James Dwyer was at home leaning back in his recliner attempting to think and to study when he was distracted by his two young daughters.
“They were just bouncing all over the house, making a lot of noise, laughing, just having a very playful time,” he recalled. “My first instinct was to say, ‘Girls, stop it, you’re ruining the environment here,’ and then I had a sudden realization that perhaps I was the problem, that my disposition was the less attractive one.”
Dwyer, the Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law at William & Mary, realized that the ideal environment may be one in which there is enthusiastic engagement with life. It was that insight, Dwyer explained, that led him to begin the investigation culminating in his latest book Moral Status and Human Life: The Case for Children’s Superiority. Quite simply, if his daughters, based on their youthfulness, were more “alive” even as his middle-aged senses and agility were diminishing, perhaps they, in a moral sense, mattered more.
Beginning as a lark
Although it began “as a lark, a fun idea to spin out,” according to Dwyer, as he explored the relevant psychological and philosophical literature, he began to believe he could make a plausible argument that a well-developed theory of moral status would conclude that children come out ahead of adults.
It is a given that there are many traits for which human beings ascribe moral status, Dwyer said. If asked to explain why he mattered morally, he, no doubt, would come up with a long list. “I would suggest that I’m a thinking, choosing being,” he said. “I have a life plan. I have ambitions. I feel pleasure and pain, so you shouldn’t do things that will cause me pain. All these things on an intuitive level matter and suggest that this person’s interests need to be taken into account.”
During the course of his book, Dwyer considers the premises advanced by the influential 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his successors who assume that moral status results from the ability to function as an autonomous being. When it comes to questions such as the moral rights of fetuses or of persons in comas, however, Kantians are left arguing that “the ability to become autonomous matters, too,” Dwyer explains. He finds that supposition lacking.
Sentience and pleasure-pain
In exploring the claims of animal advocates that “sentience,” or the ability to feel either pleasure or pain, is the determining factor, Dwyer turns to 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his followers, whom, he said, base their concern for others on empathy, or their ability to relate their own suffering to the suffering of others.
“If you look at the way our moral brains operate, we do both of these things,” he said. “We all have some sense that both the ability to feel pleasure and pain and the ability to think, to reason, to be self-determining, make beings worth caring about.
“The next step is to recognize that all these things can vary in degree, so why should we assume, as most theorists have, that every being that has some moral status has equal moral status.,” Dwyer concludes. “There is a spectrum; there are levels of moral status that a being can have.”
Dwyer’s most recent book continues his strong advocacy on behalf of children. Motivated to attend law school in order to advance the rights of young people, he went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy in hope of producing scholarly arguments to broaden his effectiveness. He has also authored an amicus brief (with 15 other professors) in an adoption case pending before an appeals court in California.