Volume 11, 1985
Interested Vegetables, Rational Emotions, and Moral Status
Many discussions of the moral status of “mindless beings” such as the permanently comatose, the dead, trees, and human fetuses seem to take for granted the thesis that it is improper to appeal to emotions to establish the fundamental distinction between “persona” (beings capable
of rights “in their own right”) and “things” (beings not capable of rights except in some fictional or iIlusory sense). Persons are persons, however we may feel about them.
That thesis seems to be a major obstacle to any nonutilitarian account of the personhood of mindless beings.
I argue that the thesis of independence is true, if at aIl, only for one class of persons (“rational agents”). Beyond that class, our emotional response to a being can be relevant to its moral status. Acting on some consideration (or believing something in virtue of it) can be rational in
the “constitutive”, “regulative”, or “associative” sense. A consideration is a good reason if it is rational in any of these senses. The importance of this claim is shown by briefly examining Feinberg’s weIl-known argument that it is a conceptual truth that mindless beings are incapable of
rights. His argument assumes that our emotions cannot be rational in the appropriate sense and coIlapses without that assumption.