Thursday, June 10, 2004

Mental averaging and moral value

In my own half-assed moral value scheme, animals like human beings are conscious and intelligent and therefore have moral values as individuals, and possibly as communities or species. Other animals like insects and mollusks are not conscious and have no innate moral value – no problems arise from killing and eating them. Some animals like our extinct ancestors, the great apes, dolphins, and whales, may fall in the same category as humans of being sentient intelligences and having individual moral value – we currently lack the information and understanding to know for sure. They don’t have to be as intelligent as the average human. Above a certain level in intelligence, and they’re in the club. Their possible moral value means we can’t just use them for anything we want.

Animals like fish, amphibians, reptiles, most birds, and some mammals (rodents) are certainly not conscious and show few aspects of what could be considered intelligence. Some animals in this category may not even feel pain. I have little hesitation in using these animals for my own ends, although causing unnecessary pain makes me feel morally queasy, even if I can’t give a logical reason for it.

The moral gray zone for me involves the remaining animals, consisting of most mammals and some birds. They have various degrees of intelligence, enough to make me wonder about whether I’m justified using them for my own selfish ends. Some animals, like pigs, elephants, and many primates, are disturbingly intelligent. Still, while I’ve felt these animals are in a gray zone, I also felt safe in putting them in a different, “gray zone” category. I still eat them, or some of them, anyway.

The problem with my half-assed scheme is its reliance on mental averages, and then being confronted with Rico. This dog has been all over the news recently, having demonstrated a linguistic understanding comparable to trained dolphins, apes, and three-year-old humans. Rico is obviously not an average dog – he’s a one-in-a-million dog, or possibly even more rare. But still, he exists, and undoubtedly other dogs just as smart as he also exist. While I had placed dogs fairly high up in my gray zone category, I don’t think they’re in the top rank. If this is the intelligence level of a genius dog, what is the one-in-a-million pig like? How many pigs do we kill each year that are smarter than three-year-old children?

Mental averaging isn’t good enough to determine the moral value of an entire species. I’m going to have to work in a margin for error for the Ricos that are out there. I think I’m done with bacon.

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