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What is the value of an animal’s life?

Which is the greater deprivation for an animal: to live a good-quality life abbreviated at less than its natural term by painless slaughter for meat, or to never live at all? How much of an animal’s life…

When discussing animal welfare, it’s hard to look at it from the animal’s perspective. phik

Which is the greater deprivation for an animal: to live a good-quality life abbreviated at less than its natural term by painless slaughter for meat, or to never live at all? How much of an animal’s life has enough value to be worth living?

Recent commentary by John Hadley explores the ethics of eating meat. Hadley argues that avoiding pain and suffering when an animal is killed does not fulfil our moral responsibility to the animal. He proposes that the value of the life forgone outweighs the post-death value to humans, and suggests it is therefore not acceptable to kill animals for meat.

Through this argument Hadley opens the difficult question of the value of animal life. He argues that this value has ethical implications beyond the mere question of pain and suffering.

How can we approach the fraught question of the value of both animal and human life: for instance, is the value absolute or relative? What consequences are there for our relationship with animals?

The “absolute view” that human life is not within the gift of humankind is held, at least in principle, by many societies and religions. The Indian religion, Jainism, extends this view to animals. So do some secular movements.

Who decides how long an animal - or a human - should live? Marji Beach

The “relative view”, the idea that the value of an animal’s life is influenced by the circumstances in which it exists, is the normative view in Australia and many other countries. For instance, the requirement at law that animals under the care or responsibility of humans must be euthanased to alleviate irremediable pain and suffering tells us that the animal’s life must not be preserved at any cost.

Extension of this value judgment to humans is being explored cautiously in many societies including Australia through discussion of the permissibility of human euthanasia.

A recent Four Corners program, “The price of life”, examined the risks and benefits of supporting early-term premature babies. It illustrated how technological developments can bring compelling immediacy to these questions.

Assigning value to animal life

From a biological perspective, the life of each animal has its own developmental history. Each animal’s life emerges through the interaction of its genotype (or genetic make-up) with its environment, leading to what we recognise as the animal’s individual phenotype (or its traits). The phenotype itself is not constant but changes as the animal develops and ages and as its environment varies.

From the biologist’s perspective, the animal’s life has biological value to its own species, value to other species (for instance, through ecological contributions) and value to future generations through genetic fitness and reproductive success.

Biological values exist that are relative within the life history of the individual and relative between individuals of a given species. Relative trans-species values lead to evolutionary changes in species abundance and extinction.

Through our human value systems, we confer values on animals that can be relative within the life history of the individual, or relative between one animal or species and another.

How do we decide a bilby’s or a sheep’s life is more important than a fox’s? j-ster

Within-individual relativity is the type of judgement that supports the conclusion that life without pain is better than life with pain. Between-individual relativity is the type of judgement that leads a sheep farmer to the conclusion that it is okay to cull an aged ewe in preference to a maiden ewe.

Between-species relativity is the type of judgment that supports the conclusion that it is ok to kill foxes predating new-born lambs, rabbits threatening birdlife on Macquarie Island or cattle for human consumption – a judgment known as speciesism.

Where do these values of animal life come from?

Biological values of animal life are understood through evidence-based experimentation. Experiments quantify the bio-physical consequences of the individual and its species companions on their immediate and larger environments, over contemporary and evolutionary time scales.

Like the axe and the iPad, and like democracy and debt, the type of value conferred on animals in Hadley’s argument does not exist as a property of the universe waiting to be discovered. The value is a tool or artefact created by human imagination. The value is not in the strict sense a property of the animal but is something conferred on the animal by humans.

To recognise the value in these terms is neither misanthropic nor a denigration of the value. Human imagination has produced creations of stunning beauty and pleasure as well as great nastiness, and has influenced cultural evolution for many thousands of years. Indeed, some people might hold the view that valuing animal life as sacrosanct is the pinnacle of human imagination.

Hadley notes that our current understanding is that farm animals do not have a sense of the future or of the life they have forgone if that life is ended short of its natural term by human hands. If this is so, then choosing to end a farm animal’s life in a pain-free way would be a choice based on human aesthetics and values rather than an imposition in any existential manner on the sense of self that the animal might have.

Keeping animals for fibre and not killing them raises a whole new host of philosophical questions. hav n knit lover

This discussion broaches the question whether an animal’s life has extra-corporal quality, value or essence. The question is a metaphysical one that humans have struggled with for millennia.

Aristotle asked is there a purpose for each animal; philosophers ponder whether there are qualia, or quality, for animal-ness; religions wonder whether animals have souls. If the answers are no, then the non-biological values we perceive in animals would seem to be human made.

What consequences flow from the view that it is ethically unacceptable to kill animals for the benefit of humans?

Domesticated animals as we know them today are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding by humans. They provide us with milk, fibre, companionship, and an energy source. On the negative side, domestic animals also incubate and transmit disease to humans, and at times have enhanced pestilence, environmental degradation and climate change.

If it were unacceptable to kill farm animals for food, would it still be okay to use them for other purposes, in exchange for benefits like companionship and good health that humans can provide to animals, and for the experience of life itself? Both answers, yes and no, have considerable consequences.

If we can use farm animals, say, for milk and fibre production but not meat production, while minimising their pain and suffering, what is our responsibility at the end of the animal’s life?

If the responsibility continues to be to minimise pain and suffering and we can end life painlessly in this way, once life is ended what moral imperative then prohibits the use of the dead animal for further utilitarian functions. Why couldn’t we generate decompositional biogas for heating, create blood and bone compost for organic agriculture or prepare meat for human consumption?

On the other hand, what consequences flow from the proposition that it is not acceptable to keep animals for any utilitarian purposes?

Today, animals on our farms are bred for human benefits. With the “no” proposition, there would be no need to breed them in the first place.

These domesticated animals have no natural ecosystem in Australia and no natural environmental niche that is not made by humans. In a resource-constrained world, where might they live if not on farms?

Would we have an obligation to provide farm animals with model farm environments for their own pleasure? Which genotypes, which environments and what quota would suffice their needs?

Balancing absolute and relative values

These scenarios take us back to the relativistic question, what value is an animal’s life, and the concordant question, how much of a life has enough value to be worth living?

The kernel of Hadley’s argument is that the value of the portion of an animal’s life forgone by a pain-free death caused by human agency is not negotiable: the life should be lived for the existential benefit of the animal and not forfeited for human benefit.

What happens to domestic animals if we abandon farming? Jimmy James

But is it of greater value to the animal to live an abbreviated life, provided that it is lived at a high quality, than not to live at all? If it is a deprivation for an animal to not live the last part of its natural term of life, is it not a greater deprivation to never live at all?

Philosophical arguments like this make value propositions that are neither refutable nor provable but that can be illuminated and explored through rigorous intellectual enquiry and example. When evidence can be used to test propositions we move from the domain of philosophy to that of science.

Ascribing secular moral values to biological states of animals can be traced at least as far back in history as Jeremy Bentham, who noted in 1789 that both for human infants and animals “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Ongoing development of a value calculus for animal and human life, to which Hadley’s argument makes an important contribution, is a worthy endeavour. It has the potential to provide a more nuanced understanding of the world we live in and of Homo sapiens’ place in it.

Projecting our emotional states and value systems on to other individuals is usually considered to be inappropriate behaviour within human society. Yet projection of human emotions and values often occurs when we view animals in anthropomorphic terms.

The challenge is to understand animals from their own perspective, unless one believes that the human view is more important than the animal view, whatever that might be. Perhaps there could be no greater insult for a sheep than to be characterized in human terms.

My CSIRO colleagues and animal behavioural scientists in a number of labs are developing methods to quantify the emotional states of farm animals, and to quantify the importance to the animal of its “internal state”. Here we see science making some tentative steps towards understanding the value animals place on how they feel.

This work may one day lead to an understanding of the value to the animal of the life forgone. In the meantime we can best explore this concept through rigorous conversation.

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    Australians like to pretend that their treatment of farm animals is wonderful ... but every single truckload of pigs I see on a regular basis on route to the slaughterhouse is a picture of misery. And when we saw what happens to cattle in Indonesia, what did we do? Lots of crocodile tears and then back to business as usual. But weren't there bits of paper and agreements? Lyn White has filmed abuses repeatedly in the middle east. Each time they are followed by bits of paper and each time she returns…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff you are showing nothing but confirmation bias against animal farming and meat eating. There is a line between treating our food with respect and anthropomorphising it. You are falling into the latter category.

      I'd also like to point out that plants have feelings too, they react to stimulae. Better stop eating them as well. Plants have toxins and carcinogens in them too. Better stop eating them as well. I wish people would actually read the meat studies and understand what was found rather than trot out correlations like they are causation.

    2. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      To argue that plants have feelings on the basis that they respond to stimulae is rather worse than confirmation bias, it is plain silly. I have actually read more than a few meat studies and the 150 authors of the 2007 World Cancer Research Fund report
      were absolutely clear. They defined precisely what they meant by convincing evidence of
      causality and found that red meat caused colorectal cancer. These are epidemiologists and they don't…

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    3. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Ooops. My previous post had "meat" instead of "red meat" in a few places. There isn't convincing evidence that white meat causes colorectal cancer, only red and processed meat (pig meat is red meat except for marketing purposes). Of course, I'd love it if there were convincing evidence against chicken, but there isn't.

    4. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff, I have pointed to the original papers in other threads when you have raised your points. You have skipped past the actual science and straight to the sentences that confirm your bias'.

      Yes, red meat does release carcinogins, but that is much like a large propotion of the foods we eat (soy, coffee, potatoes, rice, cereals, mushrooms, apples, peanuts, corn, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, etc). So it isn't the meat that is the problem, but rather the overall diet i.e. one with no balance…

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    5. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      The judgement that red and processed meat cause cancer isn't mine, but the World
      Cancer Research Fund's, I'm merely the messenger, direct your sighs at them and
      explain to them how they cherry picked the data. I wouldn't presume to make such
      a judgement, but think it reasonable to back their judgement as experts over yours.

      As for feelings ... my mobile phone responds to stimulae, but that's not enough, and
      even if plants did have feelings, what should you eat to minimise suffering? Work
      it out or read it ...

    6. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      You didn't read my response properly.

      I said that you were using the WCRF report as a red herring. It is not a science report on causality but one about moderating to decrease risks based on assumptions. Thus you citing it has no basis to the argument and acts to avoid my points that you constantly ignore: MOST FOODS CAN CAUSE CANCER not just meat. Thus we need a balanced diet. The cherry picking you did was to cite the DNA damage after a meat meal, and then refused to also cite the other investigations into other meals.

      You also didn't read my response regarding the fact that I was satirising anthropomorphism. You are interpreting a level of humanity in animals that isn't there, much as I'm ascribing a level of sentience to a plant that isn't there. Also, your phone is not a living entity so it is a poor analogy.

    7. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Of course I read your response. The WCRF are experts, you and I are not. The difference is that you pretend to be. "Most foods can cause cancer" ... absolute rubbish. I can cite all manner of studies but you aren't worth the effort.

  2. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Of course humans are animals too and it must be noted that the 'annual death rate" is 2.4% for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, and 2.2% for Indigenous Australians as a whole, as compared to 2.5% for Australian sheep in Australian paddocks (see "Aboriginal Genocide": ).

    Indeed it was recently estimated that the annual death rate was 7% for under-5 year old Afghan infants in Australia-occupied Afghanistan as compared to 4…

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  3. Tammi Jonas

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks for this article, Iain. The science of what humans 'need' to eat remains complicated and contradictory, and too often blinkered by a focus on the desires of the Global North. Recommendations to 'eat more dairy', 'eat less red meat', 'eat more fish', 'eat more vegetables'... change so often it's no wonder the population in Australia is confused and increasingly distrustful of 'the science'. We need more such philosophical explorations of why we do/should/don't/shouldn't eat meat and dairy, or GM grains, etc. Meanwhile, I'm with Marian in that for those of us who choose to be omnivore, we should seek animals raised on the pasture, free to display the behaviours of both their phenotype and killed as humanely as possible ('only one bad day' as Salatin says), and we should also seek not to over-consume meat & dairy, for environmental, ethical, and health reasons. Again, thank you for raising key values questions around the consumption of animals.

  4. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    Interesting article, raising some of the very same questions I have asked myself.

    In trying to lessen our impact on the Planet we grow a lot of our own veggies, we also have chooks for eggs and a rooster... the hens raise their own chickens, free range, we eat the young roosters, let the hens age, lay their eggs, then in the pot after a few years to make broth. We also have an enclosed small orchard, we let guinea pigs free roaming there, with the intent of eating them (how very Peruvian of us…

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    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Trevor S

      "Makes a big difference ..." I suggest Trevor S. that you try that argument in court. "Oh no your honour, I didn't just receive stolen property, I stole it myself!". Or "No your honour, I didn't just film that child abuse and profit from it, I participated". Your propensity to play the part of the slaughterman is morally irrelevant to the deed. If you want to judge the morality of the action then consider the view of the victim. Is anything else relevant? Occasionally, like when killing in self-defense, or when there is no alternative food source. But those are edge cases which most people understand. The normal case is you having an animal killed or killing it yourself when you have absolutely no need.

  5. Martin Spencer

    PhD student at University of Melbourne

    I especially agree with the idea that collaboration between behavioral scientists and neuroscientists will begin to answer these philosophical questions (just as, today, astrophysicists answer the seemingly unanswerable questions of the past).

    However Ian has placed one unnecessary obstacle in his own path with one idea that is either poorly expressed, poorly conceived, or both: "Projecting our .... value systems on to other individuals is usually considered to be inappropriate behaviour within human society." What? Surely Ian isn't saying that he is a moral relativist? Does he defend the mutilation of the genitals of children as a respectable cultural practice? I worry that with this nihilistic premise he may 'discover' that it is okay to lock sows in tiny cages since that is part of the essence of what it is to be a domesticated sow.

  6. Ian Colditz

    Research Scientist in Livestock Health and Welfare at CSIRO

    It's a nice point, Martin. I think it depends on one's model of appropriate ways to bring about social change. My point about "projection of values" was that it seems today to be generally considered not appropriate (except in politics and the prurient commentariat) to criticize the every day behaviour and values of another individual and to project our own perceptions upon another individual, or in accord with the theme of the article, upon an animal. For issues about which we feel there is a need…

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    1. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Ian Colditz

      We are happy to jail rapists and child molesters but don't want to humiliate female genital mutilators? Steven Pinker in his latest book describes various approaches that
      have been used to dismantle violence. My favourite would have to be laughter. He describes how the practice of dueling vanished very quickly under the target of ridicule
      and laughter. But dueling involves two moron, not an innocent third party so it isn't quite the right model for many other issues.

    2. Martin Spencer

      PhD student at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Ian Colditz

      Ian, thanks for the clarification of the best way of attacking parochial and degrading cultural practices, but my analogy became a bit of a side show.

      To clarify: we certainly have a lot to learn about what it is like to be a pig. For instance: what is sorrow like for a pig? That is an open question that may well be amenable to proper scientific investigation. The answer, when it comes, may well change our relationship with pigs. BUT, another research question: what is it like to be a sow in a restrictive cage separated from your piglets? Is actually much less interesting. I doubt that the answer to that second question will be very surprising and therefore will do very little to change our relationship with pigs. What do you think?

  7. John Hadley

    Research Lecturer at University of Western Sydney

    Hi Ian,

    A very thoughtful piece.I'd just like to make two comments.

    First, talk about the nature or metaphysics of value, whether it is detected or projected, etc, whilst intutively interesting can be a source for confusion and suspicion. Scientists particularly cite the intractibility and obscurity of such debates as discrediting any practical implications that puportedly follow. The basic idea I was trying to get across is that it seems inconsistent to care about a creature's pain but not…

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    1. Ian Colditz

      Research Scientist in Livestock Health and Welfare at CSIRO

      In reply to John Hadley

      Hi John

      Thanks for the comments.

      Yes, pain matters and quality of life matters.

      These values are central to animal welfare.

      The current Australian welfare codes for livestock address both pain and quality of life. The importance of minimising pain is recognised through definition of acceptable procedures and ages for conducting potentially painful husbandry practices. Quality of life issues are addressed for instance through stipulating conditions for non painful practices; feeding standards…

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    2. John Hadley

      Research Lecturer at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Ian Colditz


      Some might suggest that you are conflating quality of life with value of life. Or, as I would put it, a concern for pain with a concern for considerations 'over and above' pain. People register their concern for such considerations when they use terms such as respect, dignity, telos, intrinsic value, inherent value, sanctity, etc. When philosophers invoke such terms they know full well that the animals may not be suffering - feeling pain or any other psychogically aversive state - yet they still feel prompted to employ such terms. It is in these cases that the welfare approach, which reduces everything back to pain, falls short.

      Now, scientists can try to discredit such terms by pointing out that they appear subjective, or that they are underpinned by spooky metaphysics, etc, but I think this misses the point. Most people are concerned about what animals feel and about killing animals, and they see the issues as distinct.


    3. Ian Colditz

      Research Scientist in Livestock Health and Welfare at CSIRO

      In reply to John Hadley


      Thanks again for your comments.

      I can’t speak for other scientists but I have no problem with philosophy as an endeavour to understand the world we live in, including understanding important questions like the value of life, nor a problem with the fact that this might be a question with metaphysical dimensions. Yes, animal welfare science is much more than the study of pain, ways to minimize or alleviate pain and ways to avoid negative affective states.

      I don’t think we disagree…

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    4. John Hadley

      Research Lecturer at University of Western Sydney

      In reply to Ian Colditz

      Hi Ian,

      Nothing I have said so far commits me to either deontology or consequentialism; both ethical aproaches find room for values as they (values) are being talked about here.

      My approach is to start where we are, not in the abstract. So what I said in the piece I wrote a while back is representative of how I would answer the questions you posed. (Though, I 'm not sure I understand the last one.)

      "If human life is the most valuable kind of life and the lives of, say, insects the least…

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  8. Mike Archer AM

    Professor, Evolution of Earth & Life Systems Research Group at UNSW Australia

    Excellent article Ian! You have handled this question of the imposition of human morality on the natural world with sensitivity and tact. Of course the way animal rights advocates perceive this issue is far from universal, particularly among hunter-gatherer societies that live as natural, integrated parts of ecosystems. Those who value and use wildlife have an appreciation for and dependence on living things that most western animal rights advocates could not understand. It's why the mass extinction…

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  9. wilma western

    logged in via email

    I found Ian Colditz's article thoughtful and pertinent; while the return to vego versus meat eating arguments just ignored the basic issue - is it ethical to breed and confine animals for any purpose, whether to go trail riding , to be a companion for a lonely person , to produce 'natural fibre' , or for milk and meat? Why is only meat eating regarded as the worst ethically? On what basis is it decided that mammals should receive greater consideration than insects? What about the old "nature red…

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  10. Shirley Birney


    “What is the value of an animal’s life?” Well all animals have a sense of future. If this hypothesis is false, then why do all species possess a “flight or fight” response to danger where the hypothalamus kicks in? One does not need an animal behaviourist to discover if non-humans possess the same instinct for self-preservation as humans. And as with human societies, even insects such as bees have soldiers that die in defence of the colony.

    The inherent self-preservation instinct of an animal…

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  11. Mark Chambers

    Business & Marketing Consultant

    We shouldn't need to ask the question , but we do need to answer it . We should possibly also ask if science will assist us in doing that or just baffle us further ?? Additionally , what equalising form of currency will we use to determine the answer , or is society simply required to take a philosophical approach ?? If philosophical , will it be a democratically philosophical answer or one decided by heads of society , government , or media ??

    It may be that the answer is actually not a difficult one ... just a touch inconvenient . Does the animal in question have a survival instinct ?? If yes , many questions are answered in relation to public morality . ie : 'the animal consciously doesn't want to die' . For a dinner plate argument , that's where the inconvenience factor arrives . Perhaps the better question would be ; 'what does it take to overcome public morality ??' That question is already answered .