In my last post, I highlighted the need for a taxonomy of moral concern. Here, I present an approach challenging the typical view and study of moral concern as a uniform concept.

Moral concern has been studied using various methods that share some basic characteristics. For instance, Crimson and colleagues measured ratings of entities’ moral standing using the Moral Expansiveness Scale, while Neldner and colleagues had children place 24 pictures of a variety of entities in a stratified moral circle. Other paradigms have involved testing for inclusion in the moral circle.  In simple terms, it’s typically been studied as a spectrum, allowing us to distinguish the breadth of moral concern we hold for a range of entities. 

Yet, when prompted to pinpoint exactly what moral concern is, we don’t have a definitive answer. It comprises a myriad of attitudes, such as concern for welfare, protection from harm and entitlement of rights. Instead of viewing moral concern as a single, uniform entity, we can distinguish its contents using the concepts of negative and positive rights (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2023):

“The holder of a negative right is entitled to non-interference, while the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service. A right against assault is a classic example of a negative right, while a right to welfare assistance is a prototypical positive right.” 

Through this lens, moral concern enacted through concern for welfare is ‘positive’, while moral concern enacted as protection from harm is ‘negative’ – but since this language is a bit clunky, I refer to these as welfare-promotion based, or, suffering-reduction based moral concern. 

We may want to study how attributions of moral concern change through welfare-promotion versus suffering-reduction based framing because there’s some evidence that how we reason about moral concern can change it’s attribution - it’s plausible that we might think about moral concern differently if we focus on one of these frames. We’re susceptible to negativity biases and this might culminate in our decisions of moral concern, particularly when we think about suffering-reduction. 

By studying and disentangling moral concern into these two categories, we might improve on the problem of moral uncertainty[1] - where we might be unsure that we're making the right decision, and worry that we might cause harm - by making consistent and confident moral decisions through a framework that bifurcates welfare-promotion and suffering-reduction. For example, I previously came across a study that shows that adults and children, when asked to attribute positive and negative rights to entities, ascribe more positive rights overall rather than negative rights. However, these findings haven’t been published as yet, and this area definitely merits more exploration.

This idea of splitting moral concern into "welfare-promotion" and "suffering-reduction" is one way to better understand it – it is not the most efficient framework, since it can be difficult in some contexts to clearly distinguish welfare promotion from suffering reduction. However, research on varied framing of moral concern is sparse, and addressing this gap might contribute to building a definitive taxonomy and improve how we study and advocate for moral concern.

  1. ^

    This is a stretch.





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Executive summary: This post suggests that moral concern can be categorized into welfare-promotion based and suffering-reduction based, and proposes studying these two categories separately to improve moral decision-making and reduce uncertainty.

Key points:

  1. Moral concern is typically studied as a uniform concept, but comprises diverse attitudes like welfare promotion and harm prevention.
  2. These can be framed as positive and negative rights - welfare promotion confers positive rights, while harm prevention confers negative rights.
  3. Framing moral concern through welfare promotion or suffering reduction may affect how we ascribe moral status.
  4. Studying moral concern through these distinct frameworks could reduce moral uncertainty in decision-making.
  5. More research is needed on how varied framing impacts moral concern attribution.
  6. Splitting moral concern this way, despite limitations, can improve taxonomy and advocacy.


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