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How Do We Weigh a Life?

By Choa Mun, Scarlett Tsou

In effective altruism, it is important to consider various factors and make a decision that is impartial, of high importance, high impact, and/or is sustainable. Essentially, we want to make sure the effort and resources put into a decision are worthwhile and bring about the maximum amount of benefit. When calibrating such judgements, one essential question that comes up is: How do we decide what entities deserve rights? When considering the right of life and death, how does the weight of dead fish compare to that of human lives?

This is a difficult discussion, especially because of our uncertainty with the parameters of the topic itself. For example, some people believe that the threshold for deserving rights comes with sentience, or the ability to feel sensations like pain, while others believe that every living thing inherently has a right to a good life. Still others that think compared to human life, all others are significantly inferior. It is hard to argue which is better, and as other entities, like robots, are emerging, there’s a greater blur in these definitions. However, it is hard for the dialogue to progress due to the blurred definitions, sensitivity of the topic, high margins of error, and disagreements over ethics. Phrasing has a lot to do with how the discussion is perceived, so many of the conversations may need to be censored and we need to be acutely aware of the cultural, ethical, and perceptual contexts.

This discussion around the worth of (nonhuman) animals isn’t just questioning whether the worth of a human can be equated to a number of nonhuman lives. It would be cold to say someone’s life is worth only 10 fish, for example. But, this entire situation isn’t equal either - even amongst animals.

Let’s imagine a situation:

“Congratulations to Mister ‘X’ for his contributions to the conservation of wildlife in the Great Barrier Reef! Let the banquet commence!”

The courses are brought out, and with dish after dish, everyone’s enjoying the food being served. All the guests savour each course, celebrating the achievements of this organization in conserving the dwindling wildlife and wild spaces left in the world.

It’s a noble goal, truly. And we’re not here to debate whether this goal is commendable or not.

But there’s something off about celebrating the conservation of sea turtles for example, while at the same time enjoying delicate pieces of scallop tartare.

The entire discussion around non-human animal worth, and how life must be treated with the same respect is constantly self-contradictory, with celebrations such as the banquets to celebrate the achievements and work of wildlife associations speak of helping animals while having parts of animals in front of them. There are campaigns centered around saving the turtles, but saving a scallop, or a sardine? That doesn’t have the same ring to it.

We find it hard to decide what a life is worth, animal or human, when the contradictions and challenges are not just between humans and animals, but amongst different species and the worth that even professionals and experts equate to certain species. What gives us the authority to determine what a life is worth, when experts can’t decide on a measure themselves?


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