Saturday, 7 January 2012

"An animal’s life is not as important as a human’s": On what basis?

In response to a tweet from Ricky Gervais on the subject of animal testing, someone stated:

“Simple fact, an animal’s life is not as important as a human’s.”

This assertion is far from being a “simple fact”; rather, it is highly controversial. It is controversial primarily because it entails that value, worth, or importance, can be objectively assigned to life. The unpleasant nature of this view can be immediately identified when applied within the human species. Most people would disapprove of the assertion that the life of a white man is inherently more valuable than that of a black man, or that the life of a wealthy chief executive is of more value than that of a cleaner, or that the lives of those with high intelligence are more valuable than those with lower intelligence, and so on.

In addition to being unpleasant, the notion that life can be valued objectively is philosophically problematic. Without postulating the existence of a supernatural creator of physical reality who has provided animals (as our inferiors) for our sustenance, it is difficult to identify any basis on which human life could be objectively valued relative to non-human life. The individual making the statement in question would perhaps argue that it is the greater intelligence of humans that makes our lives more valuable or important than those of animals. But on what basis is intelligence objectively more valuable or important than other qualities such as strength or speed? Precisely what is it about the physical universe which makes this an objective truth? Sure, intelligence allows us to build civilisations and develop advanced technologies, but the basis on which this is objectively valuable is again unclear.

If it is possible to assign value to life in an objective fashion and to make statements on the differential value of human and non-human lives, it must also be possible (at least in principle) to make statements on the value of all non-human animals relative to all other non-human animals. For example, it must be objectively true that the life of a dog is inherently more valuable than that of a cat, or vice versa, or else that they are of equal value. It is difficult to identify any objective basis on which such statements could be made. Moreover, if value can be assigned to categories on the basis of the qualities possessed by typical members of those categories, it is difficult to see why value could not be assigned to individuals on the basis of the qualities (and extent of those qualities) we possess of individuals. That is, if human beings are more important than non-human animals because we are more intelligent, it is unclear as to why the life of a human being with greater intelligence is not more important than the life of one with lower intelligence.

Rather than being objective, the way in which we as human beings assign value to the lives of others is relative. We value our family and close friends more highly than those we don’t know or are less familiar with rather than valuing all human lives equally. Many will consider their domestic pets to be more important than other humans that they’ve never met or never will meet; the death of a dog or cat will cause more sadness in the owner than the death of 100 people in a bombing many hundreds of miles away.

It seems clear that the claim that “an animal’s life is not as important as a human’s” is not true in an objective sense. What could perhaps have been said instead is that we, as a species, tend to view our lives, well-being, and interests as being more important than the lives, well-being, and interests of other species. In this sense, animal testing is something that we do to further our own interests despite the harm it causes to the animals involved and is not something that can be justified by appeal to the view that we are objectively more valuable or important. Despite this, the morality of animal testing is certainly very complex. Advocates could argue that testing on a relatively small number of animals can lead to discoveries that might save the lives of thousands or millions of people while opponents might argue that it is never morally acceptable to knowingly act in ways that will inflict harm and suffering on sentient beings. The morality of animal testing is certainly less clear cut than the morality of the mass breeding and killing of animals for food, which is entirely unnecessary as we can be equally (or more) healthy on plant-based diets.

As a final thought, it is instructive to consider the parallels between the view that animal testing is acceptable because “an animal’s life is not as important as a human's” and racial supremacism. Racial supremacism entails the belief that a particular race is superior to all other races and that the interests of that race are more important than those of other races. On this belief, it is considered morally permissible to exploit other races in order to benefit ones own race since those other races are held to be less important. Simply replacing the words “race” and “races” with “species” in the previous sentence should amply demonstrate the similarity between these two forms of particularism.