The Sloth Problem

No, not that kind of sloth. The sloths that live in Central and South America. They're a bit of a problem for a view I develop in my forthcoming book. What I argue is is that there's a difference in life value between members of different species, based on what they can do. A chimpanzee's life has more value than a chicken's life. And that's because a chimpanzee has much richer capacities.

The ethical significance I give to capacities resonates with our experience. If you start out knowing nothing about crows, and read books about them by Bernd Heinrich, you'll find your respect increasing. You'll change your mind, gradually, about what you'd be willing to do to crows.

So, sloths. While higher capacities typically increase our esteem and respect, what's really cool about sloths is what they can't do. Listen to David Attenborough reciting their incapacities--they're nearly blind and deaf, and move very slowly. Yet this is adaptive. By doing so little, they're able to survive without very much food.

If sloths are particularly estimable, that's a puzzle for my view. I can see various things to say...but alas, the book is done. In the second edition, I will talk about sloths!


Alex Chernavsky said...

This approach seems similar to Tom Regan's "subject-of-a-life" theory, which I think is problematic:

"...I see no reason to restrict the class of protected animals to those that Regan describes as 'subjects-of-a-life'. Some animals and some humans may lack 'the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals' and they may have a most elementary 'sense of the future' or 'psychophysical identity over time,' but if they are sentient, they nevertheless have an interest in not suffering or experiencing pain, and therefore they can be said to possess an 'experiential life [that] fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else's interests'. Although it is easier to identify the constellation of qualities that Regan describes as present in normally developed mammals of a particular age, there is no doubt that chickens and other birds are intelligent, sentient beings with an experiential life. And although most of us do not even think of fish as conscious of pain, researchers have concluded that fish 'have subjective experiences and so are liable to suffer.'"

-- Gary Francione, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?

s. wallerstein said...

Most people tend also to value less animals that they fear (and are ugly): for example, snakes. I don't how snakes rate in terms of capacities, but it would be very difficult to convince most people to value them. Lions and tigers inspire fear, but they are beautiful and of course very distant from most of us.

s. wallerstein said...

Rats (the kind that live in sewers) have a lot of capacities, but people are not likely to value them.

Jean Kazez said...

I think one could be dissatisfied with the whole approach--with looking at value as being related to capacities, but hopefully the book makes a strong case for that.

What worries me is cases where it's actually incapacity that is impressive. That's the case with the sloth. What's amazing about the sloth is what it can't do, and how that's adaptive for it.

Jean Kazez said...

Alex, It's interesting that you see Regan as somewhat inegalitarian (and I guess he is, compared to Francione), because in the grand scheme of things, his views are extremely egalitarian. Other pro-animal writers make a much bigger deal out of human-animal differences. What I am exploring is the notion of non-egalitarian animal advocacy. It sounds like an oxymoron, but hopefully the book makes the idea appealing.

rtk said...

The whole idea that any creature has some kind of value that varies from animal to animal or even bug to bug is very repulsive to me. I can understand usefulness of a specific kind, like tastes better (chicken preferred to chimp) or kills more annoying bugs (like spiders). But some sort of almost poetic value sounds like religion to me.

Unknown said...

Hi Jean,

there are perhaps 3 possibilities
The first is that the capacities view is correct, but our considered intuition about sloths is wrong. Their lives are less valuable (to them) than the life of a squirrel monkey is to the squirrel monkey. We are mistaken to judge the sloth higher just because it has a particularly unusual (and endearing) lifestyle.

The second is that the capacities view is correct, but actually sloths have at least equivalent capacities to squirrel monkeys. Perhaps, like bats, other capacities are enhanced for the sloth, though their vision and hearing senses are diminished. The increase in those capacities compensates for the reduction in others. (Perhaps they have extrardinary taste sensitivity to leaves for example...)

The third possibility of course is that the capacities view is incorrect, and the value of a sloth's life is not diminished by their sensory deficiencies.

I am intrigued though - why are capacities as such important? (I tend to the view that the internal experience and capacity for different levels of wellbeing is what differentiates between species)


Jean Kazez said...

Very helpful list of options.

I'm going to choose #1, but say that while the sloth's life is really no more valuable than the squirrel monkey's life (just as a life), there's something more there to be admired. Like some plants are more worth protecting from extinction than others, so the sloth is especially worth protecting. We don't want sloths to disappear like we wouldn't want banyan trees to disappear--in both cases, we are seeing a natural wonder.

I didn't choose #2 because I just think it might not be true that sloths are particularly good at anything!

#3--I've got views about "the good life," developed in my first book, that make capacities central. I think those ideas help us think about animals--but the proof is in the pudding (i.e. the book).

Jean Kazez said...

rtk--re: Repulsiveness of comparing value of different lives. I think that's a healthy first reaction. I don't think we can avoid making comparisons, though, so should think through what way of doing so makes the most sense.

s. wallerstein said...

I defy anyone, even the Buddha himself, who has met a rat the size of a small cat in his kitchen in the middle of the night, to value it for its capacities. I defy anyone, even Jesus Christ, not to loathe and fear said rat. I defy anyone, even Saint Francis of Assisi, to not buy the next morning the most powerful rat poison on the market, without the slightest consideration for all warnings about dangers to the environment, to domestic animals, about possible birth defects to pregnant women, about the carcinogenic effects of coming within 10 meters of the rat poison.

Jean Kazez said...

Oh come on, why not just catch it and put it outside?

s. wallerstein said...

Jean: Have you ever looked at a rat's teeth? They bite, and besides, they're too fast to catch.