It becomes important below.

Despite this flexibility, Gunkel and Coeckelbergh argue that this properties approach to animal ethics is fundamentally misguided. They offer four main criticisms. These criticisms do not target particular premises of the Singer/Regan-style argument; instead, they take issue with the entire Singer/Regan enterprise.

The first criticism is that the properties approach proceeds from an unexamined anthropocentric bias. In other words, proponents of the approach start with properties that humans clearly exemplify, such as sentience or self-awareness, and then work outwards from those properties to determine the moral status of animals. If animals are sufficiently human-like with respect to those properties, they will be welcomed into the community of moral concern. If they are not, they are excluded. This, then, is a critique of the reasoning procedure followed by proponents of the properties approach.

The second criticism is that the properties approach faces significant epistemological problems. Many of the properties favoured in Singer/Regan-style arguments are epistemically opaque. How can we know if an animal suffers or is the subject of a life? We don’t have direct epistemic access to these states of being? We have to infer them from outward behaviour, and this leads us to many interminable disputes. Is the dog really suffering because it yelps? Does it have the concept of itself as a continuing being? We can never know for sure. Of course, if this is really a problem, then it is a problem for how we determine the moral status of humans too. After all, we don’t have direct access to another human being’s inner mental life. But Gunkel and Coeckelbergh argue that there is just much more ambiguity and doubt in the case of animals.

The third criticism is that the properties approach creates an illusion of neutrality when it comes to determining moral status. The idea is that the presence or absence of the relevant properties can be objectively and neutrally determined. It is a matter of fact whether or not an animal can suffer; it is a matter of fact whether they are the subject of a life. These are matters to be determined by scientists and animal behaviourists, not ethicists. But this ignores how deeply moral/ethical the determination of moral status really is.

The fourth criticism is that the properties approach often involves sticking with a traditional and defective method for determining moral status. The decisions as to which properties ‘count’ are ones that are typically made before we are born and are deeply embedded in social norms and practices. This is why, historically, women and slaves were excluded from moral communities. To persist with the properties approach is to persist with the dubious social and cultural norms.

I have to say I have some problems with each of these criticisms. I certainly don’t think any of them poses a fatal problem for the properties approach. On the contrary, most of them seem to be either unavoidable (the first and second criticisms) or just problems with how the method has or might be employed (the third and fourth criticisms). These problems seem surmountable to me. But I’ll set those concerns to the side for now and consider the merits of the ‘relational’ alternative.

2. What does the relational turn entail?
As noted in the intro, taking the relational turn involves focusing on how other beings relate to us and enter into our lives, and not on their metaphysical properties. It is our relations to these ‘Others’ that raise ethical questions about their status, not some prior knowledge of their metaphysical properties. In promoting this relational approach, Gunkel and Coeckelbergh are heavily influenced by the work of the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas. He argued that ontology does not precede morality. On the contrary, the primary fact of existence was its relationality, i.e. the fact that we are in the world with others who intrude upon us in various ways. This intrusion necessitates a moral response and as part of that response we start to parse our relations into ontological categories. Moral engagement with the Other is the more fundamental fact of existence.

Here’s where things get a little obscure and linguistically challenging. Levinas (and others) explain this way of thinking by asking whether other beings in the world ‘take on a face’. This ‘taking on a face’ seems to be the equivalent of taking on ‘moral status’. Gunkel and Coeckelbergh like this terminology and argue that the ‘face-taking’ question is the central one in animal ethics because it is distinct from the properties question . They formulate the ‘face-taking’ question in the following terms:

Face-taking question: What does it take for an animal (or an ‘Other) to supervene and be revealed as having face? Or, to put in another way, under what practical conditions does an animal get included in a moral community?

Asking this question takes us away from the properties-oriented mindset. To further explain the shift, Gunkel and Coeckelbergh reference the work of Donna Haraway, who argued that the crucial question in animal ethics is not whether animals can suffer but whether they can ‘work’ or ‘play’, whether we can enter into an embodied interpersonal interactions with them, and so on. Gunkel and Coeckelbergh then focus on the conditions under which animals start enter into meaningful and morally significant relations with us. Their discussion gets quite detailed, but they single out two things that seem to be quite important in determining whether animals get included or not.

The first is the ‘naming’ of an animal. Giving an animal a proper name is a speech act with moral consequences. It draws the animal inside your moral circle. This is an idea that often features in media representations of animals. I recall many TV shows from when I was a younger that involved plotlines in which a child named some farm animal that they were later told was going to be slaughtered and eaten. The prior naming gave the subsequent awareness of slaughter a moral seriousness that it would otherwise have lacked. We feel closer to the animals we name and care more about their fate.

The second important condition is the physical location of the animal. Animals that live outside our homes — in the fields and countryside — are different from animals that share our homes. By inviting them into our homes we invite them into our moral circles:

For an animal, it matters a great deal where it is, in which place it is, and what techniques and technologies have been used to position it. For example, a ‘‘pet’’ is in the house. This means it is part of the human domicile, the sphere of the ‘‘who-s’’ as opposed to the ‘‘what-s.’ 
(Gunkel and Coeckelbergh 2014, 727)

These are two clear examples of how we might answer the face-taking question. They give us a sense of the conditions under which animals can ‘take on a face’. But where does it actually get us? Gunkel and Coeckelbergh acknowledge that taking the relational turn does not necessarily give us clear ethical guidance:

Note that this analysis of conditions of possibility for relations does not in itself advance a straightforward normative position; it does not say that we should treat domesticated farm animals in a more personal way. 
(2014, 730)

But they claim that this was not their goal. Their goal was to get us to think differently about the question of moral status.

3. Criticisms and Reflections
Gunkel and Coeckelbergh’s case for the relational turn is an interesting one, and I think the basic idea of the relational turn is worth taking seriously, but I have some concerns about their whole project. I would like to close by offering these up for consideration.

First, I’m not convinced that taking the relational turn draws us that far away from the properties approach. I guess it all depends on what you mean by a ‘property’, but I would argue that the face-taking question posed by Gunkel and Coeckelbergh is very much cut from the same cloth as the properties approach they are so keen to criticise. As noted above, the properties approach follows an abstract argument template. The kinds of properties that are relevant to determinations of moral status could be different from those appealed to by Singer and Regan. There is some in-built flexibility. Indeed, I think it could include the relational properties (does the Other ‘have a name’ or ‘live in close proximity to us’) mentioned by Gunkel and Coeckelbergh. If there is any real distinction between the approaches it is that the Singer/Regan approach focuses on properties that are (allegedly) intrinsic to the animal, whereas the Gunkel/Coeckelbergh approach focuses on properties that arise from the relations between the animal and its environment. But I don’t see why that distinction means the two approaches have to be in opposition to one another; both sets of properties could be crucial when determining moral status.

Second, in not offering any normative guidance, and in claiming this was not their intention, Gunkel and Coeckelbergh are doing something that I find a little bit disingenuous. After all, surely it is the normative question that motivates this entire inquiry? We want to know when and whether we are making errors in the ascription of moral status. That’s certainly what motivates the Singer/Regan-style argument. To shift focus to the more descriptive question — ‘under what conditions do animals enter our moral communities’ — is at best an interesting diversion and, at worst, a distraction from what really matters. I suspect that if we want to answer the normative questions, we will need to stick with the more traditional properties-style of reasoning.

Finally, although Gunkel and Coeckelbergh criticise the properties approach on the grounds that it is anthropocentric and (potentially) premised on defective moral traditions, it seems to me that the relational approach is equally susceptible to these critiques. Indeed, focusing on relational properties in preference to intrinsic properties makes human beings far more central to ascriptions of moral status than the properties approach of Singer and Regan does. Furthermore, the relational approach also risks morally ossifying traditional conceptions of how we ought to relate to animals and other non-human entities. For example, we might continue to think that we don’t need to care about the cows in the fields because (a) we don’t give them names and (b) we don’t invite them to live in our homes. If anything, the Singer/Regan approach is more potentially disruptive of this traditional moral complacency about animals. Again, I appreciate that Gunkel and Coeckelbergh don’t make normative claims on behalf of the conditions they identify, but in not doing so I fear they make such complacency more excusable.


  1. Great post John. I had the same worries with the relational approach: it seems to commit even more of the anthropocentrism and traditionalism that Gunkel/Coeckelbergh criticize the properties approach for. Do you know if any of Singer/Regan/Korsgaard have replied to these objections?

  2. Interesting comment on the relational turn. Thinking relations is difficult, indeed.
    For my review see
    (in Dutch)