There is no such thing as intrinsic value
In the animal rights debate it is frequent to hear arguments that refer to the moral value of animals. Thinkers, for and against compare the value of animals and humans back and forward in all possible and impossible situations. Philosophers search for characteristics that provide moral value to an entity and compare it to human traits .
Since classical Greece to the present traits such as the soul, the mind, language, emotions and rationality have been used to establish differences and similarities between humans and other animals.
The general line goes on claiming that humans have intrinsic and moral value because they hold a particular number of aleatory characteristics listed according to the preference of each philosopher, thus if any other creature is found with the same list of traits, it should also be given the same moral consideration. This argument has many flaws which I will enumerate here:
1. There is no clear definition of intrinsic value
2. Why do the listed traits present in humans should have more value than other traits present non-human beings?
3. A great ignorance about animal behaviour and cognitive psychology from the part of some philosophers wrongly identifies traits as “exclusively human”
4. Some traits attributed to humans are no more that wishful thinking based on improbable ideals. (e.g. the idea that humans are rational).
I argue here with base on biology that the concept of moral value is no more than a creation of the mind as much as fairy tales and has no material reason to exist. In later postings I discuss the other three points.
What is value?
In biological terms value is everything that is important for the survival of an individual or its genes. A habitat has value for the organisms that live in it and exploit it, since it supports their individual existence. An individual of the opposite sex has value as it represents a contribution to the propagation of genes in sexual organisms, and the offspring has value as it continues the genetic pool of the reproducer. Value only exists insofar there is an “evaluator”; a living being that needs the resource.
Philosophers would claim that I am describing the concept of instrumental value which I would fully agree. This is precisely my point! There is no such thing as intrinsic value. All value is instrumental as it is given to an object or entity accordingly to its utility.
Even humans, only have instrumental value because their presence in social groups is useful for the protection of each individual that comprises the group. A human has value because it contributes to the group. And I am not referring exclusively to material contribution. I include also contributions of a more spiritual level.
In a biological perspective useless humans have no utility value. A society accepts a number of free-riders as far as there is a surplus of resources and they do not put a toll on the needs of contributors.
Free-riders are all those who take advantage of the benefits of group living without contributing to it. Children and old people are not free riders because the first are an investment in the future and the later had already contributed with their investment to what the group is.
Some humans may be so handicapped that they have no way they can contribute. Care for persons with such high level of dependency is only possible in societies where resources allow for a moral code that proclaims that all humans have the right to life. But such moral codes are only prevalent in industrialised societies where the state provides for the common good. In less wealthy societies, mentally and physically impaired people are either exterminated or hidden away in the most appalling and inhumane conditions left to die.
Just do a survey of how many mentally and physically impaired people are supported by communities living in extreme poverty and you get my point. Caring for those with extreme handicaps I a luxury that only wealthy states can afford. Where resources start running low, a sense of injustice raises in the contributing population. Many of these who have abstained to have children because of their lower incomes, feel exploited and treated unfairly when the state provides support to multi child households where nobody works and live from social welfare.
Nobody talks about these issues openly because they are afraid of being knocked on their heads by the censorship hammer of “political correctness” . Just because people don’t openly proclaim their feelings about injustice, it does not mean that they do not experience the sense of unfairness.
However an despite some feelings of injustice many humans ( many other non-human species ) seem to engage frequently in behaviours protective of free-riders whether they are human or not. A pet is also a free- rider. What value has my cat but just eats a sleep and allows me to pet her?
The value given to these free-riders is not derived from their intrinsic value , but it is a consequence of that biological property known as empathy.
Empathy is the result of a complex network of neurons communicating between the limbic system and the cortex. It is the result of a cocktail of neurotransmitters that enables us to feel sorrow and compassion, willing to help and provide care. It activates our sense of fairness and repulsion for gratuitous cruelty. The biological trait empathy is what leads us to give intrinsic value to the animals and humans in need or caught in the chains of suffering and injustice.
As in every biological population, organisms vary and in our case some people are more empathetic than others, extending their feelings to universes varying in size and content. For some, their universes only include humans, while for others they may also include furry four legged creatures and in many cases they may even exclude humans from the realm of moral value. Some only include those who look racially or culturally like us, whilst others may include everybody in the world.
Philosophers and religious people have tried to develop normative theories of value and impinge them as moral guidelines for desirable behaviours but, fortunately or unfortunately , they have not succeeded to make them universally accepted. This is because such theories ignore natural behaviour.
Many religious and normative philosophical schools may well claim that it is wrong to kill, however religious leaders have been famous for inciting their followers to slaughter those who did not share the same beliefs. In this selective slaughter some humans have less value than others.
Moral value, as moral rights are intellectual entities which only exist in the creative minds of intellectuals. They are not real, not universal nor objective.
Does this mean that we have nothing to explain why we give moral consideration to others? No…
We do have many biological reasons that explain our need to cooperate and help others. These traits have evolved in social animals because they were useful to their own survival inside the group. The reason we care for injured or feeble minded conspecifics is no different from why a pack of wolves would care for a companion injured during a hunting exercise, or dolphins engage in rescuing humans from drowning. None of these animals, including humans, do this out of philosophical concepts known as moral consideration or intrinsic value. They do it because their brains are programmed to act empathetically whether they are conscious of it or not.
Small children when given an injured animal have a tendency to care for it. Some do more than others. Others don’t do it all. This reflects the variability in degrees of empathetic behaviour that can be found by the multiple brains in the population. Human capacity for empathy ranges over a line that goes from overwhelming empathetic others to cold emotionless psychopaths. Even cruel Nazi mass murders had empathy towards their close relatives and their pets.
It is time to accept that the concept of intrinsic value does not bring any clarification to the argument of moral consideration. It confuses more than clarifies it.
There is no such thing as “we ought to give moral consideration” to this or the other. Who tells us what we ought? From whose authority?
The only ought is the one that comes from nature. We ought to display behaviours that contribute to harmony in the social group. The social group is where we are inserted and provides for our survival. It does not matter the size, the race or the species integrating that group. This means that we ought to help others, to be fair and just, to prevent cruelty, to avoid in any way to upset the balance of what gives as life, including the environment and all the other creatures that are part of that habitat.
Similarly, there is no such thing as moral rights. Rights are not particles that fall from the cosmos and bestow some of us and not others. We do have a duty to avoid harming others for no reason. But we do also have a duty to harm others if they threaten our own survival and upset the balance of justice.
Human concept of justice, as in many other species, are based on the principle of merit and tit-for-tat. Reward the co-operators and punish the abusers or all those who contribute to upset the balance of our social context through greed, injustice and meaningless cruelty.
Back to where I started. What does it all have to do with animal rights?
Since I deny the concept of intrinsic value as a reason to give moral consideration and rights, it follows that applying the concept of rights to animals as well as to humans makes no sense. However we should seek support in our biological capacity for empathy and repulsion of injustice and apply it to our fellow creatures. One should not be apologetic for our empathetic feelings hiding them behind abstract idealistic intellectual creations with no more empirical support than a fairy tale.