Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Does the size of an organism matter morally?

One might with pull a small plant from one's garden with little thought. But one wouldn't do that to a full grown tree. Of course it's harder to pull out a tree, but that doesn't seem to be all that's going on. The tree seems more significant.

Part of that is that the tree has been growing for a longer time. Temporal size definitely seems to matter. We would think a lot harder about cutting down a tree that hundreds of years old rather than one that's five years old. (Interestingly, we tend to have the opposite judgment in the case of people: it is perfectly understandable when an older person lays down their life for a child. Maybe this is because people have an irreplaceability that plants do not.)

But what about pure spatial size? Does that matter? I once thought about this case. We kill insects for minor reasons. But would we do that if the insects were our size? I thought at the time that we would have more hesitation to kill the large insects for minor reasons (we might not hesitate on self defense), but that this was an irrational bias.

But I now think there might be a justification to thinking of spatially larger organisms as having more value. The larger organisms have more cells, and that makes for a complex system, just like a castle made of ten thousand Legos is more complex, other things being equal, than one made of a thousand.

In the case of people, I guess we will have a duty of justice to bracket reasons arising from the number of cells. So we shouldn't save the fatter person just because he has more cells.

But what about dogs, say. Is it really the case that if a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are drowning, other things being equal we should try to save the Great Dane?

Maybe the differences due to the number of cells are on a logarithmic scale, and hence are only significant given an order of magnitude difference? But a Great Dane is an order of magnitude heavier than a Chihuahua, and so I'd guess it has an order of magnitude more cells.

Maybe the moral difference requires several orders of magnitude? Or maybe it runs on a loglog scale?

Or maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree and spatial size doesn't matter morally at all.

If size doesn't matter morally at all, we have a nice argument that the parts of a substance are never substances. For if the parts of a substance are ever substances, the cells of a multicellular organism will surely qualify. But if the cells are substances, then they are living substances. But surely an order of magnitude difference in the number of living substances destroyed makes a moral difference.


William said...

What is interesting, and I struggle a bit to understand in your context of the moral value of living things, is that humans historically have assigned higher utility to larger prey when hunting or fishing for food. Farmers tend to value jumbo sized crops, too. So the historical tendency in human practice is to prefer to kill (for food) the larger animals, and often, historically, this causes an extinction of larger species before the smaller ones.

Heath White said...

* I don't think pure numbers of living substances makes any difference. I have no objection whatsoever to washing my hands, for example, even though it presumably kills a lot of living creatures.

* I don't think pure relative size makes a difference. I am actually less reluctant to kill rats than mice, because I fear the rats more. Their larger size really makes no difference to me. True, they aren't MUCH larger. But if they were the size of small dogs, I would REALLY want them dead.

* Humans have a natural response of awe to things that are bigger than they are, and the bigger the more awe-inspiring. (Big mountains, big trees, big sky, vast oceans, big animals, etc. And metaphorically bigger: God, the Moral Law, the Nation, etc.) That MAY be morally interesting or it may not; in any case the instinct won't transfer to creatures smaller than us.

* When I lived in the Philippines, there were insects of all sizes around. In general, the larger insects are more dangerous, more annoying, and harder to kill. Sometimes, though, they are niftier, or at least more obviously nifty. (Google "rhinoceros beetle.") This made them more interesting for high school boys to fool around with.

Heath White said...

Also, there is a fascinating story about Don Curry, an unwitting botanist who accidentally killed (what was at the time) the oldest known tree. It haunted him for the rest of his life.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think one shouldn't kill microorganisms without good enough reason. But in their case good enough reason is easy to find, since the bar is really low. It is interesting that sheer numbers don't raise that bar high, either.

SMatthewStolte said...

My imagination plays a trick on me when I imagine a Lego castle of ten thousand Legos and another with only one thousand. In my imagination, the castle of ten thousand Legos actually takes on a more intricate design. It isn't just a castle with a larger number of simple parts. I guess that I imagine it in this way because I am automatically assuming that the architect of the Lego castles is perfect and would never use any more or fewer parts than was necessary to make the castle. As a result, I feel worse about the thought of destroying the bigger one than the smaller, because it feels like more reality is lost.

This isn’t quite what happens when I imagine giant bugs. I don't think of a new kind of bug that has to be massive in order to be a perfect instance of its kind. Instead, I think of a monstrous version of the kinds of bugs I already know.

I don’t know that this difference in the way I imagine the two cases is especially important. But I did think it was interesting.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose you take the Lego castle of a thousand bricks, and you replace each block with eight, not changing anything else... (I am not quite sure what follows.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm becoming convinced that the size of an organism matters little if at all, and hence I am liking the argument at the end of my post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm becoming convinced that the size of an organism matters little if at all, and hence I am liking the argument at the end of my post.

Anonymous said...

The size doesn't matter as such, but the economic value does matter, and size can make a difference to economic value. This is why it appears that size matters in some cases.

This is also why your argument at the end remains weak: the economic value of a thing does not depend on whether or not it is a substance.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But what I am interested in is the intrinsic value, not the instrumental economic value...