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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Let's begin with the statement "our capacity to reason makes us moral."

Philosophers often distinguish between moral agents and moral patients. These are somewhat technical terms, but the rough idea is that an individual is a moral agent just in case that individual can be properly held morally responsible, that is, it can be correct to say of that individual that it has an obligation to do A, a duty to do B, etc. Adult human beings are typically thought of moral agents — they are capable of acting rightly or wrongly. Bacteria, for example, definitely aren't moral agents. An individual is a moral patient if facts about it make it worthy of moral consideration. Moral patients have some property or status that necessitate moral agents taken those individuals into account in their moral reasoning.

Philosophers disagree a little about what makes an individual a moral agent -- and a lot about what makes an individual a moral patient. Some philosophers, such as Kant, thought one and the same property (in Kant's case, rational agency) makes an individual a moral agent and a moral patient. Kant's view seems vulnerable to the criticism you offer in your question.

But it's important to recognize that these are separate issues: When you say that Singer believes that our capacity to reason "makes us moral", I take you to mean that he believes that our capacity to reason makes us moral agents. But notice that it's a further question whether our capacity to reason also make us moral patients, and it doesn't follow from the claim that 'X makes someone a moral agent' that 'X makes someone a moral patient.' Singer is an excellent case in point: He thinks that rational capacities make us moral agents, but the capacity to suffer makes us moral patients. That's why (for example) he thinks that we human beings (who are moral agents because we have rational capacities) have moral duties toward animals (who are moral patients because they have the capacity to suffer) despite animals have no moral duties at all (because they lack the requisite rational capacities to be moral agents). So the inference you draw in your question does not appear valid: The claim that our rational capacities makes us moral agents does not imply that we can "take advantage" of those who lack those capacities (young children, as you mention). Such beings may be moral patients to whom we have obligations despite their lacking the properties that make them moral agents.