How People Value The Lives Of Animals Relative To Humans
In a hypothetical scenario, people generally say they wouldn’t sacrifice a small number of humans to save the lives of a larger number of humans because of the belief that harming a human is morally wrong. In this, study the authors explored whether this same idea applies to the way people think about animals. For example, humans may apply a cost-benefit approach with animals, deciding that it would be okay to harm an animal because more lives would be saved than lost. If there are differences, the authors aim was to understand what was causing them, including differences in beliefs about animals’ intelligence or their ability to suffer. They also looked at the role speciesism — the belief that certain species are worth more morally than others — may play.
The authors performed several studies in which they presented different groups of participants with scenarios that were usually of a similar type: harming a small number of lives in order to save a larger number of lives. Over the course of these studies, the species, intelligence, ability to suffer, and other characteristics of animals were changed in order to see which factors drive differences in the way participants view humans and animals.
In the first study, the authors asked participants if they would sacrifice 10 healthy creatures to save 100 others in a scenario involving the development of a vaccine for a rare virus. Participants were given this dilemma with humans, panda bears, dogs, squirrels, chimpanzees, and pigs in order to see how they responded to a wide variety of creatures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants thought it would be worse to harm humans to save other humans than it would be to harm animals to save other animals, regardless of which species the animal belonged to. Although they viewed harming humans as worse, participants still took issue with the idea of harming animals, just not as frequently. Another study that asked only about humans and zebras had similar results.
In another similar study, the authors studied how permissible respondents thought it would be to sacrifice pigs to save humans and vice versa. They compared these results to same-species scenarios, like sacrificing 10 pigs to save 100 pigs. Regardless of whether humans or pigs would be saved, participants thought it was more permissible to harm pigs. Participants also found it especially problematic to harm humans if it would be to save pigs.
Another study found that participants put animals between humans and objects in a moral ranking of how acceptable each is to own, harm for no reason, and replace with a similar creature or object.
The authors then ran a study that could be particularly informative to animal advocates focusing on medical testing. They explored how permissible participants found it to medically experiment on two groups that aren’t capable of giving consent: pigs and human infants. The authors also gave participants the opportunity to volunteer time or donate money to an organization that was opposed to the experimenting – a group that was revealed to be fictional at the end of the study.
Participants were much more opposed to the experimentation when it involved human infants than when it involved pigs. They were also more likely to volunteer time or money for an organization opposed to testing on humans than to one opposed to testing on pigs. However, there was still opposition among many participants to testing on the pigs as well.
Having established that participants consistently found it less permissible to harm a small number of lives to save many when the lives were human rather than animal, the authors attempted to figure out what was driving the difference. In particular, they explored the effect of differences in the perception of intelligence and the ability to suffer.
In one study focused on the role of intelligence, the authors described intelligent chimpanzees with rich social lives and “severely cognitively impaired humans” with intelligences lower than the chimpanzees. Despite differences in intelligence, participants were told both groups could experience suffering. In another study focused on the role of suffering, the authors described puppies that are extremely capable of suffering and humans in a “persistent vegetative state…who cannot experience any suffering but are still alive.” In both cases, study participants found it more permissible to harm the animals compared to humans. This suggests that it is not simply perceptions of intelligence or the ability to suffer that drives many people’s differing views of humans and animals. However, these factors do play a role. The authors found that participants were less willing to allow harm to subjects described as more intelligent or more able to suffer, but humans were still valued more highly than animals.
Across all of their studies, the authors found that even though participants found it more permissible to sacrifice animals, they still had reservations about harming them. In other words, most people do not view animals simply as objects whose lives have no value, they just value humans more highly. The values people put on the lives of animals versus humans are not entirely driven by differences in intelligence or a creature’s ability to suffer. The authors believe that a key factor in the value differences may simply be the species of a creature. For example, humans are considered more valuable simply because they are human and regardless of other characteristics. They also found that the more speciesist people are, the lower they view animals’ intelligence and ability to suffer.
Animal advocates can use these findings to inform their strategies. Because the results did not show that one particular characteristic was more important than others, diversity of tactics may be a useful approach. Advocates should emphasize intelligence and ability to suffer, as well as the value of a life regardless of species. Because the results showed that human lives are often considered to be uniquely valuable, it may also be helpful to highlight similarities between humans and animals.