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Ethical Mathematics And The Value Of Animal Life

I saw this post recently on Facebook:

blue whales

“Post-mortem examinations of the thirteen North Sea sperm whales recently stranded on the coast of Germany revealed that their stomachs were full of plastic. #WorldOceansDay #PlasticPollution(From Mission Blue)

Looking at the image, and feeling my immediate emotional reaction to it, got me thinking.

I find this image especially touching and shocking. More than images of dead animals and even of dead humans.

This may be partly because I have been desensitised to both of those things – to dead animals through the cultural acceptance of meat, and to dead humans through violent movies and so on. However, I don’t think that’s the whole reason. For instance, I don’t find images of dead cats significantly more shocking than images of dead pigs, despite me being culturally desensitised to the death of pigs.

I have the impression that there is some part of me that senses the life and death of one creature as more sacred, more weighty, perhaps even more valuable than the life and death of another creature.


I believe we all have something like this going on: none of us mourn the death of a bacterium, for example, or if we did we wouldn’t give it the same weight as the death of a human or a whale.

I certainly feel rather uninterested in the lives of bacteria. I can sense their sacredness in a way, and wouldn’t kill them for no reason at all, but I don’t feel any remorse in my immune system slaughtering millions of them, or me eating billions of murdered yeast cells in the form of nooch.

Insects seem like a step up from there. I saw the need to kill thousands of bedbugs when I had an infestation, but I felt some kind of remorse. I would never crush a bug just because, and usually not even only out of a sense of convenience, though there are limits to that.

I prioritise animals over insects by being a lazy sort of vegan who doesn’t completely avoid all bee products if they’re added to other products, even if I don’t actively buy bee products themselves. And, naturally, I seem happy to prioritise animals over plants.

For many vegans, this is a no-brainer. For me it’s not. I do feel compassion for plants. Sometimes I feel like a bit of a hypocrite, because I don’t want to do to my “pet” plants what I support industries doing for my food every day.

Yet I do believe animals are more weighty, more sacred, perhaps more valuable than plants.

Within the plant kingdom I also sense these differences. A weed is more expendable than a tree. An ancient, sacred tree may be, I think, even harder for me to conceive of hurting than an animal.

I also realise that usually a plant’s actual “life” is in the roots – so long as you leave those, the plant can grow again. So perhaps sometimes eating a plant’s flesh is more like cutting hair than cutting off a pig’s head. I don’t think it’s quite the same as either of those, maybe somewhere in the middle. (And of course industry doesn’t think about plant welfare for a second, so many rooted beings die at their hands for whatever expedient reason).


And humans. Unlike with everything else, I’ve been socially conditioned to see value in human life. But I see it regardless of what society says. Are human lives on the absolute top of this scale? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, the image of the dead whales shocked me even more than images of dead humans.

I sense that a large part of what gives weight, sacredness and even value to a creature’s life is their lifespan. Another factor is intelligence or awareness (though we do tend to underestimate the intelligence and awareness of non-human creatures). In both of these measures, whales are more or less on par with humans, I’d say. Perhaps a whale’s sheer size also contributes to their spiritual “weight”. They have a much larger role in an ecosystem than individual humans; as organisms, they are communities of much larger numbers of cells than humans are.

It’s an interesting thing to think about. We could get philosophical. I do believe in “ethical mathematics”. I’d pull the lever in the trolley problem. But then how many animal lives are worth a human life? I suppose I’d kill two dogs to save a human. But at some point – I don’t know where – I’d sacrifice a human to save a large enough number of animals. A hundred maybe? I don’t know. (Of course legally speaking there is no number of animals I’d be allowed to kill a human for, and saving myself from legal consequences would then become a factor. Thank wonder I don’t actually have to live in hypothetical situations).

There are no conclusions to this post. Just questions, and thoughts.


Related

A Spiritual Perspective on Veganism

The Veggie Manifesto

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