Comparing Lives and Epistemic Limitations… thoughts about The Case for Animal Rights

reganIn The Case for Animal Rights (2004 edition), Tom Regan argues that, although all subjects-of-a-life have equal inherent value, there are differences in the value of lives. So, while “all subjects-of-a-life have the same kind of value (inherent value)…. The value of the life subjects lead need not be equal, and in many cases, it seems to me, it clearly is not” (Regan 1983, xxxiv).

How, then, would Regan suggest that we go about comparing the value of one life to another? His answer is the following: we should compare the possible sources of satisfaction in each life. If we find that one life has more possible sources of satisfaction than the other, then that life has greater value. This is because, according to a rights view, “the value of life….. increases as the number and variety of possible sources of satisfaction increases” (Regan 1983, xxxiv).

To be clear, Regan maintains that “only in extreme cases would differences in the value of different lives matter” (Regan 1983, xxxiv). One of these “extreme cases” is the infamous life boat scenario: there are 4 rational human beings and 1 dog in a lifeboat. All will die if one is not thrown overboard. Who should be thrown overboard? According to Regan, the answer is…. the dog. Since the dog has fewer possible sources of satisfaction than a rational agent, the dog’s life is of lesser value than the lives of the rational human beings (this conclusion is derived from Regan’s “worse-off principle,” see chapter 8 of The Case for Animal Rights).

animal rights

One of the sources of satisfaction that rational beings have, according to Regan, is the satisfaction associated with thinking impartially about moral choices. Since rational beings can bring impartial reasons to bear on decision making, Regan maintains that they have an additional possible source of satisfaction that a dog does not have.

But why does the fact that a being has “a great possible source of satisfaction” entail that the life has greater moral value than another life that has fewer possible sources of satisfaction? What good is having a “possible source of satisfaction” if one fails to actually reach satisfaction?

For instance, consider the following:

(1) Person A is fully rational and can bring impartial reasons to bear on decision making. She can think impartially about moral choices and thus has a great possible source of satisfaction.

(2) Person B is fully rational and can bring impartial reasons to bear on decision making. He can think impartially about moral choices and thus has a great possible source of satisfaction.

It seems that, according to Regan, the lives of Person A and Person B have the same moral worth; both Person A and Person B have the same opportunities for moral satisfaction.

But now, consider the following (keep in mind what was already said about Person A and Person B):

(1) Person A applies impartial reasoning when making moral choices, fulfills her moral obligations to the best of her ability, and thus feels morally satisfied.

(2) Person B never uses impartial reasoning when making moral decisions, always fulfills his desires, even when they are base, and thus never feels morally satisfied.

Do the lives of person A and person B have equal moral worth? Both lives have the same “possible source of satisfaction,” so surely these lives must have the same moral worth, if Regan is correct! But we might pause to question: what’s so valuable about a life that is overflowing with an “opportunity” to achieve satisfaction if there is a slim chance that the life will involve actual satisfaction?

For instance, if we are in a burning building, would we flip a coin to determine who to save: a gluttonous egoist or a morally upstanding individual like Tom Regan himself? Problably not. It seems pretty clear to me who we should save: Tom Regan.

Perhaps, then, it is not “possible satisfaction” that makes lives more valuable, but rather, actual satisfaction.

But how many human lives are actually filled with satisfaction, especially moral satisfaction? If we take Benatar seriously, we will find that most human lives are a disappointment; they are truly awful. With all of the harm that befalls us (poverty, violence, disability, having our hearts broken, losing our jobs, and so forth), the lives of some are so bad that they struggle to satisfy even their basic needs , making the achievement of higher satisfactions, especially “moral satisfaction,” next to impossible.

So, if actual satisfaction is what matters, then we are committed to the view that the lives of the privileged, intelligent, wealthy, and so forth have the greatest moral worth since they are the ones with the means of achieving satisfaction. Consequently, the lives of the oppressed, poor, and so forth will have lesser moral worth due to the lack of an ability to achieve satisfaction.

The flaws with this entailment are hopefully quite evident.

Perhaps, then, we should just scratch Regan’s idea that we can make judgments about whose lives are more valuable and, instead, embrace a theory like Francione’s, which suggests that in most “extreme circumstances,” we should simply flip a coin in order to determine who to save, while acknowledging our epistemic limitations and that we just can’t, and shouldn’t, make judgments about which lives have the “greatest moral value.”