Thursday, February 20, 2014

Inherent Worth

Today's Guest Author:  Mark Causey, M.Div., Ph.D  
Teaches Philosophy and Liberal Studies at Georgia College & State University
Member:  UU Congregation of Gwinnett (in Lawrenceville, GA).  
Board of Trustees UU Animal Ministry


Philosophically speaking, inherent worth is contrasted with instrumental worth.  For something to have instrumental worth indicates that it is valuable only as a means to an end.  Money has instrumental worth in this sense.  It is a means to an end (i.e. the things I can purchase with it).  Money has no value except its current exchange value for goods and services.  For something to have inherent worth means that it is valuable in and for itself.  An entity with inherent worth is an end in itself.  Our first principle (as it currently stands) concerning the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” is meant to call attention to the fact that [human] persons (the dictionary presently limits the term “person” to humans) are ends in themselves.  It is meant to prohibit our usage of persons as mere instruments, like tools and things, for our purposes.  In Kant’s formulation, we should always treat others as ends in themselves and never merely as a means to our own ends.  Each person is his or her own unique center of value.  Slavery was a denial of the inherent worth and dignity of the personhood of the slave.  The slave was a person reduced to mere instrumental value.  UUs rightly rejected this reduction of persons on moral grounds.  Of course the present first principle goes beyond merely prohibiting slavery in that it also calls us positively towards and attitude of respect for all persons regardless of the many differences that may exist between us.  I will address the issue of equal worth below.

The question currently being posed by the First Principle project is whether all beings, not just human beings, have inherent worth.  To answer this question in the negative and to reserve inherent worth for human persons only invites a further question: “On what grounds do we deny inherent worth to other beings?”  To reply on the grounds that other beings are simply not human is to beg the question.  It doesn’t tell us why humans, and only humans, have inherent worth to begin with. 

A large part of our inheritance from both classical western philosophy and our Judeo-Christian past is the notion of the hierarchy of values in terms of beings that Arthur Lovejoy dubbed the Great Chain of Being.  With God at the top and humans a close second (or third if you are a medieval theologian and count angels as second), then follow the animals, plants, and finally inanimate things like rocks and dirt.  It should of course be noted that even within the human category, there was traditionally also a hierarchy in terms of sex and race in which white males tended to count for more than women who counted for more than slaves and so on.  In Biblical terms this was cashed out through the Genesis story of the separate and special act of the creation of humans as distinct from the rest of creation.  But this worldview also belongs to the days of the geocentric universe, and few of us take the Genesis creation myths to be literal, scientific accounts of the origins of the universe.  This sort of hierarchical ranking of beings is out of touch with modern science.  Ever since Darwin we have realized that whatever differences exist between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are differences of degree not differences of kind.  We all share a common biological ancestor.
But worldviews, especially when they favor our interests, are hard to change.  Humans have been set apart and above the rest of nature on the basis of intelligence (rationality), the possession of a soul, being moral, having language, and so on.  Indeed, Descartes went so far as to claim that only humans had minds and could feel pain.  Animals in his view were just very cleverly constructed automatons whose shrieks of pain as they were being vivisected were just so many squeaks of their cogs and springs.  Recent advances in our scientific understanding, especially the contributions of animal ethology and cognitive ethology, have largely discredited all of the above reasons given for human uniqueness.  True to Darwin’s early insights, recent science is continuing to blur the distinction between human animals and the rest of the animal kingdom.  The work of biologists and ethologists like Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans De Waal, and Jane Goodall has demonstrated a far greater degree of human/animal continuity than discontinuity.  These scientists, among many others, are challenging us to expand our understanding of non-human animals in terms of their amazing cognitive, emotional, and even moral capacities.

The moral point, however, is that whatever the real differences (of degree) between us, they are morally irrelevant.  Insofar as other animals are subjects of their own lives with, as Tom Regan observes, a biography not just a biology, they are not the sorts of things we can legitimately use as instruments for our own purposes.  Insofar as they have the capacity to experience pain and suffering the generally accepted moral harm principle states that we should never cause harm to another without a very good reason.  Because animals other than us also care about their own lives and their lives can go better or worse for them, they are very different from a tool fashioned for our use.  If human pain and suffering counts at all morally, then so does theirs.  There is no qualitative difference, no difference in kind.  As Jeremy Bentham famously noted: “The question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”

The word being, however, can also include more than just humans and other animals.  It can also include other life forms like plants or fungi.  While these may not be sentient beings like us (so there is here a difference in kind not just degree) is there any reason to entirely exclude them from our circle of moral concern?  We do so at our own peril.  We humans are latecomers to the world.  As our seventh principle reminds us we are merely members of an interdependent web.  As Aldo Leopold formulates it in his famous Land Ethic: “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it...it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”  The world into which we are born is much older, complex, and complete than we are.  We are just barely beginning to understand the complex balance and intricacies of our planet’s ecosystems, which through our ignorance and hubris we are rapidly destabilizing and destroying.  It is the height of hubris on our part to think that this world, billions and billions of years in the making, is simply raw material put here for our use.  But if we assign to the rest of nature only instrumental worth, that is exactly what we are saying.

One of the most common objections I hear when presenting or talking about the First Principle Project is the objection that replacing the word “person” with the word “being” now means that we are all the same.  “Does that mean that a tapeworm or a cockroach has exactly the same inherent value as a human being?!”  What I believe has happened here is that the objector has subconsciously inserted the word “equal” into the formulation of the revised principle.  What we are saying is that we are “called to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.”  What the objector is hearing is that we are “called to affirm and promote the equal inherent worth and dignity of all beings.”  If every being has equal inherent worth, does that mean I can no longer swat a mosquito?  But the First Principle project is not proposing to insert the word “equal” into the principle.  It is quite natural for us to hear the word “equal” here because it is implied (although not explicitly stated) in the current wording of the principle. What we hear in the current first principle is that all persons, regardless of race, sex, ability, identification, etc., have equal worth and dignity.  We are so used to fighting for the principle of equality amongst humans, as we should, that we automatically transfer this notion to the proposed changed wording including all beings. 

Does acknowledging inherent worth in all beings necessarily mean equal worth?  After all, if all beings have exactly the same worth, what justifies my use of any being even for my own vital needs?  I would have no moral right to eat either a carrot or a cow.  I would have no right to cut down a tree to build my house.  Or take an antibiotic to cure an infection.  We would arrive at a moral dead-end in which no realistic action would really be possible.  Even the deepest ecological vision, Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology Movement, only proposes biospherical egalitarianism in principle allowing that “any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”  All that the proposed principle change is asking is for a paradigm shift in our thinking about the more-than-human world—a shift away from anthropocentric instrumental value, towards an acknowledgement and respect for inherent worth.  It is a call to expand our circle of moral concern and compassion beyond the limits of our own species and to acknowledge the truth of our membership in the larger life community that has value in its own right.  It had value before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene and it still does now.

We will still have to make difficult decisions as our interests legitimately conflict with the interests of other beings.  We do this amongst equal humans all the time.  What is different about the acknowledgment of the inherent worth of the non-human world is that our human interests will not (or at least should not) always automatically win.  The world is not simply a stockpile of resources for our exploitation.  To assert that simply because humans can—and have—dominated the rest of nature that this justifies our attributing inherent worth only to humans is really just another form of the “might makes right” argument that we would rightly reject if applied in human affairs.  Any number of otherwise unacceptable acts could be justified on that argument.

The only way to justify the view that non-human nature has only instrumental value, would be to establish some way in which humans are separate from and independent of the rest of nature.  Such a view was once commonly held and its remnants are very much with us still (much like the view of white racial superiority was once commonly accepted and its remnants are still all too much with us still).  But such a view flies in the face of reason and science, and even our own deepest intuitions and feelings.  As a thought experiment try this.  Complete the following sentence: “Only humans can ______.”  Make sure you complete the sentence in a way that qualifies every human being and no other type of being.  For example, “Only humans can use language” won’t work because not all humans can use language (infants and severely mentally challenged people cannot and some primates and even some parrots can in a more robust way than simply repeating words or phrases).  Now ask yourself if whatever you filled in the blank with is a morally relevant characteristic.

This is not at all to deny that humans are distinctive in our advanced cognitive, linguistic, social, and moral capacities. But these differences of degree do not in any way correspond to superiority in value.  Difference here need not mean better—just different.  We do not treat more intellectually advanced humans morally as having more inherent worth than the rest of us.  We would not, for instance, condone the involuntary use of lower IQ human beings in painful medical experiments in order to find a cure for a higher IQ individual on the basis of IQ differences alone.  Animals and plants have capacities we do not possess.  We cannot echo-locate like a dolphin or a bat nor photosynthesize like a plant.  Humans are not the sole bearers of value. 

So how to decide when our interests conflict?  The Great Chain of Being makes it easy.  Humans win. Every time. But if we reject the notion of the chain in favor of an interdependent web, what can guide our decisions?  I would suggest that there are some morally significant factors to consider: factors like sentience (the ability to feel pains and pleasures), consciousness, and sociality.  Vital interests trump non-vital interests.  Living things have more at stake than inanimate objects.  It is hard to imagine doing a moral harm to a rock.  Easier to imagine harming a plant.  Easier still to imagine harming an animal or a human.  Conscious beings, animals human and non-human, have a sense of self that persists over time and interests in how their lives go.  Social beings have more complex capacities for relationships and experiences.  It means that a harm to a member of the society causes pain to other members.  For example the death of a social being also affects the others in that society who mourn their loss (humans are not the only animals to mourn our dead—elephants for one do so as well).  Is this just another Great Chain of Being worded differently?  I don’t think so.  There is nothing here to imply that humans must always come out on top.  For example, in the choice of whether to eat the cow or the carrot the cow gets greater consideration because of the morally relevant facts that cows are sentient, conscious, and social beings.  As Alan Watts wryly observed, he was a vegetarian because “cows scream louder than carrots.”  But what about the human’s interest in eating the cow (because they really like the taste of a good steak)?  It loses because the non-vital interest (taste preference) does not override the cow’s vital interest in remaining alive.  This blog entry is not the place to work out all the ethical issues (as if I could anyway).  My point is simply this: recognizing the inherent worth of other-than-human beings does not commit us to a moral dead end or an impossible practical position of non-action.  It simply requires us to recognize at a minimum that the rest of nature has value which does not depend on what use humans can put it to.  It simply asks us to make a more humble, as well as a more ethically, intellectually and scientifically defensible assessment of our place in the grand scheme of things.  Spiritually it calls us to expand our circles of compassion by opening our hearts and our arms to embrace the more-than-human world in which we live.  That’s all we’re really asking.

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