“Animals are less valuable than human beings,” says John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at University College London (UCL). This seemingly uncontroversial statement is under fire, as Helene Guldberg at sp!ked writes, “There seems to be an emerging consensus within the scientific community that we should reject the philosophical outlook that says humans are ‘categorically superior’ to animals.”
For many philosophers, the consideration that may loom largest here is the stubborn conviction that the lives of normal humans must be of greater value than the lives of many, if not all, nonhuman animals. Perhaps that conviction is unjustified; it has not yet been very satisfyingly defended. (David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 248)
Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is famous for equating the moral value of animals with newborn human beings, although he claims that “the aim of my argument is to elevate the status of animals rather than to lower the status of any humans” (Practical Ethics, p. 77).
In defending the position that humans are to be valued more than animals, Martin asks the right question: “What is a human being?” He argues that the answer “requires both a biological and a philosophical analysis – in tandem,” and that “what sets us apart from all other animals… is our ability to generate creative, abstract thought – ‘and with that, poetry, music and the social networks that bind us together’.” In this, Martin is partly right. But the answer to his question needs a theological as well as biological and philosophical analysis.
I’m not necessarily inclined to go the route that Martin does in claiming that abstract rational thought and creativity is what gives human unique moral value. After all, angels (and demons) presumably have far greater rational capacities than we humans. In this sense surely we are “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5 NIV). Even though angels have more powerful intellects, God seems to place a higher value on human beings, “For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (Hebrews 2:16 NIV). It may well be that there are other created beings, including angels, that surpass human abilities in the areas of creative abstract thought, and thus I do not believe Martin’s proposed basis for the valuation of human beings is adequate.
Instead, the dignity and value of the human person must be based on the recognition that human beings are created in the image of God, the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26). When God makes his covenant with Noah, it is to this image that he refers when delineating the norms of justice: “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, / by man shall his blood be shed; / for in the image of God / has God made man” (Genesis 9:5-6 NIV). The image of God has often been taken to include the rational and creative faculties as well as the social and communal aspects of human nature to which Martin refers, but is not limited to these features.
Whatever it means for human beings to be made in God’s image, this is what separates us from all other creatures, whether plant, animal, or angelic. This is the unique defining characteristic of what it means to be human, and is relevant despite whatever other similarities or differences we might share with other created beings.
This is not to say that animals therefore have no value, but only that their value is relative to that of human beings. All of Martin’s conclusions, such as that vivisections are necessary and morally praiseworthy, do not necessarily follow from the premise that humans are of greater value than animals. In this sense, Singer is right to argue against the complete devaluation of animal life, even if his solution of equating human and animal value is wrongheaded.
The Bible teaches a relative hierarchy of created life, with plants at the bottom, having a primarily instrumental value as food for beings with the breath of life. Animals possess the “breath of life” and therefore have some non-instrumental value of their own. This is why even when God instrumentalizes animal life in Genesis 9, there are still limits placed on human dominion in this area: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Genesis 9:4 NIV). All this has important implications for animal research, especially human-animal hybrid, or chimera, research.
Human beings are not properly valued when animals are simply equated with human life, but neither are animals rightly viewed if completely stripped of some measure of independent dignity, albeit relatively less than that of human life. After all, as Jesus says, we are “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31 NIV).