Justifying Moral Standing by Biosemiotic Particularism

Keywords: semiosis, communication, moral standing, sentience, philosophy, moral philosophy, ethics, biosemiotic ethics, biosemiosis, ecology, animal rights


In this essay we examine a fundamental question in biosemiotic ethics: why think that semiosis is a morally relevant property, or a property that supports the moral value of living beings or systems that possess it? We argue that biosemiotic particularism, the view that normative assessment should be based on the particular fulfillment of an organism’s or other biological entity’s specific semiosic capacity, offers a justifiable normative position for the biosemiotic ethicist. If what justifies offering moral standing to all living beings and systems is that these entities are semiosic, then there must be something ethically motivating about semiosis. We examine several arguments in answer to this question. These include arguments for semiotic agency, the claim that all living entities are agential as a result of their semiosic capacities; arguments for subjective or quasi-subjective experience, that all living beings have it and that it matters morally; and arguments for the moral relevance of meaning-making as sufficient for moral considerability. We also address the negative argument that semiosis is at least as defensible as sentience, an alternative candidate capacity for grounding moral relevance, and other cognition-related capacities. Finally, we push further to ask: even if semiosis is a morally relevant capacity of living organisms, is it the morally relevant property? That is, is semiosis the least common denominator for attribution of moral worth, to the effect that sentience-based approaches, among others, could build on biosemiotic ethics as a foundational meta-ethical theory?