Pigs and fetuses

What does it make sense for us to value? This is the question (perhaps among others) we should be asking when we broach topics like abortion. All worldviews incorporate, either explicitly or implicitly, a value ontology. (“Ontology” is just the fancy philosophical word for an account of what exists.) You can think of a value ontology as a list of things that actually matter. So for example, in the evangelicalism I grew up in, fertilized eggs, human fetuses, and grown human beings all mattered–infinitely. Other things (puppies, pigs, rocks, whatever) mattered maybe a little. But if you had to choose, you had to choose the human every single time, because human beings have souls that are created in the image of God. That’s one kind of value ontology. One kind of way of looking at the world and making a judgment about what matters.

At bottom though, that way of looking at the world doesn’t make sense (because there’s no such thing as a soul). Once you adopt an atheistic and humanistic picture of the world, you need to adapt your value ontology. You need to ask the question of what it actually makes sense to value, what should really matter to us. Other human beings should matter to us. That is, it makes sense for us to value each other. We grow and thrive in relationships. Friendship makes life worth living. We’re social beings through and through. Other people make our lives worth living. And even when those other people are obnoxious or mean, we shouldn’t kill them, at least not on a whim, because it’s better (we like it better, we do better) to live in a society where people don’t randomly get whacked for perceived slights. That’s why we need a good justice system, a transparently run police, and a culture of ‘live and let live’, at a minimum.

What about rocks? Should we value rocks? Should they matter to us? Should we treat them as sacred? Probably not. We obviously have some interest in rocks, insofar as geologists can use them to tell us interesting stuff about our planet, for example. But should I feel a qualm about breaking a random rock in half? No. Clearly not. (Unless it has sentimental value to someone I love, that is, in which case breaking it would be very mean.) Something can be said for similar non-sentient and non-functional items.

Some things have value not because of any deep relationship we can have with them, but because of what they can do for us. So for example trees aren’t like human beings, but if we chopped down every last tree, that’d be really bad for our species (and a few others). Besides, trees are fun to look at, and to climb. So we keep at least a few of them around.

What about pigs? Should we value pigs? This is controversial ground. Not because there’s disagreement about whether human beings should value pigs, but because there’s disagreement about how pigs should be valued. Many people think pigs should be valued in the same way that trees are valued–for the ways in which they’re useful to us (think bacon). And there’s no doubt that pigs can be and are useful to human beings (at least in our culture) in such a way. But is that the only way they should be valued? I stand with those who think that the impressive intelligence and sociability of pigs should give us pause. Not only are pigs sentient (they feel pleasure and pain), they have a certain degree of higher brain function that makes their experience of the world that much richer. They have relationships with each other, even if not with us. And so I think it makes sense to extend our “live and let live” system to pigs (and similar creatures). We don’t need pigs (and, as tasty as it is, we don’t need bacon). Or at least, we don’t need to commodify them, kill them, and eat them. In some parts of the world, they’re kept as pets. And maybe something like that makes sense (at least as much as having pets “makes sense”). But unless we’re ok being the kinds of people who ignore (and the kind of society that ignores) the pain and happiness of sentient beings for the sake of our palates, our current practices don’t make sense. We don’t value pigs as much as we should, not in the way that we should (given the kinds of beings we want to be). Unless we want to be cold and calloused people, or a cold and calloused species, it seems like we should care for and about those pigs who need it, and leave all other pigs (and animals) alone. For those who think ‘caring for’ pigs (and cows, or whatever) is compatible with creating production systems that require their slaughter, think about how we treat our pets (when we treat them well). Do we eat our dead dogs? Should we build dog slaughterhouses? If you don’t think so, why should our care for dogs be any different than our care for pigs?

In brief, I think it makes sense for a social and empathetic species such as our own to have a relationship to other (especially but not exclusively mammalian) species different from the (largely exploitative) relationship we currently have with them. Pigs should rank more highly in our value ontology.

What about fertilized eggs, embryos, fetuses? Well, let’s just say that I think the logic which pushes us to view pigs and other animals as deserving of our moral concern does not extend to pre-sentient human organisms in utero or in vitro. The parents of a particular fetus might value that fetus, for what it might become, for how it will change their lives, or whatever. And I suppose that kind of valuing makes sense. But do we have grounds for criticism of those parents if they don’t value their fetus (and choose to abort it)? What possible grounds might those be? A fetus is not yet sentient–at all. It is not (yet) a relational being, in anything more than just the chemical sense that it is physically dependent on its biological mother. But it does not have thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, expectations, fears, or anything of the sort. While we may value a particular fetus (as I valued my daughter when she was still a fetus), there is nothing about being a fetus which, as such, demands that we value it. And so just as I am not a bad, cruel, or negligent human being for crushing a rock, so also I am not a bad, cruel, or negligent human being if I abort a fetus.

In the value ontology of humanists, pigs should figure more prominently than fetuses.