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A Philosophical Blog

Do species have intrinsic value?

with one comment

Does our CU football team suck?

In a recent post in the NYT philosophy blog, The Stone, Jeff McMahan takes the radical view that if it were feasible we should attempt to eliminate carnivorous animals so as to reduce the amount of suffering experienced in the world by their prey.    Not surprisingly most comments on his post, miss the “were it feasible” part and so heap abuse on McMahan and philosophers in general for this absurd proposal.   Yet, his thought experiment is well formed and raises an important conflict that I think is worthy of further consideration: the value of suffering vs. the intrinsic value of other species.

In principle, the argument that we should stop animals from causing suffering to one another is no different from the view that we should stop a child or an insane person from causing suffering.  Even if the child or insane person can’t control themselves and doesn’t know better, the suffering they cause is bad.  As such those people who do know better and can do something about it should.  While that view strikes some people as patently absurd, I’m more interested in assessing the argument he gives against the intrinsic value of species.  Mc Mahan is evaluating a conflict between two values, but his solution is to deny that there is a conflict.  He does not argue that the suffering is more important than the intrinsic value of species but rather that there is not a coherent notion of intrinsic value to be had.  Here is what he says:

“There are no universally agreed criteria for their individuation.  In practice, the most commonly invoked criterion is the capacity for interbreeding, yet this is well known to be imperfect and to entail intransitivities of classification when applied to ring species.  Nor has it ever been satisfactorily explained why a special sort of value should inhere in a collection of individuals simply by virtue of their ability to produce fertile offspring.”

If you can wade through the jargon you’ll find two objections: 1) a species isn’t a real thing 2) the sort of thing it is, can’t have value.

Now of course most commenters did not press him on these points because it’s a weird sort of thing to say.  What does it mean to say that “intrinsic value” is real?  How would we know if a species had it?  Would we find it under a microscope?

Intrinsic value like values in general might seem mysterious and even supernatural, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When we say that something is instrumentally valuable people understand that you are valuing it for its usefulness.  When we value something intrinsically we value it, but not for its benefit to us but for its sake.  While most people may not have a conception of intrinsic value they do think that slavery is wrong.  They think that whether they believe in something like a soul or not.  Instead, to value people intrinsically is a way we value them.  We say that people have their talents and uses (their instrumental values) but that beyond that they are worthy of basic respect.  They are intrinsically valuable, or if you like, they have intrinsic value.   Now while the boundaries of people are usually pretty clear and so individuating us is not a problem, consider the value we place on our local or college sports teams.

Rooting for your  college football team can be a kind of intrinsic valuing.  There is a good of the team.  I can appreciate it.  I value it.  Of course I may get benefits from watching them and talking about them (and disvalue from their failures) but I value their success.  Importantly this is not the same as just appreciating the success of all the players for if a player transfers I don’t value their success (and in fact disvalue it).  Are the Colorado Buffaloes a real thing?  Does the team include the trainers and the coaches?  What about the cheerleaders?  I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because you can understand quite clearly what I mean by valuing the Buff’s success (beyond whatever benefits I might get from their success).  So similarly while the boundaries of a species may at times be murky this is not a reason I can’t cheer for it.  Teams may be abstract entities with fuzzy boundaries (like corporations or nations) but this lack of individuation doesn’t stop us from valuing them.

Now McMahan argues that only things with a certain degree of awareness can have interests and if something is not interested in its existence (or suffering) it can’t have intrinsic value.   Since a species is an abstract sort of thing (if it’s a thing at all) then McMahan would say it isn’t capable of having a good of its own.  In other words, we can’t value something for its own sake if it doesn’t have a “sake”.  But despite their lackluster performance it would seem to be in the interest of the Buffs to win and although the players are sentient (mostly), the team (as an abstract entity) is not.  Similarly, while a species may not be sentient and may not be engaged in winning or losing, it is engaged in a pretty bad ass struggle for existence.  As such I can intrinsically value the (continued) existence of the Siberian Tiger.

Why should I root for the continuance of a species and should I care more about it than I do about the suffering that happens in the struggle for existence?  You might similarly ask why should someone care about their local sports team?  After all, I have nothing to do with the team’s success.  They don’t care about me.   To say that I enjoy watching sports does not get at the extent to which I might value the success of the team.  In the case of sports teams, people care because we see them as part of our tribe or community.   Similarly, for those people who are ecologically minded we see species as part of our biological community.  This perhaps explains then the passionate shouting down that McMahan’s argument received from the ecological crowd.   For McMahan to dismiss intrinsic value of species is to root for some of the players but to ignore the team.  Wanting to get rid of the predators is like wanting your team of the past million or so years to get disbanded.


Written by sturgis

October 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Dan!

    Nice blog you have here. I was just in Boulder recently. Would have been great to see you. You look transcendent on your new dad FB profile pic.

    Anyway, this is an interesting topic you raise. One that happened to be the final chapter of my dissertation. It relies on previous chapters (all in French of course) but I believe this version stands tolerably well on its own:

    Would love to know what you think of it if you get a chance to read it.


    Julian Friedland

    October 24, 2010 at 9:23 pm

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