Are children more important than dogs?

The Original Sin, Bartholomeus Spranger
Intrinsic value: the value of a being in itself without regard to other beings.

My morality is so different from that of my fellows, that they usually think less of me in proportion to what they know of me. For instance, I see no reason to believe that my species is more important than other species. This means that we have no special right to compassion or respect, and I would even extend this claim to presumably inanimate objects, although I’m unsure that any object is truly inanimate. When I touched on this matter a few months ago, the mother of my grandchild took it to mean that if her child and a dog were drowning, I would be as apt to save the dog as the child, and was therefore an unfit grandfather.

While she was correct in interpreting my words to mean that I don’t hold her daughter to have a greater intrinsic right to life than a dog, I still prefer her child to a dog, so I would therefore save her child. This didn’t satisfy her because she needed me to believe that her child was of greater intrinsic value than a dog (a rather odd demand given that intrinsic value exists in a realm beyond comparison), and the fact that I didn’t regard this claim as self-evident could only mean that I am worse than wrong, I am deranged. Sad to say, I regarded her claim as anything but self-evident. However great her child’s perceived importance, it would be based upon the mother’s values, values that are necessarily relative. For instance, she might argue that her child is more important than a dog because her child has greater beauty, intelligence, versatility, creativity, or whatever, but by its very definition, intrinsic value exists independent of comparative value. This means that it cannot be proven, and if it cannot be proven, why should anyone believe it? But what if she is right, and her child is more important than a dog based upon its greater virtues, would this not mean that if some other child had more virtues than her child, then that child would be more important than her child?

Claims regarding our species’ importance aren’t claims that descended from heaven on platinum tablets (except to the extent that we seek to justify them by putting words into the mouth of God), but are instead human claims that support human values. We hold a child to be of greater value than a dog, and the life of our own children to be of greater value than the lives of other people’s children, not because we can prove it, but because believing it favors our evolutionary viability. This is why every parent would choose to save the life of her own average child over the life of someone else’s genius or, perhaps, over the life of everyone else’s genius. We are evolutionarily disposed to favor our own flesh and blood over other people’s flesh and blood and our own tribe, however defined, over other people’s tribes, and this is why we invented the concept of intrinsic importance.

To repeat, I see no reason to regard my species as more important than any other species. The polar bear has as much right to respect as we do, so it is no less noble to work for the welfare of polar bears—or slugs for that matter—than for the welfare of Syrian orphans. I believe the same about seemingly inanimate objects. This means that rocks deserve respect. Tin cans deserve respect. The whole earth and everything on it has has a right to respect, and while we must use the other species and the materials that the earth offers in order to live, it would behoove us to use as little of those species and materials as possible, and to treat them as well as possible because we have no right to them unless it can be argued that power constitutes right.

Just as the mother of my granddaughter saw me as immoral in denying the intrinsic value of her child over that of a dog, I see her as immoral for dividing the earth into things that are important and things that are of little or no importance, and claiming that she has the wisdom to separate the two. Every time she—or any of us—throws a banana peel in the garbage, we show contempt for the earth, and this constitutes a grave immorality. Inasmuch as possible, all things must be treated well. All things must be regarded as our brothers and sisters, and this means dogs and inanimate objects as well as children. Why? Because we are not the creators of this world but its inhabitors, and all of the things that we see around us are our neighbors. It’s a high standard with implications that are hard to determine, and demands that I often fail to meet, but it is my standard. My failures are endless, and it is to this extent that I relate to the Biblical concept of original sin, original sin consisting of, at the very least, those behaviors that we must perform in order to survive, behaviors that invariably involve the destruction of other life forms and the alteration of non-life forms. We don’t exploit because we have an intrinsic right to exploit but because we have an inbred preference for our own lives, families, and tribes over other lives, families, and tribes. We are an illustration of Tennyson’s words:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation
s final law
Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek
d against his creed.

While we can never rise to the standard portrayed by the first two lines, perhaps by giving up our self-congratulatory belief that our species (and especially our family and tribe) holds an exalted state in the scheme of things, we might at least rise above the last two.