The ethical consequences of all animals being equally valuable

A common trope I see in ethical debates among vegans is the question of whether degree of intelligence, sentience or capacity to suffer in an animal is a morally relevant factor*. Many seem to argue something to the effect of:

“All animals are equal. Just because we are more intelligent than a pig or a mouse, who are we to say that we are worth more? The life of one human should be equivalent to one of any animal.”

Perhaps this question comes mostly down to choice of ethical framework. As a consequentialist, I’m interested in the consequences of an action when I’m trying to decide moral worth. The criteria I use is whether something increases or decreases suffering (or happiness) in a sentient being. Because of this, I think capacity to suffer, if it varies between species (which I don’t think is that scientifically controversial to say, although there is still debate on how to weight species or even members of a species against each other), is morally relevant.

The practical effect of this is that, all else being equal and simple (which, to be fair, is never the case), I would prefer to reduce some level of suffering in a human than, say, a mouse. However, I tend to preference non-human charities over human charities these days because of their relative effectiveness. I could spare 11,550** non-human animals from a life in a factory farm for the same cost as saving one human from a death from malaria***. Because I don’t give non-human animals a weighting of zero, the numbers are in the favour of the animal charity (typically).

One thing that frustrates me, though, is when people say they value all animals, even insects, equally with humans. I think that people are being dishonest, either to others or to themselves (probably without realising it), when they say this. I’ll give a short example to illustrate why that is the case. Many object to thought experiments such as the trolley problem or variations thereof****, but this is sufficiently realistic that it warrants an answer.

Suppose you get word that a chicken is about to be killed because it can no longer produce eggs. You are aware that you could drive 50 km to buy or rescue the chicken and rehome it, thus giving it a good life. Many who argue that all lives are equal would believe rescuing the chicken is a good thing. However, by driving to rescue the chicken, it is almost a certainty that you will kill at least one insect. Whether it is run over or it hits your windscreen, it will die as a direct result of your saving the chicken. You don’t want the insects to die, and maybe you don’t even think about it, but that doesn’t make it any less morally relevant.

Why is it that, among people who value all animal life equally, they don’t recognise this? I have asked this in public discussions before, and have never received an answer. If you believe all animal life is equal, I invite you to share below in a comment your reaction to this ethical dilemma.

Perhaps one might argue that the world is uncertain, or that we can never eliminate our impact on insects or wild animals. This is true, and I don’t deny it for a moment. But in this very real case, it seems clear that rescuing the chicken will almost always kill more insects than staying at home. By your own logic, you are performing an ethically undesirable act.

Further, consider that even eating solely vegan will almost certainly, inevitably, result in some animal death. Gaverick Matheny estimated that the average American vegan will contribute to the death of 0.3 animals per year through diet alone. But some vegan foods are almost certainly worse than others. Eating bread (wheat) or rice probably contributes to more animal death than, say, lentils (see Tomasik’s work for more on this), but exceedingly few people would ever say that they consciously eat less bread and more fruit to reduce animal death further.

* For the sake of simplicity, I am ignoring wild-animal suffering in this post.

** Rough estimate comparing Against Malaria Foundation and Mercy for Animals. Against Malaria effectiveness is taken to be 1 life saved per $3,300 US. ACE estimates that a donation of $1,000 to Mercy for Animals can spare -10,000 to 80,000 animals from a life of suffering. I take this to mean an average of 3,500 animals for sake of argument (3.5 animals per dollar). Therefore a $3,300 donation to MFA could spare 11,550 animals.

*** In fact the numbers might be even more skewed. The rich meat eater problem (sometimes called the ‘poor meat eater problem’ or simply the ‘meat eat problem’) suggests that, as people come out of poverty, they tend to eat more meat. This seems to be strongly shown by the case of China. As a result, reducing poverty might actually increase animal suffering.

**** At risk of strawmanning, I’ll share a specific frustration. Often when I ask someone to pick between ‘saving’ an insect and a human, they retort that they would save both, and refuse to pick one.

Edit – Perhaps I should have written a long disclaimer in my original post – it seems like a few people have misinterpreted my intentions here. I’ve had a few people contact me who seem to think I’m trying to make a case against veganism. Hopefully better late than never.

Cards on the table – I am a consequentialist (consequences are what matter for me when making ethical choices), and I value insects less than I value other animals (all else being equal). As part of the series of ethical choices I make every day, I am a vegan. In this case, I probably would save the chicken, unless I thought I could do more good for animals by doing something else with my time.

Edited April 25, 2017 due to incorrect maths.

6 thoughts on “The ethical consequences of all animals being equally valuable”

  1. The rescued chicken will also, if it goes outside, eat large numbers of bugs every day. (Of course, growing chicken feed will also requiring killing lots of bugs.)

    Maybe people believe that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. 🙂

  2. I think that in relation to the chicken/ant scenario most people would subconsciously make their decision based on population size, or at least supposed population size. My first thought is that the amount of ants far exceeds the amount of chickens and so the chicken’s life is therefore of more importance because of this ratio (however this does not take into consideration the importance of a chicken over an ant or the individual’s relevance to ecological balance(?)). To make this clearer, you could compare this to say, saving an endangered Tasmanian Devil over a chicken. One Tasmanian Devil’s life is far more important than a single chicken’s life because of the former’s dwindling population size.

    1. Thanks Gabi!

      I’d like to push back a little if I may, and challenge the notion that a Tasmanian Devil is more important than a chicken. If there would be serious negative effects of the Tasmanian Devil dying out, I would agree. But in general, since I value wellbeing first and foremost, assuming TDs and chickens have the same capacity for wellbeing, I would value them intrinsically about the same.

      I think we would have to have concrete reasons for the TD needing to survive over a chicken to value it over a chicken.

      1. “But in general, since I value wellbeing first and foremost”

        The assumption that one can measure the “wellbeing” of a Tasmanian Devil or a genetically-subjugated bird strikes me as anthropocentric. I don’t see a good way to measure the positive utility of an animal in its evolutionary niche but my intuition (based on my own experiences as an animal) suggests that it might be higher than that of an animal ripped out of its niche and bred largely for food and agriculture. Given my lack of knowledge of the utility inherent in the lives of wild animals my position is that we should interfere as little as possible in their ecologies. On the other hand, I see no reason why we need to continue breed and subjugate sentient animals (possibly self-aware animals) for our pleasure.


        Genetically subjugated for food/pleasure:

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