On the Moral Equality of Humans and Animals
~ A Critique of Tom Regan ~
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”
–George Orwell, Animal Farm. Accessed at: http://www.george-orwell.org/Animal_Farm/9.html, 11/25/09
Tom Regan has argued with great force that animals have what he calls “inherent value”. Because all beings that have inherent value have it equally (p. 87), animals and humans are equally valuable, and thus have the same moral status. But I hold that Regan’s notion of “inherent value” is ambiguous: In one sense it applies to animals, and in another it does not. I will argue, in opposition to Regan, that while animals may very well have a moral status, they do not have the same moral status that human beings do.
I think we must distinguish between intrinsic value and moral dignity. Regan’s term “inherent value” is ambiguous between these. To say that something has moral dignity is to say that it ought to be treated with respect, and that it makes a strong claim on the consideration of moral agents when they engage in moral deliberation; a claim that cannot be overridden by any but the most serious competing claims. Something that has moral dignity is also irreplaceable: If something that has moral dignity is destroyed, creating a duplicate—supposing that to be possible—would not “make up for” the loss, even though the duplicate would also have moral dignity.
This is not true of something that has intrinsic value, but which lacks moral dignity. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a certain grove of trees has intrinsic value. Suppose further that these trees are cut down, but that new trees are planted in their place. Within a few decades the new trees are fully grown, and this new grove is for all practical purposes indistinguishable from the old one. In this case the new grove is just as intrinsically valuable as the old one, yet I maintain that the loss of the old grove has been made up for, because tree groves lack moral dignity. Because the old grove had intrinsic value its destruction might be unfortunate or regrettable in some sense, but it is not in any sense an injustice, as the destruction of something that has moral dignity would be.
Now that we have outlined what moral dignity is, we can ask ourselves: Which beings have moral dignity, and what do they all have in common? I do not think that we can answer this question a priori, by picking out some favored trait or set of traits and deducing that all and only those beings that have that trait or set of traits have moral dignity. Instead, I will argue that we cannot consistently treat most animal species as though they have moral dignity.
For carnivores, the right to live entails the right to kill—or, at any rate, the right to feed on the flesh of animals that others have killed. This means that if we have a duty not to cause their death we also have a duty not to prevent them from causing the death of their prey. If Regan is right, both carnivores and their prey are beings of inherent value, because they are both subjects of a life. Human beings have inherent value because they all share the basic similarity of being the subject of a life, which means that we are “… a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others” (p. 88). Because the same is true of animals, “…they, too, must be viewed as the experiencing subjects of a life with inherent value of their own.” (p. 88). All beings that are subjects of a life have inherent value, and they have it equally: no subject of a life is more valuable than any other (p. 89). If that is so, in some cases we have a duty not to prevent the death of beings who are just as valuable as we are.
If we deny this, we must either reject Regan’s claim or conclude that we have a duty to prevent carnivores from feeding—in which case we also have a duty to (indirectly) cause the death of carnivores; animals who, like their prey, have inherent value to the same extent that we do. Thus it would appear that if Regan is right, in some cases we have a duty not to prevent the death of beings that have inherent value, no matter what! What does this show? It shows that Regan’s theory entails that the fact that a being has inherent value does not automatically impose any duty on us to prevent its death, and may even impose a duty on us not to prevent its death. Something seems to have gone wrong.
Suppose, as I take to be the case, that we—that is, moral agents—have a duty not to allow a being that has moral dignity to die when it is possible for us to prevent it, other things being equal. I think this is an important principle. If you feel inclined to doubt it, consider the following thought experiment: Imagine two possible scenarios that are as much alike as possible. In each of them a lion is on the hunt, about to catch its quarry. In the first, the lion is chasing a gazelle. In the second, the lion is chasing a human being. On Regan’s theory, both the gazelle and the human have equal inherent value. However, we have seen that Regan’s term “inherent value” is ambiguous, and can mean either what I have called “moral dignity” or “intrinsic value”. I will interpret it as meaning moral dignity, for if we interpret it as meaning intrinsic value this will not entail a duty to intervene, in accordance with what was said above.
Now, if you accept Regan’s theory, you have two options: If you think that you are obligated to save the human being in virtue of his or her moral dignity, then you accept the above principle. In that case, you are also obligated to save the gazelle in virtue of its moral dignity. If you think that you are free not to save the gazelle even though it has moral dignity, then you reject the above principle. In that case, you are also free not to save the human being even though he or she has moral dignity. So on the assumption that humans and gazelles both have moral dignity, you must either accept that you are obligated to save both the human being and the gazelle, or that you are free to let both of them be killed. But most, I think, will have a strong intuition that they must interfere and save the human being in virtue of his or her moral dignity. The upshot of this is that, if you accept the above principle, you must think that you are obligated to save the gazelle; or else that the gazelle, unlike the human, does not have moral dignity.
It follows from the above that carnivores and their prey cannot both have moral dignity, because we have a duty not to allow a being which has moral dignity to die when it is possible for us to prevent it. On the one hand, if carnivores have moral dignity, our duty not to allow them to die entails that we have a duty not to prevent them from killing so that they may eat. On the other hand, if their prey have moral dignity, our duty not to allow them to die entails that we have a duty to prevent carnivores from killing them. But these duties are inconsistent with each other, so we cannot rationally be expected to fulfill both. Thus we cannot have both duties, and either carnivores, the animals they prey on, or both lack moral dignity. Since most animal species are either carnivores or (potentially) food for carnivores, it follows that most animal species do not have moral dignity.
At this point someone may object that only beings which do not need to kill other sentient beings in order to survive can have moral dignity. In that case herbivores, and hence most of the animals that carnivores prey on, could have moral dignity while carnivores themselves could not. There would then be no inconsistency in saying that some animals have moral dignity, and hence the same moral status that we do.
This response is problematic, because it seems that any property that herbivores may have which could confer moral dignity on them is also had by carnivores. So if this response were right, it would show that neither being alive, nor being sentient, nor being the subject of a life suffices moral dignity, because both herbivores and carnivores are alive, sentient, and subjects of a life. Someone who rejects my account would insist that properties such as these are sufficient for moral dignity only if they are not “trumped” by the possession of another property, such as having to feed on sentient creatures, which makes animals like carnivores ineligible to have moral dignity.
My response is that, if this is so, having moral dignity cannot consist in having properties such as being alive, being sentient, and being the subject of a life. For if having moral dignity consists in having these properties, it will be present wherever they are present, and no other property could cause moral dignity not to consist in having those properties. Thus if having moral dignity consists in having these properties, both carnivores and their prey have moral dignity because they both have these properties. But we have seen that they cannot both have moral dignity, so having moral dignity must require more than having just those properties. That being so, we must look elsewhere if we wish to discover what properties it is that having moral dignity does consist in, and we have no reason to think that these properties will be had by the animals carnivores prey on but not by carnivores themselves. Until we find such a reason, we are justified in not accepting that possibility.
However, there is no inconsistency in supposing that human beings have moral dignity. When we cannot be sure whether a class of beings has moral dignity, we ought to err on the side of caution and treat them as though they do. This is a principle that Regan accepts, but my arguments have shown, in opposition to his thesis, that this principle does not apply to most animal species because we can rule out the possibility that they have moral dignity. But because there is nothing to rule out the possibility that human beings have moral dignity, we are justified in treating them as though they have it, even if there are at present no positive arguments to show that they do.
In spite of the above arguments, we can still hold that both carnivores and their prey have intrinsic value. This would mean that their needs and interests have some claim on our consideration, even though they do not have strong claim in the way that a being with moral dignity does. For example, we have seen above that we are not obligated to prevent them from dying. Nevertheless, to say that they lack moral dignity is not to say that we are free to treat them however we wish. We may have—as I think—direct duties to them, such as a direct duty not to needlessly harm them, or even a direct duty not to eat them; but we still cannot accept Regan’s claim that they have the same moral status that human beings do.
In conclusion, Regan’s thesis that humans and animals have inherent value to the same degree does not withstand scrutiny. The term “inherent value” can mean either moral dignity or intrinsic value. I have shown that we cannot consistently treat animals as though they have moral dignity, although there is no similar problem in treating human beings as though they do. And while it is almost certain that animals are intrinsically valuable, this is not enough to grant them the same moral status as humans. Regan’s aim to improve the plight of animals is a noble one, but I think it would be better served by arguing for animal welfare than by arguing that they are our moral equals.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Accessed at: http://www.george-orwell.org/Animal_Farm/9.html, 11/25/09
Pojman, Louis P. and Paul Pojman (eds.), Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, Fifth Edition. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
Regan, Tom. “The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights”, reprinted in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, Fifth Edition. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman, (eds.). Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
Warren, Mary Anne. “A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory”, reprinted in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, Fifth Edition. Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman, (eds.). Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
Tom Regan, animals, animal rights, ethics, value, inherent value, intrinsic value, moral status
PARENT PAGE: Philosophy
“The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights”, Reprinted in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent page references are to Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application.
 Mary Anne Warren draws a similar distinction between inherent value and rights. According to her, “Intuitively, it seems that value is one thing, and rights are another. It does not seem incoherent to say that some things (e.g., mountains, rivers, redwood trees) are inherently valuable and yet are not the sorts of things which can have moral rights.” (Warren, p. 92, “A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory”, reprinted in Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application)
 According to Mary Anne Warren, p. 93.