Guest Author: Meredith Garmon
Minister, Community Unitarian Church at White Plains
As the conversation has unfolded for more than a year since Mark Causey’s important “Inherent Worth” post (2014 Feb 20 – CLICK HERE), there are points I particularly want to re-emphasize. Here’s my interpretation and summary of the excellent points I understand Mark to have made.
“Inherent worth” contrasts with instrumental worth: something with only instrumental worth is valuable only as a means to an end; an entity with inherent worth is an end in itself. On what grounds, then, can we say any being lacks inherent worth?
Other animals are subjects of their own lives (Tom Regan). They have a biography, not just a biology. Nonhuman animals care about their own lives, have the capacity to experience pain and suffering, and can be harmed. Their lives can go better or worse for them. If human pain and suffering counts morally, then so does theirs, and we should never cause them harm without a sufficient reason.
“The question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” (Jeremy Bentham)
Because they can suffer, and are subjects of their own lives, we cannot legitimately use then solely as instruments for our own purposes. The world is not a stockpile of resources for human exploitation.
The medieval hierarchy that Arthur Lovejoy dubbed “the Great Chain of Being” placed God at the top, followed by angels, then humans, other animals, plants, and finally inanimate things like rocks and dirt. Proffered bases for separating the human species into its own – and higher – plane have included: intelligence (rationality), the possession of a soul, being moral, having language, and so on. We now understand that all animals, including humans, share a common biological ancestor, and recent advances in our scientific understanding have largely discredited all of the above reasons given for human uniqueness. Scientific findings continue to further blur the distinction between human and nonhuman animals. The work of biologists and ethologists (Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans De Waal, and Jane Goodall, among many others), challenges us to expand our understanding of nonhuman animals’ amazing cognitive, emotional, and even moral capacities.
What differences remain between humans and other animals – such as humans’ advanced cognitive, linguistic, social, and moral capacities – are differences of degree not of kind. Moreover, every species has its uniqueness. Human uniqueness also includes limitations: we cannot echo-locate like dolphins or bats nor photosynthesize like plants. These differences are not morally relevant. Different beings aren’t better beings any more than different humans are better humans.
“All beings have inherent worth and dignity” does not mean all beings have the same value or have equal worth. It simply says that even tapeworms, cockroaches, and dustmites have some worth that is inherent and not instrumental.
Indeed, even plants and fungi warrant moral concern, for they, too, are integral parts of the interdependent web of life affirmed in the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, as well as in Aldo Leopold’s 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 beginning to understand the complex balance and intricacies of our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly realizing that the web of life as a whole has intrinsic, inherent value far beyond merely instrumental worth.
At the same time, we are sometimes justified in using some beings for our own vital needs. We are within our moral rights to eat carrots, cut down trees to build a house, or use antibiotics to cure an infection. Even Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology Movement, allows that
“any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”
The First Principle Project is not asking for an unrealistic praxis. It asks to recognize that, along with our needs for instrumental use of other beings, we also recognize that they have inherent worth. It is a call to expand our circle of moral concern and compassion and to acknowledge the truth of our membership in the larger life community that has value in its own right. The beings of that community had value before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, and they still do now.
We have always had to make difficult decisions when our legitimate interests conflict with the interests of other beings. The First Principle Project asks us to recognize that we face such difficult choices not merely when human interests conflict with other human interests, but also when human interests conflict with nonhuman interests.
When human interests conflict with interests of other beings, factors to be considered include:
1. Sentience (the ability to feel pains and pleasures.) Cows? Yes. Carrots. Probably not.
2. Consciousness (self-awareness). Conscious beings have a sense of self that persists over time and interests in how their lives go.
3. Sociality. 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. The death of a social being is occasioned by mourning among survivors.
4. The importance of the interest to the being who has it. Vital interests trump non-vital interests. The interests of beings with sentience, consciousness, and sociality count for a lot – but not all their interests are vital. The human interest in eating a cow, when alternatives are readily available, is a preferential taste. That interest would normally be outweighed by the cow’s interest as a sentient and somewhat conscious being.
Recognizing the inherent worth of all beings entails recognizing that the rest of nature has value which does not depend on what use humans can put it to. Spiritually, affirming that principle expands our circles of compassion by opening our hearts and our arms to embrace the more-than-human world in which we live.