Friday, May 14, 2010

Humans and Animals, Apples and Oranges

This is a follow-up to an earlier post. I'm shaping up a paper on Rush Rhees' remarks on humans and animals, and have been trying to get clear on the nature of the confusion he suggests is present in certain kinds of attempts to compare humans and animals (or to compare harms to each). The following is an excerpt. Background: I introduce two contrasting cases in which a very young girl and a pig are both confined (indefinitely) to dark and cramped quarters, sometimes become restless and violent, but for the most part adapt to their respective situations (say, through what psychologists call learned helplessness). Following some discussion of the open-endedness of a human future (in the paper), here, I think, is the upshot:

The contrast between these two cases shows that the nature of the harms to the girl and the pig are not entirely the same. (They are not, of course, entirely different either.) This is because the open-endedness of the future of which the girl is deprived is not something which, in the same way, we can attribute to the pig. The next question is whether these considerations show that the confinement of the girl is worse than that of the pig (or vice versa). But this is precisely the point at which the idea of making a comparison between human and animal lives, or what can be suffered by humans and animals, seems to lack any principled basis for assigning weight. If we say that it is worse for the girl to be confined than the pig, then the justification for this would have to be that there is something of which she is deprived which is not deprived of the pig. But something about that seems fishy because the future of which the girl is deprived is not something of which the pig could be deprived. That doesn’t mean that the pig is harmed less than the girl, but only that the basis of the harm to the pig is slightly different from the basis in the girl’s case. To say that the harm to the girl is greater would thus seem to involve the claim that the possession of the kind of life which has a potentially open future is of greater objective value than the possession of a kind of life which is not conditioned by an open-ended future. But what could justify that claim? Intuition? The problem is that any such intuition is going to be a human intuition, and thus will look like little more than a speciesist insistence that human life has more objective value than animal life. [...]

On the other hand, if we say that the harm to the pig is just as bad as the harm to the girl, that claim runs the risk of leaving out the differences in what exactly is deprived of each individual. It might be objected that if the one harm isn’t worse than the other, then they must be equal—that is, one is just as bad as the other. However, one might ask what exactly is gained by the claim that the harms are “just as bad” over and above the obvious point that confinement in each case is very bad. [...] [I]f it is true that the nature of the harms to the pig and the girl are different in important ways, then the problem with saying that the harm in each case is just as bad is similar to the problem in trying to say that since an apple is not tastier than an orange, they are both equally tasty.

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