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.
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.
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.
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.
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.