A Note on Humanlike Intelligence and Moral Value

We frequently see news stories reporting that scientists have determined that nonhuman animals have certain cognitive characteristics that we associate with human intelligence. The implication of this is that if nonhuman animals have humanlike intelligence, then they have greater moral value; the “smarter” they are, in human terms, the more morally valuable they are.

This approach is problematic for a number of reasons:

First, there is absolutely no logical relationship between the possession of humanlike intelligence and the morality of using animals as resources. Possession of humanlike intelligence may indicate that certain animals have interests that other animals may not have. Nonhuman great apes, who do possess humanlike intelligence in many respects, may have interests that dogs or fish do not have. But nonhuman great apes, dogs, and fish all have an interest in not being treated as resources simply by virtue of being sentient, or having subjective awareness. All sentient beings have an interest in not suffering and in continuing to live and these interests are necessarily defeated by their being treated as human resources.

We proclaim human intelligence to be morally valuable per se because we are human. If we were birds, we would proclaim the ability to fly as morally valuable per se. If we were fish, we would proclaim the ability to live underwater as morally valuable per se. But apart from our obviously self-interested proclamations, there is nothing morally valuable per se about human intelligence.

Second, to the extent that we claim that humanlike intelligence is morally relevant, then we are necessarily stuck with the idea that humans with greater intelligence are more morally valuable than humans with less intelligence. It is true; we may not treat all humans alike. We pay a brain surgeon more than a janitor because we value the former’s skill more. But even assuming that differential resource allocation is legitimate, would we say that the janitor is worth less than the surgeon for purposes of deciding who should be used as a forced organ donor or as an unwilling participant in a painful experiment? Of course not. For purposes of being used exclusively as a resource for others, both are equal.

And, unless we want to be speciesist, we must conclude that all sentients–human or nonhuman–are equal for the purpose of not being treated as resources.

Third, the “smarts” game is one that nonhuman animals can never win. We have known for decades that nonhuman great apes have humanlike intelligence, which should come as no surprise given the genetic similarity between humans and nonhuman great apes. It is not likely that any other nonhuman animals will ever exhibit a greater degree of humanlike intelligence. And yet, we continue to exploit the nonhuman great apes (and many other nonhuman primates) in all sorts of ways.

The “smarts” game is just that–a game. It is yet another reason not to accord animals moral significance today in favor of more silly (and harmful) research to determine whether animals can solve human math puzzles and perform other tasks that have no moral relevance.

We already know everything we need to know to come to the conclusion that we cannot justify eating, wearing, or using animals–that, like us, animals are sentient. They are subjectively aware. They have interests in not suffering and continuing to live.

Nothing more is needed.


If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s easy to do so; it’s better for your health and for the planet; and, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.

If you are vegan, educate everyone with whom you come in contact in a creative, nonviolent way about veganism.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione