A Note on Animal Intelligence
A question I received: "What do you think of the interest in animals
who are perceived to be like humans in terms of intelligence. I am
thinking about the idea that great apes or dolphins or elephants have
greater moral value because they exhibit human type intelligence."
A good question.
Let's assume we have two humans: Mary is a math whiz; John is mentally disabled and cannot do math at all. Is the difference in cognitive ability relevant?
It depends on why we are asking the question.
If we are trying to determine who we should hire as a math teacher, the
difference in cognitive abilities matters. We should hire Mary.
If we are trying to determine who we should use in a painful biomedical
experiment or whose organs we should take to save the lives of others
or who we should enslave, the difference in cognitive abilities is
completely irrelevant. We should not use either Mary or John exclusively
as a resource for others. Mary and John are completely equal as far as
their not being used as a resource for others is concerned. If anything,
we may have special heightened obligations to those who are more
The same thing goes for nonhuman animals. If an
animal is sentient--that is, subjectively aware and able to experience
pain, suffering, distress, etc.--we should not use that animal as a
human resource. Period. The degree of humanlike intelligence an animal
has is completely irrelevant. And we should not accord greater weight to
animals who are more "like us" in having humanlike intelligence. For
purposes of being used exclusively as a human resource, a mouse has as
much moral weight as an elephant.