Who Would You Save?
I recently ran into the old ethical question that pits the life of a pet and the life of a stranger against each-other. I’ve seen the question before, some time ago, and had forgotten all about it until I came across it again just today. Now I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
The ethical question, if you’re unfamiliar with it, takes many forms. Sometimes the set up is that your dog and a stranger are both drowning and you can only save one or the other. Other times, it’s a burning building with the same problem. I even saw one version where you’re approached by a freaking angel who tells you it will kill one or the other and you must choose which will be spared. Many times though, the question just skips the setup (as it’s irrelevant and people always try to use it to dodge the question anyway) and goes right to the dilemma at hand: If one or the other had to die, which would you save?
I’m inclined to think that anyone who would save a human stranger, be it an adult or a baby (as is the case in some versions of the scenario) really shouldn’t be allowed to have a pet. As I say this while having a pet, then you could, I’m sure, guess that I would save my dog.
Most people who choose to save a human will do so with the reasoning that a human, even a stranger, is more important than a dog. I disagree. People are more inclined to favor our own species, but we do so for emotional reasons. All values that we place on other species are entirely subjective. We tend to favor humans simply because we ARE humans. We have a bias in favor of the species that includes ourselves. If a dog could speak to you, it might very well have a contrary opinion, insisting to you that dogs are actually more valuable.
As for subjective values between species, I’ve certainly never seen dogs wage wars or commit genocide, so I find any claim that humans are better to be just a little bit flawed. And with a population of over 7 billion, humans are hardly an endangered species in need of preservation. I can’t find any objective rationale to favor the human over the dog (or cat, or what have you.) I don’t think that any life form is intrinsically more valuable than any other. All values we place, we place based on our own biases and needs. So I’ll put subjective values on species completely out of the way, ignoring that 1. I am human myself and therefore tend to favor humans, often without being conscious of it, 2. personally happen to prefer the company of dogs over that of humans anyway, and 3. acknowledge that the most horrific acts committed on this planet were (and still are) perpetrated by humans, whereas dogs are comparatively innocent as a species.
With cross-species value out of the way, I’m left with what is, to me, the real question: To whom do I owe the greater level of responsibility? If you’re not an animal lover and don’t understand what I mean, replace “your pet” with “your child” (or a child you are babysitting or is otherwise under your care.) When the scenario is your child vs. a stranger, few people would have trouble with the choice at all – they would pick their child. Sure, people would talk about subjective emotions, their bond and attachment with their child (as well as with their pet) and their personal vested interest in the child’s survival, and I don’t doubt that they mean what they say. But the real factor here is, or at least aught to be, responsibility.
This isn’t just a dog vs. a human scenario, it’s specifically my own dog vs. a human stranger. When I took my dog into my home, I was making a contract with her. She became my responsibility. It is therefore my duty to keep her safe and healthy, to love her and care for her, and to protect her and keep her happy. It doesn’t matter one bit that she’s a dog, she’s my responsibility all the same and in a way that no human being, who I do not even know, is, just as a child would be to a parent.
So I say again, anyone who does not save the pet should not have a pet at all as they do not take their responsibility seriously. Ask anyone who works at an animal shelter, and they will tell you that there is, sadly, no shortage of such irresponsible, speciesist people, who get a hold of animals that they then fail to take care of and renege on their responsibilities to.
This question isn’t just some absurd hypothetical, however. I actually have chosen my dog over other people. If you have pets that you take adequate care of, so do you, whether you’re aware of it or not. I’ve had my dog for less than a year, but I’ve spent quite a lot of money on her already. I’m not sure exactly how much money I’ve spent to her benefit, but it has to be on the order of a few thousand dollars by now. When I paid for Molly’s plane ticket, her veterinary care, her food, her toys, her training classes, my pet deposits, and so on, I was spending a great deal of money on a dog that I could have otherwise spent donating to charities that keep the world’s starving fed or could have gone to medical research and treatment or could have helped people pay their rent to stay off the streets.
Of course, I’m not thinking about any of this as I go through the checkout at the pet-store, but that’s still what I, and every other responsible pet-owner, is doing. People who spend money on their children are doing the exact same thing. How much money have you spent on your animal friends or on your kids? Do you feel guilty about it? You shouldn’t. I don’t.
Sure, I have, to a certain degree, a level of responsibility that I owe to every human being on the planet, whether I know them or not. I don’t deny this. However, it’s not the same kind of personal responsibility that I owe to my dog. I do still try to help my fellow human in any way that I can. I have done volunteer work and donate to charities that aid humans. But at the end of the day, if I had to pick between the two, I’d pick my dog over a stranger every time. Morally, it’s the only acceptable course of action that I see.