Intrinsic value & the struggle against anthropocentrism

Intrinsic ValueThis article has previously been published in:  Recognizing the Intrinsic Value of Animals, APS, Van Gorcum,  Assen, 1999; ISBN 9023234693

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In this article I will reflect on the concept of the intrinsic value of animals  by highlighting some of the recent developments in the field of biotechnology. Subsequently, I will analyze some current views on the relationship between modern biotechnology and the intrinsic value of the animal. Finally, I will evaluate some of the issues to which intrinsic value relates.

1.  The moral status of animals in The Netherlands from 1880 to 1980

Moral attitudes towards animals (as expressed in public debate and legislation) has changed considerably over time. Until the 2nd half of the 20th century, the use of animals was regulated by prohibiting those activities that were regarded as offensive to humans (the so-called principle of offence) or at odds with human dignity. These regulations were anthropocentric in character: their objective was to protect the moral feelings and values of human individuals. Other forms of legislation concerning animals sprang from agricultural, economical and veterinary motives.

During the 2nd half of the 20th century, the intensification of cattle breeding and the increased use of laboratory animals provoked fierce debates in which the negative consequences for the animals themselves became an issue. Notably during the 1960’s and 1970’s, pressure groups started to argue on behalf of the interests of animals kept in laboratories and farms. They expressed their discontent with laws that prohibited deliberate cruelty to animals only insofar as feelings of human individuals were offended or the cruelty involved could be regarded as a defamation on human dignity. They called for new forms of legislation that would protect animals for non-anthropocentric reasons.

In these discussions (the moral relevance of the animal’s welfare) two key issues were involved. To begin with, the harm principle, rather than the offense principle, should be the moral foundation for the protection of animals. Secondly, as to the scepticism expressed by scientists regarding the presence of consciousness and self-awareness in animals, they should be granted the benefit of the doubt by adopting the so-called analogy postulate. Applied ethological research into the behaviour of animals in captivity made it clear that the intensive use of animals had negative effects on the animal’s health and well-being. Nevertheless, concern for the well-being of animals had to be purged from anthropomorphism and sentimentalism. This point of view is taken for example in a report by the Federation of Veterinarians in the EEC (FVE, 1978) concerning welfare-problems among domestic animals. This document states that:

although the interests of animals often conflict with the demands of society, society remains responsible for the welfare of the animals involved. Considerations regarding animal welfare ought to be based on veterinary, scientific and ethological norms, but not on sentiment. And although animals do not have fundamental rights, human beings have certain moral obligations towards them.

These statements indicated the extend to which the concern for animal welfare became increasingly independent from preoccupations with decency. The harm suffered by the animal became point of departure. Now that not only the interests and values of human individuals or society counted, but also the interests of the animals themselves, animal protection had become less anthropocentric.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the criticism regarding the living conditions of farm and laboratory animals became mixed up with other social debates, notably the discussions concerning the protection of the (natural) environment and the ones concerning the development of new breeding techniques. Due to this broadening of the issues, other objections against the use of animals for scientific or economic reasons emerged. The instrumental use of the animals, it was said, is hard to reconcile with their intrinsic (or inherent) value. In 1981 the Dutch government included the intrinsic value-argument in a statement concerning the protection of animals (CRM, 1981). Now a principle was formulated that allowed for the possibility that, in some cases, the interests of animals might prevail over and above those of science and industry. The interests of the animal involved health and well-being as experienced by the animals themselves, independent from considerations concerning their suitability for human use. It was now claimed that animals have an intrinsic value, that is, a good-of-their-own, and an interest in their own well-being. This value is inalienable, closely linked to the life of the animal, and it continues to exist as long as the animal is alive (Boon, 1986). Whereas animal interests tended to be underestimated by the traditional offence principle, and overestimated by the concept of animal rights, the concept of intrinsic value is situated between both extremes. Thus, it may enable us to open up and further explore the ethical issue of animal interest.

2.  Recent social and bio-technological developments

The concern for environmental issues and the critical attitude towards certain breeding techniques were already mentioned as factors that broadened the scope of the debate on the moral status of animals in captivity. Recent developments within the field of biotechnology constituted yet another factor. After the commotion concerning the transgenic bull Herman and the celebrated lactoferrine-project of GenePharming, modern biotechnology has almost become a synonym for genetic engineering. In the debate on Herman, concern for the intrinsic value of animals became an issue in its own right. Many participants felt that there was more to intrinsic value than merely the concern for the animal’s welfare. Since then, intrinsic value not only refers to the animal’s welfare, but also to the moral attitude society takes towards animals as such.

This is clearly reflected in the Health- and Welfare Act on Animals (1994), that regulates the use of animals, and aims at protecting animals for their own sake. Article 66 defines two conditions under which the Minister of Agriculture may forego the application of biotechnology to animals: (a) unacceptable consequences for the health and well-being of the animals, and (b) ethical objections, where the latter phrase refers to considerations concerning the intrinsic value of the animal. Other recent developments in the field of biotechnology (such as cloning experiments, xenotransplantation, etc), also had an impact on public debate. Issues such as generic boundaries, species integrity, naturalness and the place of mankind in the natural order of things, became increasingly associated with the issue of intrinsic value. Concern for intrinsic value even came to possibly conflict with a concern for animal welfare. For example: is it allowed to use biotechnologies like genetic modification in order to combat animal diseases, like for example mastitis (an affection of the udder, caused by the intensive milking of cows)? A business manager from (Gene)Pharming stated that, in such a case, it would be unethical not to use these techniques. Suppose it would be possible to eliminate some of the negative effects of intensive breeding, or of the use of laboratory animals for experimentation, by adjusting the animals involved to their artificial surroundings, using genetic modification, instead of adjusting the practices involved to the natural needs of animals – would that be ethically objectionable? What do we precisely mean when we say that genetic engineering is harmful to animals? Is it reasonable to impose restrictions on certain animal practices if harm to animals in the strict sense is not involved? Can the appeal to intrinsic value provide us with a reason for doing so? It all depends on how we interpret this term.

3.  Differing views on intrinsic value

The concept of intrinsic value can be regarded as an intellectual instrument in the struggle against anthropocentrism (Musschenga 1994). Nevertheless, several views on the meaning of intrinsic value can be distinguished. The emphasis on intrinsic value results from the intensification of the way animals are being used and instrumentalized, especially during the last decades. Most advocates of the intrinsic value of animals will use it as the conceptual opposite to instrumental value, i.e. the economical value an animal has for us (its usefulness). “The animal is of value for its own sake; it is not a mere thing.”

The difficult question then is, whether or not these values, in order to be called “intrinsic“, must exist independent of the one who does the valuing. On the one hand it is claimed that, as we are the ones that attribute value to animals, this value does not exist “out there“, and therefore, intrinsic value is not the proper term. The value of the animal, whether instrumental, moral, aesthetical, or other, is always an attributed one. On the other hand, however, it is claimed that man is not the measure of all things, and that the most crucial aspect of intrinsic value consists precisely in the fact that it is not an attributed value, but an objective one, something belonging to the animal itself. According to G.E. Moore, intrinsic value refers to the value things would have if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation. It is a value that depends on the non-relational properties of something (rarity, for example, would be a relational property (Moore 1903/1952, p. 187; cf. Musschenga 1994). And Tom Regan likewise states that “the presence of inherent value in a natural object is independent of any awareness, interest, or appreciation of it by any conscious being” (cited in for example Bracke 1990, p. 46, Achterberg & Zweers 1986, p. 128). Otherwise, they argue, anthropocentrism would not be overcome.

Yet, it is important not to confuse antropocentric with anthropogenic values. An anthropogenic value is a value generated by humans beings, whereas an anthropocentric value implies that human interests are considered more valuable and more important than the interests of non-humans. As Achterberg (1992) pointed out, it is not necessary to maintain that intrinsic values really exist as objective properties, which intrinsically valuable entities would also have totally independent of a relation to a valuating subject. Avoiding both a subjectivistic and an objectivistic interpretation of intrinsic value, I will now point out what an anthropogenic interpretation of the term implies.

4.  Respect for intrinsic value – an anthropogenic view

Something which has intrinsic value ought to be respected because it has a special worth or meaning that transcends the preferences of the individual involved. Thus, intrinsic value can apply to persons, but also to objects of art, holy places, old buildings, geographical sites, animal species, etcetera. All things mentioned have a certain meaning beyond their usefulness (their instrumental value). They become sacred in a way, like monuments. We demand respect tor things which are generally regarded as highly valuable, and at that point, we enter the sphere of morality.

But not only entities can have this sort of intrinsic value, also certain properties can, like beauty, naturalness, wildness or complexity. Linskens, Achterberg and Verhoog have argued that the more species-specific characteristics of an animal have disappeared, the less reason we have to value the animal as an-end-in-itself (1990, p. 92-94). So to the extent to which animals (either individuals or species) become increasingly artificial and dependent on our care, their intrinsic value will decrease (regardless of whether they are able to suffer or not).

The value of properties like wildness and naturalness, according to this outlook, is not actively (subjectively) attributed, but rather passively respected. It entails a form of respect, an attitude of deference or awe. Thus, “protection of animals is a way of civilizing people”, as the slogan of the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals phrases it. This is also the view which was advocated in the article that initially introduced the concept of intrinsic value in the Dutch debate. As an alternative to anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, the writer proposes that humans must see themselves as part of living nature, a nature that has its own, intrinsic value; although man may play a special role as steward, a role connected with his task of becoming truly human (Verhoog, 1980, p. 85). This attitude of respect generates moral objections, not only to genetic engineering itself, but also to the patenting of genetically modified organisms. The very idea of patenting entails a violation of the intrinsic value, not only of the organism involved, but of life in general. This attitude of respect can be directed towards individual animals, species, biological processes, biotopes, geotopes, even to life as such. It is directed towards natural entities that have a telos, a good-of-their-own.

At this point, however, a distinction must be made between biocentrism and ecocentrism. Whereas biocentrism stresses the right of individual organisms to seek their-own-good, ecocentrism considers natural activity to be morally relevant in a more general way. As Colwell (1989) puts it:

“the inherent complexity of individual organisms, species, habitats, and ecosystems as centers of relations independent of human will merit our recognition of their intrinsic value and thus make us responsible for their appropriate care” (p. 34).

This admiring stance towards nature, which is also expressed in Schweizer’s dictum “reverence for life“, is an attitudinal kind of respect for certain valued properties, such as complexity and independence.

Most animal protectionists, however, defend the rights and interests of individual animals. One reason for doing so is that only individual animals can be harmed in the sense of experiencing pain. But biocentrists hold that all teleological centres of life can be harmed, simply by being disturbed or interfered with. One might object to this however by saying that only conscious creatures can be harmed, while other organisms can only be damaged, and natural processes can only be hindered or impeded. Since this form of respect is somehow related to the cultural meaning of an animal, it is more difficult to connect with actual properties of individual animals than considerations concerning animal welfare. For this reason, some authors propose to connect the term intrinsic value with words like “dignity” or “inherent worth“, rather than with “attitudinal respect” (Heeger 1992, p. 252-261; Rutgers 1993, p. 99-100).

5.  Intrinsic value as a formal basis for moral concern

As the intrinsic value of an individual animal is recognized, it becomes an object of moral concern; a moral patient. Whenever intrinsic value is recognized without referring to certain valued properties of the animal involved, the term “intrinsic value” is used in a formal sense. Intrinsic value then simply obliges moral actors to acknowledge the animal’s interests. The term “interests”, however, is as ambiguous as it is formal. I will not enter into this issue at length, but merely confine myself to the remark that the term “interest” always refers to certain needs or demands, that is, to certain properties of the animal itself that are real, rather than attributed. What the interests of the animal involved consist in, is not yet indicated by the term “intrinsic value“. Rather, the actual interests have to be determined with the help of empirical knowledge. Only empirical knowledge will tell us what it is that can actually be harmed in the animal involved. Thus, anthropocentrism can only be avoided if we refrain from confusing certain valued properties that have special meaning for us (like beauty, biological complexity, etc.) with the needs and preferences, in short the interests, of the animal itself.

Furthermore, respect for intrinsic value can be interpreted in a more or less utilitarian, as well as in a more or less deontological manner. Singer’s theory of equal consideration of interests or “species-impartiality“, is an example of the utilitarian interpretation. The extent to which the animal constitutes an object of moral concern depends entirely on the number and intensity of its needs and preferences. We have more obligations towards very sentient animals than towards animals that are less sentient. Bracke, for example, argues that preference frustration is morally relevant only in the case of a conscious animal. Moral agents have the obligation to reduce the frustration of conscious preferences. Although this utilitarian interpretation of intrinsic value can be regarded as non-anthropocentric insofar as it advocates equal consideration of interests, one may nonetheless argue that the moral value or status of the animal is still attributed by man.

Others however, like Regan for in stance, try to go a step further. Although, he distinguishes between (on the one hand) the animal’s biological needs and (on the other hand) the animal’s moral status, he maintains that both are intrinsic properties of the animal. More precisely, he argues that, whereas the intrinsic value of an animal is variable and dependent on its needs or interests, the inherent value of an animal is the value of the animal as such, of the animal as subject-of-a-life, as centre-of-its-own-universe and as generator of preferences (Regan 1983, 1979; cf. Bracke 1990, p. 44). According to Regan, inherent value is equally possessed by all subjects-of-a-life – and he adds that all mentally normal mammals of at least one year old must be regarded as such (1984, p. 77). Unlike intrinsic value, that is, inherent value does not pertain to animals to a higher or lesser degree. An animal either has it, or not (Regan 1984, pp. 240-241; Cf. Tester 1991, p. 6). It exists independent of awareness, interest, or appreciation. If, on the other hand, one maintains that the moral status of animals depends on things like needs and preferences, this would mean that moral status is something which is attributed, that it is anthropogenic (i.e. generated by man).

Another deontological argument against the utilitarian interpretation is that utilitarian accounts are notoriously ill-suited when it comes to defending or acknowledging animal rights. Rather, utilitarianism implies that we can always overcome our obligations towards animals simply by increasing our interests in using them. Therefore, animal rights can only be based on inherent value and immediate (rather than calculated) respect. On behalf of utilitarianism, however, it must be pointed out that animals are granted a right to an equal consideration of interests. The crucial difference between the utilitarian and the deontological view on animal rights then seems to be that the first does not accept the existence of some sort of value beyond the animal’s actual needs or preferences. If we could adapt an animal to its artificial surroundings by genetically eliminating certain needs of preferences, for example, this would be a morally neutral intervention from a utilitarian point of view. Bracke (1990) rejects the view that animals have inherent value or fundamental rights (such as the right not to be killed) by saying that they do not have “second order desires“, that is: they do not know who or what they are and cannot question issues like life and death. Animals therefore only have provisional rights. Verhoog, however, denies that intrinsic value has any direct bearing upon interests or rights. In his view, intrinsic value rather articulates an attitude of respect towards animals.

So on the one hand we have the view that the moral status of animals is linked to interests or other properties that can be measured by man, and on the other hand we have the view that the value of animals is not something that can be measured because it is a kind of dignity or worth, present somehow in the animal itself. The mere fact that the animal exists, is a rationale for its dignity and demands an attitude of respect. The weakness of the deontological approach resides in the fact that it cannot say much about the moral problems that arise in situations of conflict between the interests of animals in captivity and the interests of human beings who want to use them to some end. The weakness of the utilitarian approach is that it only allows us to speak about animals as the object of our actions. It does not say anything about wild animals beyond our reach. The issue of intrinsic value only comes up when the animal already has some kind of instrumental value.

6.  Intrinsic value as an independent quality

In the discussion so far it became clear that intrinsic value refers to what makes an animal morally relevant, independent of its usefulness to man. Sometimes, the intrinsic value of an animal is connected with its telos – it is suggested that intrinsic value resides in the fact that the animal has a good-of-its-own. “Telos” is an Aristotelian concept referring to the fact that animals strive to realize their natural ends. Genetic engineering, in this view, is highly problematic because it may affect the telos of the animal. This interpretation has much in common with Clark’s concept of self-realization and Regan’s concept of inherent value. All these interpretations refer to objective properties that entail a normative component: an organic unity striving for self-realisation prima facie demands respect.

Another interpretation of intrinsic value however, rather views the animal from a scientific (biological and/or ethological) perspective. In this conception, certain (non-moral) standards can be formulated concerning the animal’s bodily functions and its interaction with the environment. Suffering can be defined as a discrepancy between the animal’s actual condition and these standards. The animal’s natural behaviour basically aims at minimizing this discrepancy. The greater the discrepancy, and the longer the animal remains incapable of reducing it, the more it suffers. Baerends (1973) calls these standards expectancy-values. In this sense intrinsic value is a descriptive, rather than an moral term, and as such has no ethical dimension to it. It refers to preferences and needs of animals which, if satisfied, contribute to the animal’s welfare, and if frustrated, leave the animal suffering. The animal’s mental state constitutes a balance between satisfaction and frustration. There is nothing beyond interests, needs, satisfaction and frustration. Thus, the objective is to translate (as completely as possible) moral problems into empirical questions.

One problem with this view is that considerable individual differences between animals (with regard to subjective awareness, for example) may occur, as well as between species. Does this mean that some individuals (or species) may have more intrinsic value than others? The question then becomes whether something like subjective awareness is scalable. Are the minds of animals somehow comparable? If this is the case, then it might for example be argued that the so-called “higher” animals (being more complex, or more similar to man) must be respected more than “lower” animals. A possible objection to such a procedure is that comparisons between, for example, lions and hares, or turtles and humans, seem to involve anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism. Not only because, ultimately, we are unable to know what goes on in an animal’s mind, but also because subjective awareness already refers to a property that is primarily human. Instead of comparing animals, therefore, one could argue that every animal as such may suffer to a higher or lesser degree, within the boundaries of its own consciousness. Even lower animals may suffer more or less severely. The same goes for a concept like telos. We cannot say that a lion has “more telos” than a turtle. The ultimate consequence of such a line of argument would be, however, that all animals, lions as well as turtles, or ants, are morally relevant to the same degree – and this must seem objectionable to many.

7.  Conclusion

Basically, there are three kinds of respect associated with the term intrinsic value.

  1. Attitudinal respect for the intrinsic value of natural things refers to an attitude of deference and awe, but is not primarily concerned with interests, rights or duties. Rather, every being has its own interior, its self, its mystery, its numinous aspect, and to deprive any being of this sacred quality is to disrupt the total order of the universe (Fox 1988, p. 89; Verhoog 1991, p. 156).
  2. Formal respect, on the other hand, implies at least some concern with interests of animals, and will grant animals certain basic rights.
  3. Finally, deontological respect will focus on certain qualities inherently present in animals (such as the telos of the animal, the basic needs of animals, etc). It is on these qualities that rights of animals are based and it is on the basis of these qualities that animals deserve our attention and care.

The problem with attitudinal respect (an attitude of deference and awe) is that it does not tell us whether, and to what extent, use can be made of animals. And this really is a problem, as we are already using animals intensively. Therefore, such an approach has at least to be supplemented by a formal one which focuses on interests (of animals, of society, etc.) and on the question of how precisely they can be balanced-off against one another. Whenever intrinsic value is associated exclusively with attitudinal respect, something valuable is lost, namely the function attributed to this concept by the Dutch government in 1981. It would only serve to indicate that certain human individuals, sharing this attitude of respect, have “ethical objections” to certain forms of biotechnology, and this would simply imply a rehabilitation of the principle of offence. The progress made over the last (say) forty years is valuable. If notions like interests, rights, and harm are ignored altogether, we are very likely to fall short of our responsibilities towards animals.

Some object to applying intrinsic value or rights to animals, because it would degrade human dignity. Others fear that granting animals inalienable rights will make all forms of animal use immoral. Killing an animal would then become equivalent to murder. My contention however is that acknowledging the intrinsic value of animals does not affect the dignity of humans, at least not in a negative manner, because it precisely addresses the animal’s own value. Nor does granting certain rights to animals necessarily mean that they have a right to life, limb and liberty (self-determination) in the Lockean sense. When granting captive animals certain rights, we are defining our own obligations towards them and express our responsibility towards animals – a responsibility that primarily concerns the suffering that results from our use of them.



W. Achterberg: Humanisme zonder arrogantie: modern humanisme en ecocentrisme (Inaugurele rede), Landbouw-Universiteit Wageningen, 1992.

W. Achterberg: Partners in de natuur; een onderzoek naar de aard en de fundamenten van een ecologische ethiek; Jan van Arkel, Utrecht; 1986.

Wouter Achterberg & Wim Zweers (red): Milieufilosofie tussen theorie en praktijk; van ecologisch perspectief naar maatschappelijke toepassing; Jan van Arkel, Utrecht, 1986.

G.P. Baerends e.a: Ethologie: de biologie van gedrag; Pudoc, Wageningen, 1973.

T. Berry: The Dream of the Earth; San Francisco, Sierra Club, 1988.

D. Boon: Nederlands Dierenrecht; Gouda Quint b.v., Arnhem, 1986.

M. Bracke: Killing Animals; or why no wrong is done to an animal when killed painlessly; Utrecht, 1990.

R.K. CoIweIl: Natural and unnatural history; biological diversity and genetic engineering; in: Scientists and their responsibilities; W.R. Shea & B. Sitter, Watson Publishing, Canton, 1989.

M.W. Fox: Laboratory Animal Husbandry; State University of New York Press, Albany, 1986

M. Linskens, W. Achterberg, H. Verhoog: Het maakbare dier; ethiek en transgene dieren; 1990.

G.E. Moore: Principia Ethica; Cambridge, 1952 (orig. 1903).

CRM (Ministry of Culture, Recreation, and Environment): Nota Rijksoverheid en Dierenbescherming, 1981

Tom Regan: The Case for Animal Rights, University of California Press, 1983.

H. Verhoog: Dierproeven en bio-industrie: een vette kluif voor ethici, in: Filosofie en Praktijk, 1980.


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