An entity has moral status or what is sometimes called moral standing or moral consideration if and only if, or its interests morally matters to some degree for the entity’s own sake. Humans are not the only beings about whom we might ask if they have moral status, and if so, to what degree. Debates regarding the treatment of livestock, management of wild-animals, and the creation and design of zoos rest in part on the moral status of domesticated and wild-animals.
To understand moral status, on the utilitarian approach is a matter of having one’s interests featured into the calculus that determines which action brings about the greatest utility. On the non-utilitarian approach, to have moral status is for there to be reasons to act for the sake of the entity or its interests, reasons which are prior to, and may clash with what the calculation of the overall best consequences would dictate.
On the importance of the question of moral status/standing, a first short is the idea that being a human being is necessary and sufficient for being something with moral standing. According to this view, rocks are excluded, but this runs into problem of excluding all non-human animals, even primates. What about the idea that a being/entity has moral standing (moral counts can be morally wrong) if and only if it is living. According to this view, plants and viruses can be morally wronged. A virus has to be considered in our moral deliberations in considering whether or not to treat a disease, and because the viral entities have moral standing, this is counter-intuitive, and indicates that there is a problem of being too inclusive. So, what if we excludes plants, bacteria and viruses. This view would mean that those morally count would have rationality. But there are problems, even if one is comfortable with mice not having rationality, and thereby not counting morally, one might then have a problem with certain human beings who lack genuinely rational capacities, one might say that what morally counts is what has soul; the problem with this view is that it posits unobservable entity -namely, a soul.
What gives something moral standing is that it is something that is sentient. With this view, rocks and plants don’t have moral standing; mice and men do. We can safely say that most beings who experience pain and pleasure have an interest in the kinds of experiences that they have. There is the possibility that there are beings who experience pain and pleasure but who don’t care about their experiences. So what should we say about those who care about their experiences?
Utilitarian approaches often see the protection and promotion of interests, where this is understood to presuppose consciousness as the central subject matter of morality. On such views, it is straightforward why the capacity to have interests is crucial to having any moral status at all. On some views, the capacity to experience pleasure or pain (sentient) is a prerequisite of having interests and this explain why sentience is a ground of moral status. Environmentalists, unlike utilitarians, do not assume consciousness is a necessary condition for having interest and hence use the term in a broader fashion. However, they do not explain why interests broadly construed in this way give rise to moral status.