Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

3. Intrinsic Value

Book cover: Empiricism and Ethics by D. H. Monro

What is intrinsically valuable? By intrinsic value, I do not mean a value that something can possess independently of anyone's valuing or preferring it. What I do mean is a value that a thing possesses independently of the value of the thing's effects on other entities. A thing has intrinsic value if it is valued or preferred simply for what it is and not for its consequences. So, for example, I value my car because it can take me wherever I want to go. By this token, it has consequential value and not intrinsic value. Let us say that which has intrinsic value is 'intrinsically good' and that which has intrinsic disvalue is 'intrinsically bad'.

Life itself cannot be intrinsically valuable in this sense, because it seems to me that some lives are so burdened by constant misery that they are not worth living. Life, it seems, is valuable for most of us because it is the prerequisite for the possession and satisfaction of goals and for the having of pleasant experiences. Life, then, has consequential value. What of consciousness, in the sense of having phenomenological experiences and a subjective mental life? Once again, consciousness appears to be valuable because it is necessary for the having of certain experiences. Consider two beings. The first being is in a constant state of suffering while the second being's only capacity is to experience the sensation of redness without either liking or disliking this sensation. Our natural reaction is to say that, for both these beings, having a capacity for consciousness is of no intrinsic value.

Many moral philosophers propose that the feeling of pleasure is an intrinsic good. Pleasure is a difficult notion, so let us consider first its less problematic contrary; that of pain. In discourse outside of philosophical circles, what is normally meant by 'pain' is a certain sensation that is usually, but not always, the result of overstimulation of the sense-organs. Can this sensation be intrinsically bad? I cannot see how, because some people derive enjoyment from the occasional experience of pain; namely masochists.

Secondly, consider a being that has the capacity to sense pain, but does not have the capacity to be dissatisfied with it or want to avoid it. That these two capacities—sensing and dissatisfaction—are not only logically distinct but physiologically separable is evidenced by modern neurophysiological studies that show that the sensory and affective aspects of pain perception are served by different neurophysiological mechanisms in the brain.[7] If a being can sense pain without having an attitude to it, then it seems that there is no more reason to think sensations of pain intrinsically bad than, say, sensations of redness.

Can the same now be said for sensations of pleasure considered purely as a sensory experience, divorced from affective states? One important difference is that the term 'pleasure', unlike the word 'pain', often seems to be associated with the satisfaction of some desire for sensory stimulation. In this sense, pleasure seems to be intrinsically valuable, for we value pleasure for its own sake and not for its consequences.

We can make the same observation for the more general mental state of satisfaction. A complication here, though, is that we cannot simply identify the feeling of satisfaction with that mental state resulting from the satisfaction of some desire. This is because we sometimes feel dissatisfied even though a desire of ours has been satisfied. For this reason, we need to stipulate that for a mental state to be called a feeling of 'satisfaction', the desire satisfied could not have been based on false beliefs or expectations. In contrast, dissatisfaction, that feeling we get from the frustration of some desire, is intrinsically bad because it is disvalued irrespective of its consequences.

Many utilitarians speak of 'happiness' as an intrinsic good. For the purposes of this essay, let us say that 'happiness' is that feeling resulting from the satisfaction of high-level desires not based on false expectations. I contrast here high-level desires from lower-level desires. High-level desires are longer-term and more permanent than their lower-level corollaries. Examples here are the desire to complete one's education, find a compatible life partner and write a best-selling book. These are contrasted with the more short-term and impromptu lower-level desires, such as the desire to go out with friends to watch a movie, read a funny book and dine on your favourite meal.

In the same vein, let us stipulate that 'suffering' is that feeling resulting from the frustration of high-level desires. Here, I contrast sufferings, such as the feeling of sickness from ongoing malnutrition and the experience of distress from mental and physical abuse from short-term inconveniences, such as having one's toe stubbed. Let us further stipulate that something is in a creature's 'interest' if it promotes their feelings of satisfaction. In short, we can conclude that what is in a creature's interest is increasing its happiness or, more generally speaking, its mental state of satisfaction, and that these things are intrinsically valuable.

Moral philosophers have proposed other things as being intrinsically valuable, such as knowledge, beauty, friendship, and so on. I am inclined to think that these things have value only in so far as they promote satisfaction, but I shall not argue for this here. Even if I am wrong in this, it will not greatly affect what I have to say on the morality of killing. In the next section, I will couple the foregoing theory of intrinsic value with an ethic of duty.


  1. [7] Melzack [1973: 93–6]

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