How Should Pro-Life People Respond to the Death of Harambe the Gorilla?

Opinion   |   R.J. McVeigh   |   Jun 2, 2016   |   10:14AM   |   Washington, DC

Harambe’s death was a terrible tragedy. Many have mourned and been saddened that the 17-year-old gorilla had to die in order to save a human child who had fallen into the gorilla’s pen at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend. This has been an especially sad situation for those who feel passionately about animal rights and the lives of animals. However, this situation may actually provide an opportunity for deep philosophical insight. It may even be an opportunity for Pro-Life Advocates to reach people who do not consider themselves pro-life on abortion but do feel passionate about the rights of animals – but only if Pro-Life Advocates approach it correctly.

Why is Harambe’s death tragic? The only possible answer is that Harambe had value as a living creature. Some might even take this so far as to say Harambe was a near-person, like us human beings. For the sake of this article and conversation, I am willing to concede that suggestion. I believe the moral intuitions of any normal person would tell you that Harambe was not a worthless creature, and that his life had some level of value.

Next question: Why did Harambe’s life have value? The most common answer would likely focus somehow on his ability to do complex thinking, or his complex social skills, or maybe even his ability for some level of empathy. Again, I am willing to agree (to an extent). As a Pro-Life Apologist who spends most of my time focused on advocating the value of human beings, I must admit honestly that when I see highly intelligent and highly empathetic animals that my intuitions tell me they are valuable creatures, too. I believe that many animals, such as Harambe, do deserve at least some rights as living creatures.

This is likely the point on this train of thought where many Animal Advocates stop. To any Animal Advocates reading, I invite you to dive a little deeper with me.

If Harambe’s value comes from his abilities to think/socialize/empathize/etc., I strongly argue that it cannot be from his abilities as an individual. If his value comes from his abilities as an individual, this is highly problematic when you consider the implications. If Harambe’s abilities give him his value, then it only makes sense that it is also human being’s abilities that give us our value (no double-standards here!). But if our value is determined by our individual abilities, the implication is that there really is no such thing as equality amongst humans. If your ability to think/socialize/empathize/etc. gives you value as a living creature, but I have a greater ability to think/socialize/empathize/etc than you do, then the logical conclusion is that I am literally more valuable than you. The implication is that some humans are literally more valuable than others. This would mean that human children and human beings with disabilities or diseases are lesser beings than healthy adult humans. Anyone with a functioning moral conscience rejects this notion.

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An alternative train of thought for a typical Animal Advocate might be to suggest that the amount of these abilities to think/socialize/empathize do not matter – only that a creature has some minimal capacity for them. For example, both the human adult and a disabled toddler can think to some degree, and so (you might say) that makes them equals. However, a new problem now arises. All sorts of living things have minimal capacities for these abilities. For example, my pet goldfish can think to some degree. So can the squirrel outside my window right now. The logical implication now is that the life of that squirrel is literally of the same value as my life. Some might be willing to admit to this absurd notion out of stubbornness, but virtually no one is willing to act consistently with it in real life. To act consistent with this belief would mean doing things like holding funerals for road-kill animals, killing hunters in self-defense of animals, sentencing people to life-in-prison for having a hotdog over Memorial Day Weekend, etc.

So then, back to our earlier question: Why does Harambe’s life have value? I still agree that it has to do with his abilities to think/socialize/empathize/etc., but not in either of the two ways mentioned above. His value cannot come from his abilities as an individualhis value must come from the abilities of his kind.

It’s not that Harambe can empathize, individually. It is that Harambe is a gorilla, and gorillas are rational, social, empathetic creatures. To determine Harambe’s value, and the value of any other living creature, there must be two questions in sequence. First, what kind of creature is it? Second, what are the levels of rationality/socialization/empathy/etc of this kind of creature?

With this stance, you can whole-heartedly embrace a belief that animals, such as Harambe are very valuable and deserve some rights (such as the right to not be treated inhumanely). But you can also adequately explain why some animals are more valuable than others – such as why Harambe deserves these rights, but why the squirrel outside my window doesn’t deserve the same amount of rights. You can simultaneously give out rights based upon abilities to think/socialize/empathize AND have equality amongst creatures of the same species, despite variables like disabilities and age amongst members of the same species. This explanation seems to fit perfectly with the intuitions most of us have about the lives of animals. You avoid all the problems described above, but end up with exactly what you wanted to defend in the first place.

Additionally, if we value Harambe for what kind of creature he is, then we must consistently value human beings for the type of creature we are. Again, this sounds good to many of us – it explains why we’re all equals despite differences in things like race, gender, identity, abilities, intelligence, abilities, disabilities, income, etc. These things don’t change our value as human beings because we’re all still human creatures. This also means that human lives are still more valuable than the lives of highly intelligent animals – although, we could explain why we’d be “close” in value. To many reading this, I would venture to guess I am providing you with an incredibly strong argument to defend almost everything you believe about equality – you’re welcome.

But wait.

There is one implication you might not intuitively agree with. That implication is that you must treat all living humans as fundamentally equal. No exceptions. And currently, there is one particular group of living humans that modern society is completely rejecting as equals: preborn humans.

Scientifically, there is no doubt that human embryos and fetuses are biologically alive and that they are the same type of creature as you or me. Despite their lack of virtually all the abilities you and I have, they are still the same type of creature as us. Like Harambe, their value cannot come from their abilities as individuals, but rather from the abilities of their kind (a.k.a., you and me). Yet, they have virtually no rights. Is it a coincidence that one of the strongest arguments for explaining animals’ value and human value compels us to include even preborn humans in our explanations of value? Or could it be that this is a logical conclusion that our society is avoiding? Is there any other “down-side” to this stance other than having to admit that preborn humans are people like you and me?

The death of Harambe does not have to be an either-or dilemma – you can adequately (and strongly) defend the great value of Harambe without belittling the value of humans. But if you choose this best-available explanation for the situation, think hard and long about the implications. If you do, your passion for the lives of animals just might lead you to become pro-life, too.

LifeNews Note: R.J. McVeigh serves as the Director of Apologetics for Students for Life of America. He is a former youth minister and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences and Chemistry from Grand Valley State University. He also serves as the Great Lakes Regional Director for Students for Life of America, mentoring and guiding campus Students for Life groups in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.