Questions concerning moral standing typically begin by addressing agency. The decision to begin with this subject is not accidental, provisional, or capricious. It is dictated and prescribed by the history of moral philosophy, which has traditionally privileged agency and the figure of the moral agent in both theory and practice. As Luciano Floridi explains, moral philosophy, from the time of the ancient Greeks through the modern era and beyond, has been almost exclusively agent-oriented. "Virtue ethics, and Greek philosophy more generally," Floridi writes, "concentrates its attention on the moral nature and development of the individual agent who performs the action. It can therefore be properly described as an agent-oriented, 'subjective ethics.'" Modern developments, although shifting the focus somewhat, retain this particular agent-oriented approach. "Developed in a world profoundly different from the small, non-Christian Athens, Utilitarianism, or more generally Consequentialism, Contractualism and Deontologism are the three most well-known theories that concentrate on the moral nature and value of the actions performed by the agent." Although shifting emphasis from the "moral nature and development of the individual agent" to the "moral nature and value" of his or her actions, western philosophy has been, with few exceptions, organized and developed as an agent-oriented endeavor.
When considered from the perspective of the agent, ethics inevitably and unavoidably makes exclusive decisions about who is to be included in the community of moral subjects and what can be excluded from consideration. The choice of words here is not accidental. As Jacques Derrida points out everything turns on and is decided by the difference that separates the "who" from the "what." Moral agency has been customarily restricted to those entities who call themselves and each other "man"—those beings who already give themselves the right to be considered someone who counts as opposed to something that does not. But who counts—who, in effect, gets to be situated under the term "who"—has never been entirely settled, and the historical development of moral philosophy can be interpreted as a progressive unfolding, where what had once been excluded (i.e., women, slaves, people of color, etc.) have slowly and not without considerable struggle and resistance been granted access to the gated community of moral agents and have thereby also come to be someone who counts.Despite this progress, which is, depending on how one looks at it, either remarkable or insufferably protracted, there remain additional exclusions, most notably non-human animals and machines. Machines in particular have been understood to be mere artifacts that are designed, produced, and employed by human agents for human specified ends. This instrumentalist and anthropocentric understanding has achieved a remarkable level of acceptance and standardization, as is evident by the fact that it has remained in place and largely unchallenged from ancient to postmodern times—from at least Plato's Phaedrus to Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. Beginning with (at least) the animal rights movement, however, there has been considerable pressure to reconsider the ontological assumptions and moral consequences of this legacy of human exceptionalism.