This essay will consider two closely related opinions on the value of lives. Interestingly these closely related opinions seem to lead to very different conclusions. Singer argues that all lives are not equal but that like interests should be weighed together. (Singer 1990, 2009, 2014) Frey argues that all lives are not equal and that the difference in value of the lives also equates to a difference in value of the interests. (Frey 1980, 2014) These ideas offer some interesting implications which I will discuss before turning my gaze towards the application of these ideas to the essay question.
For both Singer and Frey there seems to be no problem with the fact that criteria that exclude animals from the class of rights holders also seem to exclude, in most cases, the severely mentally disabled and babies. Singer explicitly advances a scale of value (Singer 2014, p174), while Frey does so in virtue of the way that he ascribes value to lives (Frey 2014, p183). They also seem to agree, at least in general, that whether we kill them or not, animals’ suffering should be considered. I will conclude that Frey’s conception of the value of lives, although it may need some support that is outside of the scope of this essay, leads to the conclusion that the suffering of animals is more relevant than killing them.
Singer on interests
The question for singer is whether the interest that drives us to consume can reasonably be weighed against the interest of the animal to live. His answer is a categorical no, for the simple reason that those two interests are not alike. Singer lays out a clear argument against the kinds of treatment of animals that have no regard for their ability to feel pain, and an argument against eating animal products on the grounds that it is unnecessary. This is where interests play a big role. (Singer 1990, Ch4) In a later response to some criticisms, Singer tells us that were it the case that all vegetarian food tasted bad and that the only way we could enjoy our food is if it contained meat then his argument would carry far less weight. (Singer 1987) That is to say that since we can get our nutritional requirements from vegetarian food while satisfying our interest in eating things that taste good, we should value the preference of the animal not to be eaten over our preference for the taste of meat since that particular preference of ours is not directly important to our own preference to live. This should demonstrate to us this principle of weighing like interests. In the case where vegetarian food is categorically bad to the point where we don’t want to eat it the difference in our interests is not so great. In this case, I need to live, I can’t eat vegetarian food because I can’t stand the taste, so my interest in eating the animal is one of survival and as such I may consider that interest against the animal’s own interest in survival.
Singer claims that the interests involved are not equal interests. He dedicates an entire chapter of Animal Liberation to explaining that arguments suggesting we need to consume meat for a balanced diet are wrong. He also argues that eating meat is hugely inefficient and that we can get vastly more total protein in to the diets of all humans by simply feeding what would be fed to animals to humans instead. He reveals various facts and figures that ultimately indicate that to generate a pound of animal protein can require the consumption of up to 33 pounds of plant protein by that animal. (Singer 1990, Ch4) As we are about to see, Frey agrees with much of this, but disagrees on the value of interests.
Frey on unequal value
For Frey the question is whether the value of a normal adult human’s life is greater than that of a normal animal. He advances an argument from autonomy to suggest that the capacity for the human animal to make plans for the future and take actions with the specific intention of achieving those plans is what sets us apart from animals. He claims that such activity is the source of much of the good in our lives. Good that other animals cannot experience. This is what sets us apart and where the inequality in the value of lives comes from. From this he draws the conclusion that the greater value of our lives is sufficient to support something like a right to use those animals for our ends. (Frey 2014)
Frey’s argument rests on his idea that the source of value in our lives is in our ability to plan and take actions to see to the fulfilment of this plan. This he describes as autonomy. He explains that animals do not experience autonomy in this way and as a result cannot experience anything like that value we experience. As such, while we should minimise the suffering of animals to which we have special obligations, such as those animals who rely on us because they are not themselves autonomous in the way that we are, it does not follow that we should not use them for our own ends. (Frey 1980) So if we can make use of the animal while also providing it a relatively pain free life, in virtue of the greater value of our own lives we should be allowed to do so. This seems consistent with our social values. However enter the spectre of speciesism. If we apply this only to treatment of non-human animals we are in effect showing prejudice against those animals whom are not like us. In order to remain fully consistent and avoid this charge of speciesism we must consider some implications.
An obvious implication for Frey is that if the value of a life obtains in the agent’s ability to plan for the future and execute those plans then the value of the life of a severely disabled person or an infant is significantly reduced. So reduced in fact that some animals would have lives of more value than those humans. A pervasive assumption in the literature seems to be that this is an implication that those who advocate the consumption of animal products must want to avoid. To this Frey says no. He embraces that implication and sets it at the core of his argument that he is not guilty of speciesism. Singer leaves us with a similar implication. His implication seems less difficult to accept however simply based on what he says we can do to and with animals. (Singer 2009 & 2014, Frey 2014, Regan 2014)
To state it simply, what this means for Singer’s scale of value and Frey’s unequal value is that anything we feel morally justified in doing to or with non-human animals, we must also feel morally justified in doing to or with any human who on the criteria of value rank equal to or lower than non-human animals. For the animal liberationist this means that since we don’t farm babies and the mentally disabled for meat, we should not do the same to non-human animals. For those on the other side of the argument it means that we should have no problem with that.
I object to the comparison of farming animals to farming humans of any level of value on one very simple ground. Health. The consumption of human flesh leads to various diseases and ailments that are severely hazardous to us. If for no other reason, this is why I for one would not eat human flesh. Notwithstanding the negative social and mental impacts of human flesh consumption.
What of the other implications of that line of reasoning though. If we believe that experimentation on animals that benefits us is acceptable then we must also consider experimentation on those classes of humans acceptable. In the case of the mentally disabled I see no problem except for the consent of the family of those persons. This is a personal choice, likely to be clouded by emotional attachment, but it is the clear implication of the line of thought that one must allow this.
In order for this not to extend to babies, Frey gives us an argument from potentiality. The potential for autonomy in human babies is not reflected in non-human animals. Human babies, unless severely mentally disabled, will one day achieve something like that level of autonomy enjoyed by the average adult human. (Frey 1980, 2014) With these implications in mind, we now turn to analysing the positions presented, and applying them to consideration of the essay question.
Singer tells us, that vegetarianism will not be the conclusion most will draw from all that he has to say about factory farming and the value of interests. And at least as far as that section of his book is concerned that was the position I had settled on. (Singer 1990, Ch1 & 2) As far as his arguments go up to that point, it does not follow that I should be concerned about anything more than the treatment of the animal leading up to its slaughter for my consumption. That is where he comes in with his more interest oriented argument, which I have already described (Singer 1990, Ch4), that tells us in some detail why it is not at all necessary and in many ways more beneficial to choose not to consume meat. This obviously implies that we should not kill animals. So while for Singer it is certainly a good thing to consider the treatment of the animals, it is a much better thing to consider the killing of animals at all.
Frey’s claims about the treatment of animals are less direct. If we can provide additional support for the unequal value thesis, he gives us a glimpse at a non speciesist alternative to Singer. (Frey 2014) He seems to want to say that we should, where possible, minimise the suffering of animals to which we owe some moral obligation. (Frey 1980) Namely, those animals whom rely upon us for their normal care. This would seem to suggest that a farmer is himself responsible for the treatment of his animals as he has an obligation to see that they are cared for in virtue of their reliance on him for such. But says nothing of killing them. The major objection levelled against him is one of speciesism which he refutes through his unequal value thesis. It is ok to use animals for whatever purpose we require of them such that we pay attention to our special moral obligations to certain animals. (Frey 1980, 2014)
I have described two related positions with different conclusions and similar implications when we consider issues outside of the essay question directly. Regardless of any general faults with utilitarian considerations of animal issues not discussed here, I think that whether we think it is acceptable to kill animals for any purpose or not, we must first and foremost consider their treatment. Singer and Frey seem to agree to some level on that position. I fall on the side of Frey with regard to the consumption of meat, but note that Singer’s argument from necessity is particularly powerful and persuasive and should be considered.
Frey, R. G. (1980) Interests and Rights, Oxford University Press.
Frey, R. G. (2014) Moral Standing, the Value of Lives, and Speciesism, in H. LaFollette, ed., Ethics in Practice an Anthology, 4th ed.
Regan, T. (2014) The Case for Animal Rights, in H. LaFollette, ed., Ethics in Practice an Anthology, 4th ed.
Singer, P. (1987) Animal Liberation or Animal Rights?, The Monist, Vol. 70, No. 1.
Singer, P. (1990) Animal Liberation, 2nd ed, New York Review of Books.
Singer, P. (2009) Speciesism and Moral Rights, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 40, No. 3-4.
Singer, P. (2014) All Animals are Equal, in H. LaFollette, ed., Ethics in Practice an Anthology, 4th ed.