Moral Status, Equality, and Distributive Justice

  • Giacomo Floris

Student thesis: Phd


Standard liberal theories of justice rest on two core assumptions: persons have moral status qua autonomous agents, and they should be considered and treated as moral equals. Both these assumptions have been widely criticised. On the one hand, it has been argued that it is implausible to maintain that only those beings capable of moral personality have moral status. On the other hand, it has been observed that it is unclear how persons' equal moral status can be grounded in a scalar capacity, like the capacity for moral personality (CMP). This thesis intends to clarify the main aspects of, and provide an answer to, these challenges against the fundamental liberal commitments. In particular, it defends a more inclusive account of the basis of moral status which maintains that also some beings that do not hold the CMP have moral status, and it argues that a proper understanding of the principle of respect for persons' CMP entails a rejection of moral equality, at least in some circumstances. Part I examines the question of moral status: it puts forward a pluralist account of the basis of moral status which identifies in the CMP and the potential capacity for moral personality (PCMP) two different and unequally valuable bases of moral status. It follows from this that both actual and potential moral persons have moral status, but they have different and unequal rights, other things being equal. Part II addresses the question of the basis of persons' moral equality. It argues that while persons' equal moral status is grounded in a duty of opacity respect to refrain from looking at persons' agential capacities, the principle of respect for persons does not only require treating persons as opaque, but it also grounds a duty of positive respect to remove the internal impairments that are obstacles to the CMP. This entails that - contra what liberals commonly think - respect for persons' CMP can sometimes undermine moral equality and, even more surprisingly, that this is not morally problematic because it is morally preferable to ensure that persons continuously hold an unimpaired CMP rather than considering them as moral equals only nominally. Finally, Part III explores the implications that the pluralist accounts of the basis of moral status and respect for persons' CMP have for theories of distributive justice for potential and actual moral persons. As to the former, the thesis identifies a range of basic and developmental goods that children and cognitively disabled human beings have a right to qua potential moral persons. Moreover, it argues that these goods should be distributed by granting a weighted priority to those potential moral persons whose moral status is superior, other things being equal. As to the latter, it contends that society has a duty of justice to provide persons with the set of agential capabilities necessary to hold an unimpaired CMP as a matter of positive respect, and that how these agential capabilities should be distributed depends on what kind of violation of opacity respect, if any, their allocation entails.
Date of Award31 Dec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorLiam Shields (Supervisor) & Christian Schemmel (Supervisor)


  • value theory
  • liberalism
  • distributive justice
  • moral equality
  • moral status
  • dignity

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