Of Goats and Men

By Cyberquill 12/09/2014Leave a Comment


Who’s more valuable, a human or a goat?

The answer seems obvious—but why?

Superficial features aside, both are made up of the same components. Both have eyes, ears, limbs, a brain, a spine, a nervous system, and a heartbeat. Both will feel pain when poked with a sharp object.

Anthropocentric hubris aside, what’s the fundamental difference that justifies our elevating one above the other such that to even question this elevation is apt to set human eyes rolling and jaws dropping?

One might suggest that the fundamental difference rests in the human capacity to solve that which we commonly refer to as “complex problems.”

In other words, goats never figured out how to fly to the moon, nor has any known goat ever composed a symphony on par with Beethoven’s Fifth.

Most humans, of course, have never come up with anything remotely resembling Beethoven’s Fifth nor figured out how to fly to the moon, either. Most wouldn’t have so much as invented the wheel on their own hook.

While all rocket scientists are human, not all humans are rocket scientists. Most humans couldn’t be rocket scientists if they wanted to. It takes a rocket scientist (figuratively speaking) to be a rocket scientist (literally speaking), and—needless to say—most of us aren’t that.

So if we were to regard the capacity to solve complex problems as the yardstick for setting the value of a living being, where does that leave those humans that are less blessed with said capacity than are others? Is a rocket scientist a more valuable being than, say, a mentally disabled person that may have trouble assembling a ten-piece jigsaw puzzle?

Naturally, we cringe at that question, preferring to tout all human life as equally precious regardless of mental performance. We recoil at declaring a person with an IQ of 200 as doubly valuable and hence endowed with twice the right to life and happiness than a person that clocks in at IQ 100, nor would we ever suggest that harming or killing the latter ought to be codified as a lesser offense solely as a function of the victim’s brain power.

But if we discount mental performance—i.e., the capacity to solve complex problems—as a factor in determining value, then on what basis do we set the value of a human to be higher than that of a goat? If the victim’s intellect shouldn’t be a factor, how come we all agree that murdering a goat ought to be—nay, is, as if by some incontrovertible law of nature—far less egregious an offense than is murdering a human?

You could argue that the dumbest human is still much smarter than the smartest goat, that the intellectual gulf between goatness and humanity vastly outsizes the intellectual range found among humans, and that at some arbitrary point along that gulf the difference in degree becomes a difference in kind.

Perhaps so.

Still, to privilege intellect over sentience when it comes to assigning value to living beings seems a function of anthropocentric convenience and pragmatism rather than sound moral justification—otherwise, why shouldn’t it be just as valid to view a creature’s capacity to feel, as opposed to its capacity to think, as a measure of its value, including its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—its humanity, as it were?

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