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Why Actions Matter: The Case for Fluid Moral Status

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This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Lucy Simpson, Nottingham Trent University student


Throughout the catalogue of work produced by Jeff McMahan, he has discussed what constitutes a being’s moral status, and has advocated the theories of moral individualism and reflective equilibrium intuitionism.[1] It is not my intention in this paper to dispute  these positions. Instead, I argue that if we accept McMahan’s position, then logically, we must accept that a being’s moral character is a morally relevant property which we ought to consider when determining their moral status. As I will explain, this therefore means that moral status is not static; it is fluid. Further to this, in the latter stages of this paper, I consider that if we do accept that moral status is action dependant, then there might be negative moral status. On the topic of negative moral status, I do not aim to give any in-depth arguments either for or against its existence, but rather just flag this as a potential avenue for further exploration if we do indeed follow McMahan’s theories of intuitionism and moral individualism.

I argue that by accepting that being’s actions affects its moral status, this resolves intuitional conflict felt when we consider so-called marginal cases (i.e., any being that is typically thought to sit on the edge of a moral status threshold).[2]

For the sake of clarity in this paper I take moral status to mean the following: If a being has moral status, then we have obligations to treat it in certain ways for its own sake. This is contrasting what I label ‘relational status’, in which means the following: If a being has relational status, then we have obligations to treat it in certain ways for the sake of some other being (which has moral status).[3]  In this paper I exclusively consider the moral status of beings. This moral status is attributed to the possession of morally relevant intrinsic properties or characteristics possessed by a being, and often includes properties such as: Possession of consciousness; ability to suffer; ability to use complex language or communicate; ability to be altruistic; possession of rationality.[4]

I begin by outlining the view that moral status is action dependent if we follow McMahan’s position:


  1. Moral Status and Actions:

McMahan’s position is that there is no singular morally relevant intrinsic property which is not solely possessed by human beings, nor is it possessed by all human beings. This means the egalitarian position — that all human beings are of an equal and same level of moral status —  cannot hold to be true. Instead moral status is seen to be attributed as a result of an individual being’s possession of (some, or all) of these morally relevant intrinsic properties.[5] We can test this intuition through the use of a thought experiment:

There is a burning building, and trapped inside of this building in two separate rooms (equidistant) from the only entry and exit point are two beings. There is no personal risk to entering the building, and which ever being is not saved has no other means of escape.

Case 1:

In room 1: A statistically normal human being

In room 2: A statistically normal dog

Which being do you save?

Our intuitions in this case (1) show that we ought to save the human being in room 1. Why? Because (to phrase it in the same way as McMahan) the human being in room 1 possesses more morally relevant intrinsic properties, and greater time-relative interests and so will suffer greater harm than the dog.[6]


Case 2:

In room 1: A statistically normal human being

In room 2: A severely cognitively disabled human being

Here, the intuitions become less clear. If we follow McMahan’s intuitionism — and if we exclude any relational value held by either human being — the severely cognitively disabled human being in room 2 possesses fewer morally relevant intrinsic properties than the human being in room 1. However, this leaves one with a sense of uncomfortableness. Consider the following case also:


Case 3:

In room 1: A statistically normal human being who has committed only good acts, and is a morally good person.

In room 2: A statistically normal human being who has committed morally repugnant acts, and is a morally bad person.

Here, our intuitions are less uncomfortable. It seems clear that we ought to save the morally good human being in room 1, over the morally bad human being in room 2. In fact, this is a case that McMahan himself considered:

‘When I ask my students about these cases, they are unanimous in thinking that one ought morally to save the virtuous person and, in the second choice, kill the murderer’. (McMahan, 2007: 102).

The unanimity of the students shows that this intuition – that morally good persons are of a higher value  — holds. By McMahan’s own subscription to the reflective equilibrium methodology then, this ought to lead us to revise our belief that moral status is based solely upon the intrinsic properties that a being possesses, and accept that our actions do matter. Instead, he makes the following comment: “All this leaves me profoundly uncomfortable.” (McMahan, 2007: 104).

It does, however, seem clear that this intuitional discomfort can be explored further, consider:

Case 4:

Room 1: A severely cognitively disabled human being

Room 2: A statistically normal human being, who has committed many morally repugnant acts, and is – without a doubt – a morally bad person.

Here we are comparing the value of a severely cognitively disabled human being and a morally abhorrent (but otherwise cognitively normal) human being. In this case the intuitional discomfort is not as present. It seems that we would, ceteris paribus, save the human being in room 1, over the thoroughly morally bad person. This does therefore show (using McMahan’s theoretical framework) that moral status is — in part — action dependent. This therefore raises the following question: If moral status is action dependent, then is it also fluid? (I.e. can it change up or down?) This will be explored in the following section.


  1. Fluid Moral Status:


At the beginning of this paper I stated that I would argue that moral status is fluid, and is not static as it is currently thought to be. This point requires additional clarification, as I note that there is a possible objection to my statement here: This being that moral status is not argued to be strictly static by moral individualists. In the view held by McMahan it is accepted that if a being’s morally relevant intrinsic properties change, then so can their moral status. This means that if I — a conscious, rational being, capable of suffering — am involved in a tragic accident in which I suffer irreparable brain damage, to the point my ability to be rational or conscious or to suffer is lost completely, then my moral status would be lowered. This, I accept.

However, as I will now go on to explain, if moral status is considered to be (at least in part) action dependant, then no such tragic accident will need to occur in order to change a being’s moral status. Instead it will change fluidly based upon the individual actions a moral agent commits. As case 4 demonstrates, our intuitions show that a morally relevant difference is the moral character of those human beings. If a being has chosen to commit morally bad acts, then intuitionally we see them to be of lesser moral importance. In short: Our actions affect our moral status. This amendment to McMahan’s position solves the intuitional conflict we face when considering marginal cases.

We can express this view as the following principle:

Moral Modification Principle (MMP) – A being’s moral status can go up and down depending on their deliberate choice of actions (i.e. whether they commit good or bad acts).

As we believe a non-moral agent cannot be held accountable for their actions, then this naturally excludes the marginal cases I discussed earlier: The severely cognitively disabled, infant children and non-human animals would all be excluded from the MMP. After all, we do not blame a cat for killing a mouse according to her instincts, nor do we punish an infant child who without knowing any better inflicts deliberate harm on another. As such the MMP would only apply to moral agents, such as you and I.[7]

Fluid moral status does raise an additional consideration: If moral status is fluid, and can go down based upon the morally bad actions a being commits, can a being have a negative moral status? I will consider this briefly in the following section.


  1. Negative Moral Status:

I do not have room to explore the view of a negative moral status in depth. It is, however, important to consider this. As moral status is seen to be discussed as an entirely positive matter (i.e., if a cat has moral status then we have obligations towards the cat which protects her rights and limits her suffering), the view of a negative moral status would has (as far as I can discern) not been considered.[8]

Above I have argued the line of intuitionism used by McMahan allows for the intuition that moral status is action dependent. If the moral status of a moral agent can reduce based upon the morally bad actions they commit, then it stands to reason that (potentially) the moral agent can commit so many bad acts that they reduce themselves to a negative moral status value. Exactly what these acts would have to be are beyond me, and it is not my argument that there be a considerable number of moral agents which would ever fall below this threshold. But let us presume that such a morally bad being exists and they have reduced their moral status to a negative degree, what would this mean?

Well, reasonably we can assume that our positive obligations towards this being would cease to exist. We would not be obliged to protect them from harm, to protect their freedoms and rights, or to treat them in ways which avoid their unnecessary suffering. Additionally we must ask that, if we have a negative duty towards them, would we ever have a duty to harm them? On this, I give one final case:

Case 5:

Room 1: A thoroughly morally reprehensible being, who has willingly committed numerous morally abhorrent acts.

Room 2: An empty room. There is nothing else to save.

In this case (5) we have the choice to either save one (morally bad) being or to not save anything at all. In such a case — where a being has lowered their moral status substantially (so much so that it is negative) —  then do we have any obligation to save them even when we have nothing else to prevent us from doing so? May we allow them suffer, to inflict a non-direct harm on them because of this moral status level? Here I cannot give answers. However, I am struck that it leaves me with the same “profound uncomfortableness” felt by McMahan. Perhaps we should abandon the framework altogether if this where our intuitions leave us.


  1. Conclusion:

I have argued that if we are to fully develop McMahan’s theory, then we ought to accept moral status is action dependent. I have argued this solves the intuitional conflict we face when comparing the moral status held by rational agents and marginal cases. I argued then that if moral status is action dependent, then it is also fluid.

Following this, I introduced the possibility of negative moral status. This, I have briefly discussed, is an implication of action dependent moral status. As such, it seems plausible that if a moral agent commits numerous moral atrocities then perhaps we have negative obligations towards them. So, we ought to abandon our positive obligations of protection towards them that moral status ordinarily affords. Again, here, I postulate that if this theory of negative moral status violates our intuitions and we cannot revise it using the reflective equilibrium model of intuitionism, then perhaps we ought to abandon the framework altogether – but if we do not, and then the profound uncomfortableness felt by McMahan is unjustified.

[1] For McMahan’s work on intuitionism, see: (2013), and for his work on moral individualism see: (2002).

[2] E.g., some non-human animals, the severely cognitively disabled, and infant children.

[3] For greater discussion on the distinction between moral status and relational status, see: DeGrazia (2008)

[4] An extensive discussion of these morally relevant properties is had by Rachels in his (1999) book Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. This is of particular interest as McMahan cites the work of Rachels in his own work, and argues for the same (albeit weaker) position of moral individualism.

[5] I will not discuss in detail egalitarian accounts, due to space constraints. However, for more on this see: Waldron (2008), Scanlon (2000), and Dworkin (1981). While all vary slightly on what they ground the notion of human equality in, they share the characteristic of advocating for the same and equal moral status of all human beings.

[6] By “greater time-relative interests” I mean the human being can plan for the future, fear about it’s well being of its future self.

[7] I am aware that there is more to be said on the cases that are excluded from the MMP, as I believe there is a strong argument that psychopaths and the mentally insane ought to excluded also (as they are, arguably, non-moral agents also). Additionally I accept that if we alter a non-human animal to possess the ability to be a normal agent that the cat, in the above case, would be subject to the MMP.

[8] More so, the view held by many is that moral status is a “all or nothing” situation. So, you either have moral status, or you do not (see: Kant (2017)  for an account on this). Additionally moral status has been argued to come in degrees (see: DeGrazia, 2008), but this is the view that moral status degrees come at varying points between nothing and full moral status – without a consideration of a negative moral status.

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8 Comment on this post

  1. So, okay. Moral status is fluid because it depends on what one does, in a given moment under particular circumstances, or perhaps that last piece is not truly a necessary factor? If a result or outcome is not adverse or harmful, I suppose circumstantial animus is morally neutral. Clearly, when a result/outcome is worse than circumstances alone dictate, the fluid morality of a perpetrator must depend on the attitude of that person towards another, either over time or in that moment. Attitudes may compel behaviours which would be partially account for fluidity. If someone behaves differently towards another in that given moment than he/she has prior, such fluidity seems dependent on circumstantial animus: he/she is having a bad day and, while not having caused that, the object of the behaviour is not making things any better. In critical moments, people tend to behave critically. They have not the time or patience to “think it through”. A moral philosopher has written herein about whether morality matters, admitting it does not matter much. In view of this article’s conjectures/conclusions, I tend to agree. Time is essential; context is important.

  2. If this is deemed off topic, I will understand. There is more fluidity flowing right now. Gender fluidity is another seeming related subject I have read about. Fluidity appears to be contingent or, more familiarity, circumstantial. Water is fluid in its’ liquid state, as is concrete before losing liquidness and setting. Is reality, then, fluid depending upon circumstance? I have called it contextual, claiming it can be made up, as we go. Fluidity must be one of those trendy terms that emerge, then subside when the novelty wears off. Gender fluidity suggests it may be more advantageous to appear more masculine an some situations,; more feminine in others. It sounds innocuous, ambivalent—noncommittal? —less derogatory than metrosexual. But,gender is not about sex, is it? Any more than fluid moral status is about morality? We are advised these things are true, even when the advice appears contradictory or counter-intuitive. One is reminded of alternate facts. Well, just a little. I’ll have ranch dressing on that salad, please.

  3. Don’t you despise spell-check features? They just can’t absorb and process context. Familiarly translates to familiarity—which breeds contempt. Then, the ‘program’ repeats its’ own mistake, as if to say ha ha, gotcha? I don’t need to correct AI errors, encoded to correct mine, when those were not errors in the first place. Hey, technocrats: take your machine consciousness. And notions of transhumanism. And stick those on Neptune—with all the rest of the gas.(postscript: three more corrections, by me, were needed before posting this comment.) And, familiarly is still unacceptable. yawn.

  4. Hmmmm…situational ethics= negative, or amoral status Or, morality was only a defensive construct, a priori. I watch and listen to how people act, contrary to how they acted, fifty years ago. Thought leads to, reinforces, behavior. Attitude is the translator. When that goes unnoticed or complacently accepted, we have the moral fluidity being exported here. Me parece que..Lo siento. This stupid machine is not multilingual. Unless you know how to ask. Or demand. Too much trouble, me parece. Seems to me. Isn’t that situational?

  5. It strikes ME there are parallels among topics being elaborated here, at present, all of which appear somehow interconnected. I suppose there is method to this, insofar as ethics and morality are siblings, under the same roof; artificial intelligence and machine ‘learning’ challenge both ancient concepts, and the ‘woke’ thing was a facade, from it’s inception. If woke is but another avenue of deception and misinformation, that is not my cross to bear or disprove. I am not impressed by the dissention it has sewn, under the guise of a renewal of idealism. In fencing and martial arts, this is called a feint within a feint. Not effective when directed towards people who are paying attention. Inasmuch as many people no longer a. have the attention to pay, or b. can’t afford that, the feint-a-feint works. My time is less encumbered, so, I can ask more questions, take my time evaluating answers, and reach my own conclusions. I can question or challenge anything I want. This is exemplary of the contextual reality I have been investigating and theorizing. I need not assert more now, regarding human—or, as postulated by Edelman—higher order consciousness. That will come clearly, before 2050…After I and my generation, along with ‘woke’, have left the building.

  6. There are blogs that are accessible to comment. Others are not. One I attempted to read today is not. Its’ lead was: is philosophy an attempt to give an unbiased account of the world?—or words substantively representing that query. Inasmuch as I could not access content, I could neither decide nor respond. I have read two accounts of philosophy’s purpose. One was that given by Sellars. The other came from Nagel. I have followed their thinking and concluded it accurate in both assessments. An unbiased account of the world is misleading at best. Accounts of anything tend to be biased, therefore, questionable. Assessments, like Sellars’ and Nagel’s, were philosophical. Not political, nor sociological, nor anything else. They were not confused as to what they wanted to convey. That is no longer the account of things, so far as I can tell. Consider these are modernist thinkers. One is deceased, the other, who may have changed his mind, is very much alive. The blog to which I have referred is probably from an accredited source. I hope so.

  7. My worry, increasing as I write this, is that, increasingly, actions don’t matter. Here is what I mean. There was another shooting, In Tennessee. As is the case, repeatedly, law enforcement investigates these killings looking for motive(s). That six people were gunned down by someone with firepower and the training to use it has less importance than assignment of motive. If I would gun down people, in cold blood, my motive seems irrelevant to me. I ought to be summarily dispatched and incinerated, at least possible expense to the society I violated. This is not how things work. In what was once a real world. This afternoon, there was a publicized argument between opposing lawmakers. Finger pointing, badgering and general ignorance from both camps. Anyone who has read my rants, herein or elsewhere, recognizes I am unhinged. I sure as (pick one: heaven, hell, oblivion) hope so. Stop trying to habilitate the inhabilitable. Countries with smaller populations recognize their socialist limitations and advantages. Although I have no hard statistics at this writing, these societies do not appear to have our problem with prosperity, or expectations thereof. Yes, actions matter. It just depends.

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