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During a stop on a cross-country drive this year, I watched a crowd of long, pale fish erupt from the surface of the Lost Sea, the hemisphere’s largest underground lake. They were rainbowless rainbow trout, and a young boatman was lobbing fistfuls of food at them, deep below a hill at the edge of Sweetwater, Tennessee. They were not, he explained, native to the lake. As he spoke, a trout sailed past the ear of a teenager next to me, provoking screams and a lurch in our glass-bottomed tourist raft. Predecessors of these fish had been carried down through Craighead Caverns and released into the lake by people curious to see if they would escape and reveal a conduit to another body of water. But they stayed put. And in the deep, lightless cave their eyesight and color faded and their sex drive vanished. Since the lake itself sustains no plant or animal life, the trout learned to swarm around visiting rafts and launch themselves into airborne food deliveries. “Now we restock them and keep them on as a tourist attraction,” concluded the boatman. A memorable end-of-tour splash.

It was unsettling to imagine their lives. Where rainbow trout occur naturally, they have a lot to do: they control dragonfly populations, forage, mate, host colonies of parasitic slime mold, feed bears and provide memorable stories to fishermen. They are bursting with nutritional and ecological value to others. But the trout of the Lost Sea were separated from every external life form, every meteorological pattern and almost every activity around which their species has evolved. They didn’t spawn, and after hours they had nothing to hunt, gather or see. A writer for Chattanooga Parent described them as “ghostly monsters.” Were they good for nothing more than spooking tourists into a gift-shoppy delirium? Seeing those wan cave dwellers sealed off from so much of their value to others, I wondered what made their lives worthwhile to them. Could any of a trout’s satisfactions remain unassailed by the indignities of a bugless, bearless, lightless, idle life?

Some of us feel that our own lives are inherently valuable, regardless of how much anyone else may cherish, need, hate or snub us. Whether we are social reformers, corporate peons or volatile drunks, most of us find the quality and continuation of our lives to be very important. But it’s hard to pinpoint what makes up one’s “inherent value,” and people sometimes use the term more emphatically than precisely. Awed people, for example, sometimes speak of inherent or intrinsic value. Of a sculpture so heartbreaking that pricing it seems crass. Of a feline whose grace and ecological importance are too complex to fully understand, let alone quantify. But in those cases, I think, the awestruck are mistaking intangible value, which resists being precisely quantified, for inherent value. The beauty of a sculpture may be priceless, but it can be squarely located in the eyes of beholders. And an ocelot’s role as a keystone predator is a function that others depend on; when she is locked behind zoo bars, she is no longer valuable in the same way.

Inherent value is something that emerges not from outside admiration, but from the capacity for well-being. A wondrous painting may not have any such value, yet many of the world’s less distinguished dwellers—dull people, ubiquitous pigeons—somehow do, whether or not anyone admires them. Dutch ethicists Bart Rutgers and Robert Heeger call an animal’s inherent value its “own good,” and locate it within the life she can live. “Animals have ends and purposes that are characteristic to them,” they write. “They are oriented by themselves towards the development of species-characteristic abilities and the fulfillment of their needs.” Here they echo an Aristotelian concept introduced into animal policy discussions by American veterinary ethicist Bernard Rollin, who in 1993 predicted a change in the U.S. social consensus on animal welfare: “Not only will welfare mean control of pain and suffering,” he wrote, “it will also entail nurturing and fulfillment of the animals’ natures”—their telos. True to Rollin’s forecast, over the past twelve years the Humane Society of the United States has thwarted powerful agricultural lobbies to reform calf, chicken and sow husbandry in eight states by convincing voters and legislators with this argument: “Animals built to move should be allowed to move.”

As I write this I am sitting in a sun-soaked adobe courtyard in Albuquerque, beside sky-straining tulips and cacti. A small terrier trots by, nostrils aloft, while I try to press my thoughts into a tidy shape. A breeze ruffles my hair and his. It occurs to me that life forms are constantly engaged in processes of change (consuming, converting, growing, learning, bonding), so that we never cease to be full of unrealized potentials. With this in mind, Rutgers and Heeger point out that animals’ “prospects and development” stand to be harmed or benefitted, alongside their health and comfort. Our understanding of inherent value should, then, include these prospects—a sleeping otter’s potential for play, a beaten dog’s potential to learn trust, a zoo-bound elephant’s potential to walk for miles. Change, as many have pointed out, is life’s only constant. We animals long for some changes, while others—like puberty—descend upon us, upending our tastes, impulses and bodies. So our understanding of what makes others’ lives worthwhile would be crippled if we ignored the potentials and needs that dwell in their changes.

I propose that someone’s inherent value is her own potential to exercise, thrive and bask in her natural sensations and abilities. The capacity to flex her mind and body, organize, learn from injury, luxuriate in sunlight or water, stretch her fibers, scratch itches or build a home. Inherent value inhabits the leg-wending of a cat, the herding fervor of a border collie, the sunning of a snake. A cow, penguin or woman sheltering her fuzz-topped infant. A horse scratching her belly over a bush, a wolf joining his pack in a howl, a monkey timing her leap onto a swinging branch, a bowerbird weaving found snippets of blue into his courtship tent.

Koi vs. Tuna

A week after sailing the Lost Sea I visited a friend’s family at a home that included an outdoor pond of koi fish, some as large as ground hogs. Here was another motley crew of transplants living in an isolated pool and depending on humans for food. Yet it wasn’t nearly as hard to imagine what made their lives satisfying. I watched the fish swim toward me with tendrilled mouths gaping, swerve at the pond’s edge, scoop up a few crepey elm seeds that had rained into their pool, and spit them out again. These fish could see, mate, roll things around in their mouths and sense the passage of days, seasons, animals. I felt their gazes flicker across me as I enjoyed their bright colors, broad shoulders and round bellies, the smooth arterial walls of their open mouths.

When I asked my friend’s mother, keeper of the koi, what they were for, she did not miss a beat. “They encourage meditative mindfulness,” she replied. “If I spent more time watching the fish, I would have a spiritual life.” She said the koi were “messengers from another world” whose surfacings offered a window into an ineffable other kind of being. Within that mystique lay both a lesson for humans—“You are one of many. There is no pride of place.”—and the promise of a deeper wisdom: “Fish know.”

“And then there are the fish you eat,” she added, “which are not messengers from the other world; they are tuna sandwiches in the making.”

Those koi and tuna have their work cut out for them. Together, their anointed roles—messenger, sage, sandwich filling—are an illustrative cross section of the uses humans find for other animals. While our inherent value hinges on our potential to thrive, our vast instrumental value depends on our potential to serve others. We animals use each other in concrete, commodifiable ways: for transportation, food, exercise, company and protection; as hosts and as slaves. The enterprising homo sapiens has expanded that list through leather whips, internet hunting, zoo exhibits and squads of bomb-sniffing dogs. We also mine the animal world for intangible values; French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed to its intellectual value when he wrote that “animals are good to think with.” We use our non-human cousins as totems, icons, villains and mascots; as signifiers of wealth and prowess, tradition and communion—infinite fodder for the construction of our own identities. In a recent issue of mother Earth News, American woodsman David Petersen invoked several of these values to explain why he hunted: “I am proud of procuring that wild meat myself, no middlemen needed or wanted, thank you—keeping alive ancient skills that were part of the evolution of our unique species through thousands of generations, relying on personal effort and knowledge (the good old-fashioned term here is ‘woodsmanship’) and our evolved, predatory instincts rather than on the store-bought, space-age technology so popular with misguided hunters today.” When Petersen hunts, it’s not just meat he’s after.

Creeping Things and Crossing Guards

The world’s religions and philosophers vary widely in how they attribute inherent and instrumental value. The God of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament endows humans with inherent value by creating them in his image, and then grants them dominion “over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” enshrining the assumption that the main value of non-humans is instrumental. The God of the Muslim Qur’an, on the other hand, acknowledges the parallel lives of humans and non-humans—“There is not an animal on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, that does not form communities like you”—and even warns against harming beasts of burden, like the camel: “Let her graze freely in God’s earth. Do not touch her with bad intentions, or you will get caught in painful retribution.” And in the Buddhist sutras, little distinction is made between the earth’s species—all are capable of achieving enlightenment; all are interchangeable through reincarnation.

Over the past half-millennium, as evolving theories of human and animal rights have been codified in various constitutions, the focus of philosophers has generally moved toward the inherent value end of the spectrum. In the seventeenth century, French philosopher René Descartes exerted a lasting influence on Europeans’ views of non-human animals by calling them “automata” and explaining their cries during vivisection as nothing more than the grinding of misaligned cogs. To Descartes, a dog could neither speak nor think nor feel and therefore had nothing—neither a soul nor inherent value—to complicate the head-on pursuit of her instrumental value to scientists. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, though he stressed the need to defend human dignity at all costs, saw no dignity in non-humans. He did believe that we have a duty to treat animals mercifully, but only because we have an obligation to develop our capacity for mercy; we must practice for when it matters.

As I continue writing at another outdoor café, a printed coffee receipt has caused my own mercy to flex unexpectedly. Curled into a perfect tube, the slip has puffed off my table, rolled diagonally across the sidewalk, and hopped into a parking lot. Lifted by rising gusts of wind, it rolls between the wheels of several cars and emerges at the far end of the lot, where it somersaults into a hard patch of sand, pivots and launches in another direction. Enchanted by its long trip, I find myself worrying that a pair of feet might round the nearest street corner and crush the little loop. As I ponder this strange anxiety, I can trace it to a memory: last year I spent several rapt and protective minutes watching as a praying mantis crossed a steep human foot path at a Buddhist monastery I was visiting. The thick-armed insect stopped and whipped its head around twice when others took flash photos, turned back to its path, and proceeded its slow labor across the asphalt until a speed-walker pushed through the gathered observers and crushed it underfoot. I gasped; the walker vanished uphill, unaware; the mantis thrashed to unbend its broken skeleton.

To my eye the mantis had appeared cautious, deliberate, and then terrified—well-deserving of moral consideration, and of a better crossing guard than I. The dance of the little receipt, on the other hand, seems to have tricked me. Its sparrow-like movements have tripped my habitual concern for little animals underfoot, even though I know that the loop has nothing to lose and no inherent value. I may be the only creature alive who would lament its flattening. But for reasons that Kant might appreciate, I don’t think my worry was wasted. A nun once suggested to me that treading delicately on the ground—lowering each foot with utmost gentleness—was a useful focus for a walking meditation. It was sound advice: not because the ground itself is sensitive to the force of my steps, but because it allows me to practice minding the impact of my most casual actions. Unlike Descartes, I assume that many non-human animals can think, feel and hurt. But like Kant, I assume that caring for non-humans—a dog, a loop, a velveteen rabbit—develops vital faculties like empathy and responsibility. Perhaps all of us animals, and even the earth beneath us, share this instrumental value: we provide practice targets for empathetic animals.

In eras following Kant’s, Australian ethicist Peter Singer and Englishman Jeremy Bentham—whose inanimate but cherished walking cane named “Dapple,” incidentally, rests forever tucked between the knees of his seated, dressed skeleton on display in London—argued for the merciful treatment of non-human animals for their own sake. Both philosophers are consequentialists, meaning they evaluate moral decisions by weighing the good and bad outcomes of any choice. “The question is not ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they speak?’ but ‘can they suffer?’” wrote Bentham in 1789, critiquing Descartes’ and Kant’s bases for the moral exclusion of animals. Two hundred years later Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation (1975), which looked at the emerging practices of industrialized animal farming in light of the harm and benefit they caused; he found that human consumption of most animal products—oysters apart—caused vastly more harm than good. Perhaps another way to see consequentialist arguments is that they weigh our instrumental and inherent values against one another.

American philosopher Tom Regan shows an even deeper concern with inherent value, in opposing the exploitation of animals because of their rights, not just their pain. We and many other animals have inherent value because what happens to us matters to us, he argues; we are “subjects of a life.” “We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things.” And however much instrumental value we may hold for others, all of us subjects of a life have the right not to be treated merely as the means to another’s end.

And yet we treat other humans as means to our own ends all the time, without offending common sensibilities about fairness—when we hitch a ride, sell something or dress to turn heads. Perhaps there should be a distinction between use and exploitation. If I seek out someone’s good company, I am gently using him to further my own well-being, and hopefully his as well. But if I instead hurt him in the process—if I make him listen to painful anecdotes, or detain him from an important date, or eat him—that’s exploitation. By this standard, many of the ways we use other animals—in circuses, research labs, zoos and farms—become harder to defend.


Moral battles over how humans should treat other animals are usually waged between those who defend our right to use natural resources and those who defend animals’ right to live free of exploitation; the two sides, unsurprisingly, argue on different terms. They remain entrenched because lives and traditions are at stake, and because each is rooted in a fundamental truth.

Those defending our use of non-human animals are right that human evolution, history and identity have been deeply bound up in that use—especially in our use of animals who could be made to work for us. The empires of China, Persia, Egypt and Rome grew into sophisticated hegemonies through the trade borne by horses and camels across the Silk Route. Anthropologists have credited the viability of early animal agriculture to domestic dogs, and the colonial dominance of Eurasians to their continent’s vast share of the world’s large domesticable mammals. On the other hand, those defending the rights of non-human animals are correct that over the same arc of centuries, humans have eloquently justified using other humans for a similar range of empire-building purposes—as slaves, trophies, weapons and mascots. And collectively, we often find these sacrifices to be not only unjustified by their place in history, but the subjects of its most shameful chapters.

While traveling across the U.S., I have collected some off-the-cuff responses to the question, “what are animals for?” Some people were irritated by the implication that animals are for anything. “What are they for? They’re for themselves. What do you even mean? We’re animals—what are we ‘for?’” demanded an Irish ESL teacher around a hostel dinner table. Others accepted the premise and offered thoughtful lists. A friend from Mexico who conducts diabetes research on cloned mice, suggested that “food, company and healing are probably the three main things they’re for, right?” A small-scale chicken farmer in Ohio saw our purpose as clearly dictated by our evolutionary drives: above all, survive and reproduce. “What is a squirrel’s real purpose?” he asked, in an online conversation. “To reduce the number of tree saplings. To feed predators. They’re cogs in an ecosystem. So are we. That’s an existential purpose—filling a niche. Doing our jobs.”

That farmer got me thinking: some of us, like the Lost Sea trout, are fairly detached from ecosystems, and many of us owe traits to artificial selection. Smash-faced pugs. A factory pig too fat for sex. All of us with arranged marriages or slavery in our bloodlines. When someone interferes with our survival or reproduction, does adapting to our captors’ needs then become our purpose in life? “Unfortunately, yes,” replied the farmer, and as an example he gave the grassy ancestor of maize. “By altering it … we have changed its ecological role whether the maize likes it or not.” Someone who has experienced captivity might object to his extrapolation from maize to humans, but he is right that artificial selection changes instrumental values; that’s why we do it.

And how about the other part of purpose—does inherent value also change under the genetic knife? Another Dutch ethicist, Frans Brom, writes, “We are able to change the functioning of an animal, in such a way that we may take away the capacity to have certain experiences. The idea that we deprive animals from certain possible good experiences, without causing suffering, does not seem to fit in with the idea of ‘intrinsic value.’” This raises an interesting question about how to respect inherent value: Is it enough to ensure that we animals are fully able to exercise our bodies and minds? Or should we also protect each other from genetic meddlings into the very nature of the exercise we crave?

If so, where is the moral line between humans’ studied tampering with animals, and all of the other ways species change each other? Perhaps it should distinguish exchanges built around confinement from those which leave survivors free to learn and adapt. Deer have learned to bound away from stalking hunters but eat from the hands of gawking tourists. Hermit crabs whose shells have received an electric shock sit tight until a new shell rolls around—and then rush to switch homes. And dogs’ winning sensitivity to humans appears linked to the first blooms of mutualism that sprang up when our two species met at the edges of early human encampments, trading food scraps for sentry work. As we negotiated our terms, each species may have favored members of the other group who were friendly and trusting, with good instincts for cross-species communication. Now that those relationships have ripened for a few thousand generations, humans have evolved an uncanny skill at interpreting the emotional timbres of recorded, unfamiliar barks. And dogs—but not wolves—have learned to read our intentions through our tiniest eye movements. It is no coincidence that so many dogs revel in human companionship, while their wild cousins remain aloof. Dogs’ teloi, the basis of their inherent value, have changed through these relationships, as have ours.

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