Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Value of Life

In a previous discussion, there was some debate over the difference in value between animal life and human life. I thought it might be worthwhile to lay my cards on the table over the distinction I place on the two.

I could make a theological argument here, but I don't think that would be very helpful. Not only because most of my readers aren't Christians, but also because it would make for a very short post. A quick reference to the first few chapters of Genesis, and there you go. Humans > animals.

For the philosophical, non-religious approach, I can sum up my argument in two words: Intellectual Capacity.

Though humanity displays varying degrees of it, intelligence is the factor that distinguishes us from the lower life forms. A few different manifestations of this capability of humanity are worth expanding on:

Science, Art/Music, Culture - Some of the greatest accomplishments of mankind are summed up in those concepts. The quest to explore the natural order and better the lot of humanity through those discoveries is only possible because of mankind's capacity for rational thought. The fine arts are sometimes rationalized as being evolutionarily similar to mating rituals in other species, be it colorful displays or sound-based mating calls. I think, however, that the reliance of abstract principles in art and music take it well beyond simply an attempt to impress the opposite sex and increase mating potential.

Conservation - Mankind is unique amongst the denizens of this planet in its approach to conservation. Yes, people do argue over the best way to implement conservatory principles. Some want to consume away and let scientific advancement deal with the consequences. Others would prefer that we level our cities and do nothing to disrupt the natural balance anywhere. But inbetween those two extremes, mankind agrees that nature should be preserved in some way. We recognize that our dependence on the world around us requires us to ensure its survival so that we, as a species, will also survive.

Contrast this with animals. Nature has many controls built in so that most ecosystems are in balance. Food supply, predatory population, reproductive capacity; these things keep animal populations in check. But as we see with deer, as an example, if you remove one of those controls, the animals have no sense of conservation. They will eat and breed until their territory can no longer sustain them. They then either die or spread out. Mankind, at least in part, recognizes that it cannot live in that manner.

Morality and Ethics - I'd consider this one of the most important aspects of intellectual thought that sets man apart from animals. Animals are driven, by and large, by physical and instinctual impulses. The questions an animal usually has to answer at any given time mostly consist of, "Am I hungry? Am I safe? Am I in danger? Am I bored? Could I be mating?" Ethics and morality do not enter into this. A bear will not wonder about the ethical ramifications of eating a smaller animal. Its thoughts, I can only assume, center around satiating its hunger and finding an animal small enough to kill but large enough to satisfy.

That mankind can ponder the morality of animal life is a sign of its superiority. And part of what sets human life above animals is that we recognize this capacity in others. When we consider our actions, we do not account only for how it affects us. We also account for how it affects those around us. Any number of specific examples could be cited to contradict this, but it is the case in general.

I could write more. The point is that mankind's intelligence sets it apart from the animal kingdom, and it is the value of this capacity, and also a function of it, that sets the value of a human life above that of an animal.


steve the troll said...

I agree and disagree.

Agree: humans possess an intelligence that other species do not.

Disagree: other species possess abilities that we do not.

Who is really more intelligent? To say that one species has more value than another species based on one characteristic is narrow-minded (read: not intelligent), and basically eliminates your whole argument before you start it.

Birds can fly. Turtles can live 150 years. Burr oak trees are fire proof. 50% of humans are intelligent.

Your opinion is a childish and dangerous one that suggests that some humans are more valuable than others. It also seems to be pro-choice, because a couple of embryos are not intelligent (at least, not any more intelligent than a tumor), and I think we can all agree that their "potential" is just an argument steeped in emotion.

Grow up, children. For the love of God. Seriously, I talked to Him today and he told me to tell you to grow up.

Hal said...

Steve, this is exactly why I gave you the moniker "the troll."

I spent an entire post going into the inherent value of intelligence, and you dismiss it without consideration. Your assertion that 50% of humans are intelligent is bizarre. And your admonition to "grow up" is insulting and unnecessary.

Unless you can explain to me why intelligence is nothing special, you waste my time, sir.

steve the troll said...

Hal, for all we know, monkeys may also think about ethics. They certainly function in groups and submit to a heirarchy, care for young, and mourn. Is that intelligence? They can paint and use tools and count. Just because you can't speak their language and they don't dominate you doesn't make you intelligent and them not.

You are "intelligent" because it was to the advantage of some apes tens of thousands of years ago to develop a prefrontal cortex, which is why your forehead is round and a gorilla forehead is sloped. That little region of gray matter is where your "intelligence" is. It's science.

Of course, as you have shown, you can still have this part of a brain and still act unintelligently (I mean, for every intelligent person out there, there's a person who believes in a God, an "imaginary friend," of sorts, which is usually something reserved for children, who have not fully developed their brains yet.

From one scientist to another, I hope this clarifies things for you. Intelligence is nothing special. It's just an adaptation. There will be (or maybe there are) other beings that possess the type of intelligence you're talking about. It's nothing special. Pretty random, actually.

...and you're clearly not a scientist.

...and what about the embryos?

Anonymous said...

Not only intelligence (including concrete vs. abstract thinking), but emotions, too. We're an entire package - soul and flesh.


Anonymous said...

Steve, could you please provide a link to a monkey's painting? -Ryan.

Anonymous said...

Also Steve, in what ways do you believe that humanity could progress if only we could leave behind our theistic past? -Ryan.

Anonymous said...

I think when considering the value of human vs. other animal life you have to first ask a question of perspective. What perspective is this answer coming from?

Humans are very intelligent and very social animals. When trying to answer this question from a human perspective a human would say “I value human life over animal life”. Humans have a drive encoded in their DNA to seek out other intelligent social creatures(other humans). This drive is so strong that humans will reach out to those humans not even born (or conceived) or even humans that have died. When answering from this perspective, a human will try to justify its higher value by the characteristics that draw it to other humans and those that separate it from other animals.

Another perspective (not the only other) would be I think what Steve considers the “scientific” perspective. Which is more valuable human or other animal life to the void of space? Its hard for us humans to try to imagine the perspective of nothingness. To the void all animal life would be of equal value. The problem that comes from this perspective is that the void values everything the same, in other words zero value. This meaning like Steve said neither one has any "tangible value" to the void.

The real answer to the question lies in the fact that it is being discussed by humans from a human perspective (no matter how hard you try Steve to be the beacon of nothingness). From a strictly human perspective, human life will always be more valued.

steve the troll said...

Whew. Finally some feedback. Where do I start?

Ryan: not sure why you want a monkey painting, but here you go. Or try this one

If we leave behind our theistic present, we can achieve world peace. Maybe you're not into that, in which case you could turn to Sam Harris for a better explanation.

Ian: you did a good job of summarizing both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, you think our debate either has some intelligence or meaning because it's between humans, whereas I think the conversation is entirely meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It just is...and you are. That's all.

For you Ian, I recommend watching the movie "Grizzly Man" and telling me if humans are smarter than bears. Or better yet, go to your local zoo and hop in the bear pit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. The reason why I asked for an example of a painting by a monkey was that I wanted to illustrate the fact that a monkey has never produced anything remotely like these.

Not that I'm putting down the monkey's painting (which I think looks nice), or abstraction in general (I was an Arts Technology major and have done several abstract paintings and videos.) And I'm not meaning to say that a human is more skilled in art than a monkey. That would be a difference in degree, but I want to highlight the difference in kind. Monkeys can make paintings, but monkeys will never be painters, in the same way that a dog walking through wet paint and then across a canvas will never be a painter, or a paintbrush attached to a rotating fan will never be a painter. No other animal but man has feels the drive to create art and to express themselves and to worship and to ask why and to search for meaning.

While religion is but one way that mankind has sought meaning, and the practices and beliefs of religions have varied greatly across human history, still religion is nearly universal in human history, and the search for meaning even closer to universal. I'll stop there, for now. -Ryan.

steve the troll said...

I hear you, but just because religion is "universal" (and I don't think it is) doesn't mean that it is "part of us." I think it's a remnant of early hominids, probably just before they learned how to be artists.

Regardless of where it came from, the world would be better off without it.

steve the troll said...

By the way...I think the monkey's painting is better than some Jackson Pollock paintings.

And a parently the monkey in the article likes to paint. Doesn't that make it a painter then? Can humans really be painters? I'm not sure. They're just humans.

And what have you to say about people who don't appreciate art, or are not artistic?

meera said...

ok, seriously, does NO ONE see the inherent problem with the argument of human vs. animal intelligence?

we, as humans, judge things based on what we know. we learn by association. many younger kids, when confronted with things they don't know, will try to describe it by comparing it to things they do. we don't have anything that compares to animals, so we try to understand them using human characteristics. we try to learn how they communicate by relating it to something we know. but what if they're using some entirely different system that we don't understand? does that mean we dismiss it?

how do we know that every other species out there doesn't do equivilentaly (i'm not sure that's a real word, but bear with me) intellentigent things? example: we think *insert "lower" life form* can't speak because they don't communicate in a manner we recognize? i don't know sign language. does that mean everyone who is communicatin in sign language is just waving their hands around? NO! i just don't understand what's going on.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this thread is heading in several directions at once, it's hard to keep on top of it all. Hopefully on my lunch break or after work I can begin responding to the various aspects of the last three comments. (probably in reverse order.)

In the meantime, the following wikipedia articles may be of interest. I admit of course that my own words are unavoidedly colored by my biases. I figured that some sources which are easily accessed and striving for neutrality would help us to move beyond the assertions and assumptions that we are all prone to make regarding this field that none of us (I believe) have direct experience within. Anyways:

Animal Communication. gets especially interesting as it goes on.

and shorter, more philosophical, and less conclusive: Emotion in animals.


Anonymous said...

And, of interest from an editorial:

Over a three-year period in the mid-1950s, Dr Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, Manwatching), then of London Zoo, supervised a chimpanzee named Congo in the production of several hundred 'monkey paintings', of which a small selection was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in September 1957, together with similar efforts by Betsy, a chimpanzee from Baltimore Zoo. The fortieth anniversary of that controversial show is to be marked by the publication of Monkey Paintings by Thierry Lenain, senior lecturer in aesthetics and the philosophy of art at the Universit√© Libre de Bruxelles. …

Lenain's book shows that the chimpanzees had more than a little help from Morris. Isolated from other distractions, the monkey was immobilised in a kind of baby chair, with the paper fixed before him. Pencil or crayon was placed in his hand, or, if he was painting, the brush would be given to him loaded with paint, then exchanged for other brushes when the paint was used up or the gesture discontinued. Alternatively, Morris would leave Congo with one colour and rotate the sheets on which this colour was used.

Morris' rotations of paint and paper raise the question of who decided when a given stage was finished, or when the painting as a whole was complete. 'Nothing could interrupt him [Congo] until he was satisfied with the balance of his painting', averred Morris. But Lenain says that 'Congo enjoyed covering a shape that he had just produced with "savage" brushstrokes; the best examples of circles produced by him were saved by removing the paper before he had completely finished'. …