Are All Animals Equal?

Here we have a logical proposition in the form of a universal affirmative. We only have to find a single counter-example where we can show animals are not equal, and the proposition is disproved. But before we can attempt that, we do need to be clear about our terms. Let's discuss…

In biology, the world refers to all members of the Animalia kingdom – including sponges, jellyfish, insects, and humans. It’s pretty clear-cut – plants, bacteria, and fungi are not animals. They’re motile heterotrophs that consume other living organisms to survive are.

I would like to highlight another quality about animals relevant to this discussion. Animals are alive. When an animal stops living we stop calling it an animal. Maybe to begin with we might qualify by saying ‘dead animal’, but really we are talking about a corpse. This particular pattern of molecules no longer has the qualities of being motile and heterotrophic. Our definition does not apply to non-living things.

‘Equal’ is a more difficult word than ‘animals’.

What we have here is a comparison operator. We generally use the word to compare two attributes, and if they are the same then we will say that in this these two things are equal. The question here isn’t whether they are equal in one particular thing. If the question was, are all animals equal in intelligence? Or are all animals equal in speed? And, to that, the answer is clearly no. Most birds can fly. Most mammals cannot. On the face of it, animals don’t appear equal. But I don’t think the question is really about speed or intelligence.

I think the question really being asked is: are all animals of equal value? We need to add this to make the question a little more concrete before we can answer it. Otherwise, the attribute we are being asked to compare is unspecified, and we can’t really evaluate the truth value of the statement. When we ask ‘are all animals equal?’, we’re talking about equality – the way we might say all humans are equal. We know that humans are not equal, but we are all of equal value. We wouldn’t say that the life of a disabled person is worth less than the life of a politician.

What is really valuable?

 I value my labor and exchange it for money. I value truth and justice, probably because they are rare commodities in the world. Value, it seems, depends on the usefulness of a commodity and the scarcity of it. But humans are not commodities. We know that the freedom to experience feelings like joy and compassion are invaluable. We can’t put a value on these because these things are really the source of value. It’s our potential to experience these things that leads us to put a price on everything else.

What’s valuable to me might not be valuable to you. I may value the time I have to write and accordingly spend my resources to buy myself more of this time. Perhaps I will buy a microwave so that I spend less time cooking. Someone else might place a much higher value on the flavor of their meals and spend a lot more time preparing food, instead of some other hobby. Value is subjective, and thus, the value of things is a relationship between the things being valued and the person assigning the value. I cannot tell you how valuable something is to you. Our monetary system isn’t what makes a thing valuable. The cost of a thing does not determine its value to you. A diamond ring is an expensive thing, but of no value to me.

I said before that the source of value comes from the potential for us to experience things like happiness or love. Maybe it’s the recognition of this potential in others that inspires us to feel compassion for them; and to wish for communities that protect and nurture those of us with disadvantages. We know that babies can feel happiness and can suffer long before they have the mental capacity to express what they are feeling. We know that people with disabilities are equally valuable and deserve the same opportunities presented to the rest of us. Why is that? I think it’s because they have the capacity to experience all these things. We know that they want to live. And what’s more, we also know that they are valuable in our community, and that their presence and our commitment to supporting them enriches us as people.

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Animal intelligence

Animals also have the capacity for all the things we have, in our ignorance, classified as part of the human condition: joyfulness, playfulness, happiness, grief, and loss.

Animals experience all of these things. It isn’t our human nature that makes these things possible for us. It is our animal nature.  Animals are conscious just like us. They have identity, memory, personality, and are able to communicate with each other. They are intelligent and can solve the problems presented to them within a very complex and dynamic environment. They have their own wants, their own desires, and their own reasons for living. They want to live just as much as we do. They value their lives in the same ways as us.

We all have this attribute called life, and it’s something that we each treasure. Ordinarily, we won’t give it up without a very good reason. In the movies, we might see humans volunteering to give their lives in order to ensure the survival of our species. And instinctively, we think this is a worthy sacrifice – although I would question it. Is it any different for animals? I don’t think we would have to look far to find these examples. Some animals die in the act of reproduction. Semelparity is the word we use for suicidal reproduction. Some fish and many insects reproduce this way. Is this really any different?

Life is, for each of us, our most valuable possession that none of would give it up, without a cause. And definitely not for a cause that is not our own. This is something that animals really are all equal in. It’s true that I’m not sure if a fly has the same attachment to its life that I do, but the value of its life, relative to mine, is exactly the same. In relation to itself, this life is its most valuable attribute. In relation to myself, my life is my most valuable attribute. The relative values are the same and we are all truly equal in this respect.

The less fortunate

Some humans are less capable than animals, and we still value them because we know their value is intrinsic and not determined on external factors. It’s their want to live and to feel happy that makes their life valuable. We also said that our commitment to a community that supports them enriches us and doesn’t make us poorer. Anyone of us might suffer such misfortune, and many of us know people who have. Conversely, when we abuse those who are less fortunate or less able, it makes us spiritually poorer. There is less joy and love in our lives and the world is a worse place because of it.

Our treatment of animals has intensified the amount of suffering in the world. Not just for them, but for humans as well. In recent times the human population has exploded, and we have created a massive industry of misery, and the manufacture of suffering, based on our tradition of exploiting them. 

Even if we don’t consider that their intrinsic value is the same as ours, and that we would enrich ourselves by caring for them instead of exploiting them, the practice of animal agriculture has become our nemesis. It’s the thing that will be our undoing – as we continue to cut down massive amounts of trees so that we can grow the crops we need to sustain our meat factories. The factories themselves also accelerate global warming with their methane emissions. I could write another blog piece on all the environmental consequences of it. Goodbye, Great Barrier Reef. Goodbye to the amazon. Our hubris was to consider that animals were not equal, and our foolish pride has brought us to this precipice. 

Maybe it’s time we stopped exploiting animals…

David Kaminski
Vegr Contributor, Philosopher, Writer.
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