WAN’s South African Correspondent Delves Deep Into Whether Human Life Is More Valuable Than Animal Life?

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Moral licensing is a particularly interesting concept: recently explored by author and intellectual Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History Podcast series, it suggests that, doing something that helps to strengthen our positive self-image or moral standpoint is also likely to make us less worried about the consequences of certain, often related, immoral behavior we might commit in the future, and therefore likely to see us making immoral choices because of the morally sound choice we previously made.

Beyond the measure of wrong and right, there is something called equal-consideration.

In my opinion, it is a principle of equal consideration, which requires that unless we have a morally sound reason not to do so, we should and must protect animals from suffering at all costs, particularly from use as simply a piece of human property.

I myself, am a firm believer that animals are not a means or instrument, they are ends unto themselves, and therein lies the moral dilemma of moral licensing within the world of animals and our natural environment.

In many respects, the above implies that we intend to grant what is termed ‘legal personhood to animals,’ and yes, in many respects I wholeheartedly encourage a decision such as this, because deep in my heart I personally find it very difficult to justify using animals for a large proportion of food in the manner that they are currently used, manual servitude, experimentation, entertainment and the like. It confers on animals an interest in the right to not suffer, and a right not to be someone’s property, but as you read this I am sure you can begin to see why this quickly becomes tricky and the lines begin to blur.

Every day we read articles about animal abuse, dogs that were found severely abused and subsequently rescued, elephants beaten with steal rods, monkeys and rodents used for product testing, the list goes on, and so we will feel some moral requirement on occasion to make a small donation to animal charities, we’ll adopt a rescued animal, ‘Like’ a post made by an animal advocacy organization making a claim to stop some horrific animal abuse or mistreatment, and we’ll feel good, we’ll feel like we have done something towards stopping that very act only to go ahead and have ourselves some tasty Foie Gras for dinner that evening or make an expensive purchase of some reindeer winter coat Ralph Lauren is touting as the new fashion. Hopefully, you begin to see the moral licensing dilemma now, right?

The traditional point of view that has been held in western intellectual thought since man arrived on this planet is the belief that humans are the most important beings on the planet. This can be seen time and time again.

From early thinkers who suggested, “man is the measure of all things”, to the way through to our more contemporary intellectuals who have expressed statements such as the “heart-breaking specialness” of man, these views have mostly remained uncontested.

We have considered many of these statements as a solid truth that has given them their fortitude and foundational longevity over the years.

The assertion that animals are “other” to humans, that they do not share any of our cognitive abilities and that they are simply reactive to outside stimuli through instinct and habit, often gives basis to this suggestion of inferiority.

But our thinking, and our often barbaric treatment of animals only further affirms our conceptual beliefs in the concept of human exceptionalism. Which is invariably and inextricably tied to our ability to outthink, outman, and assert ourselves above all other species, which sets us apart from and above other life on this planet.

We believe we as humans possess sufficiently unique characteristics – our capacity for language, culture, and ultimately to orchestrate the building and advancement of human civilization, which distinguishes us from any other species, no matter how similar to us they prove to be.

Hand in hand with this belief is the viewpoint, that because we think we can ‘control’ nature, that we therefore have a right to exploit her to service our own needs and requirements, this extends to the destructive nature of our mining institutions, deforestation, entertainment, clothing, farming, etc., the removal of which would undeniably shift the way we live our day to day lives.

So, what has to happen, what has to change in order for this way of thinking to be sufficiently challenged that we may, in time, see a re-alignment of our relationship with animals and their place in our hierarchy?

It would have to be some measure of re-thinking, or re-framing our human-animal relations, as we move to recognize the intrinsic value of other creatures with whom we share this planet.

As we establish rights for animals, so the traditional views are slowly being eroded and with this comes a liberation for the animals that suffer at the hands of those who find their moral compass not ours.

It is worth bearing in mind that the lack of emotions and perceived impoverished mental lives of animals was and still is used to justify their ill-treatment and inferior moral place in our culture.

In researching this article, I came across a great passage, which only further pushed me to question of our choices as humans in relation to our natural environment. The article went on to explain using the following example:

“Imagine a unique set of scales that measure the value of life. If a single human were on one side, how many chimpanzees (our closest genetic relatives) would need to be on the other side before the scales tipped in their direction?

This may seem like an abstract, irrelevant or even offensive question to some people. But it was made horrifically real by the death recently of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla who was shot after a young boy fell into his enclosure.

Zoo handlers were faced with the agonizing decision to take Harambe’s life to ensure the young boy would not lose his.

The response to this event online has varied from anger to sadness, through to considerations of how much choice the zoo’s staff really had.

How do we decide what our own lives are worth compared with other species?

Perhaps we can try to frame the comparison in relative terms. There are 7.4 billion human beings on the planet, whereas Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild.

Does a human life hold more value than that of a member of a critically endangered animal species?

Harambe’s death sadly suggests that the instinctive answer is yes.”

I have to end this article with little to no resolution, but rather with something more powerful, that is ‘hope’ for the future.

Hope that we may, in time and sooner than later, see the error of our ways, and re-establish a more equitable relationship between humans and animals, where our inclinations are towards that of the protection and nurturing of animals rather than the senseless and needless slaughter, abuse and exploitation of them.

As we step ever closer to the brink of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, perhaps we need to give serious thought to exactly what our current way of life is worth, and whether, at the expense of all our wildlife and natural resources, we are willing to make that sacrifice, or instead, actively find a solution.

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