Intrinsic Ethical Value

Currently, I am taking a Coursera (online university courses) on Practical Ethics. Next to lectures and readings the course also consists of writing assignments, this is the fourth (and last) one. In this short essay, I am arguing for the intrinsic ethical value of sentient animals. Written May 2014.

Do animal or plant species have intrinsic ethical value?

No. Only animals that possess consciousness (sentience), partly or wholly, have an ethical value. This argument is made in consideration of two schools of thought. Holmes Rolston’s “respect for life” and Peter Singer’s reaction. It is also assumed that the environmental ethics discussed take into account not only the human interest (anthropocentric) but also considers the interest of animals (biocentric) and plants (ecocentric). I will argue why there is no intrinsic ethical value in all plants and animals.

Rolston argues that value, or valuing, can be done outside of consciousness. He argues that without consciousness an animal or plant is still able to determine right from wrong. A plant that sits in a dark room with only one source of light will grow towards this light source. A chicken will always choose to stand on grass over dirt. From very conscious beings (e.g. humans) to basic organisms (e.g. non-arthropod invertebrate animals), every animal and plant values, and has value.

Singer argues that not everything has intrinsic value. He argues that consciousness includes a certain amount of awareness. Only when an animal (or plant) shows signs that it is aware of the act of valuing, then it has intrinsic ethical value itself. An elephant that mourns for its lost partner exhibits that it is valuing. A pigeon that pecks at the lever that will get him food, maybe so. But not a plant that is driven solely by mechanical drives to grow towards the light.

One might then argue that we are also driven by mechanical processes, that our genes are the driving force behind all of our decisions. Upon abstraction, this argument certainly holds and is strongly defended by Richard Dawkins (in The Selfish Gene) and alike. The argument, however, does not hold when you try and add up all mechanical processes that lie beneath all our judgments. This is where Singer argues that our consciousness makes the difference. We are aware of the processes that go on, we can judge them ‘from a distance’ and use our consciousness to ignore the mechanical needs.

To further strengthen this argument one can look at the mechanical processes from the other side. If mechanical processes are the only thing that is needed for intrinsic ethical value, then does this include heat-seeking missiles? A heat-seeking missile will fly towards the heat generated from engines from air or land targets. It is however difficult to detect value, or good for that matter, in this action. Without consciousness, there can be no value.

But what if we take a more holistic approach and look at the intrinsic ethical value of animals and plants as ecosystems. Within an ecosystem, everything from the biggest animals to the smallest bacteria play vital roles in preserving the balance (or deal with the continuous change). Preserving an ecosystem has ethical value, but not all specific species and animals are granted the same recognition. When a species is not conscious of its contribution, but only reacts to mechanical processes it will not be ‘bad’ to not preserve it. There is no harm done when a non-conscious animal or plant is removed, no pain will be felt. It is only the pain for conscious animals (e.g. humans) that has intrinsic value.

This does mean that other animals should have the same equality of consideration that we extend to human beings. A monkey that loses his home due to deforestation will experience pain. Differing in the level of consciousness, or sentience, the intrinsic ethical value of animals can be considered. This implies that humans are not the only species that have intrinsic value, but does not include plants or animals without sentience.

A final note must be made about the level of consciousness or sentience. In this argument, it can be defined as the ability to feel. This is the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences (qualia). It is a minimalistic way of defining consciousness. Through observation (or interaction) sentience can be detected in many animals.

Intrinsic ethical value lies within all animals that are sentient. Plants and animals that lack this criteria do not have an intrinsic ethical value. Animals should therefore be treated with the same moral importance as humans. And even our (non-living) environment deserves care, because of the value we humans ourselves give to it.

References & Further Reading:

1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, week 11; Topic 11: Environmental Values (1): Is Anything Other Than Sentient Life of Intrinsic Value?

2. Dale Jamieson, ed., Singer and His Critics (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999). Pages 247-268.

3. Carlo Enrico Lombardo, Values and Information in Rolston’s Environmental Ethics.

4. Aleksander, I. (2002) Understanding information, bit by bit: Shannon’s equations. In Farmelo, G. (Ed.) It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science. Pp. 213–230. Granta Books, London.

5. Derr, Patrick George; Edward M. McNamara (2003). Case studies in environmental ethics. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-7425-3137-6

6. Judi Bari (1995). “Revolutionary Ecology: Biocentrism & Deep Ecology”. Alarm: A Journal of Revolutionary Ecology.