Stephen Speicher

Life and Values

Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger? Given a scenario where both are drowning and you can only save one, can it be moral to save the pet instead of the stranger?   68 votes

  1. 1. Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger? Given a scenario where both are drowning and you can only save one, can it be moral to save the pet instead of the stranger?

    • Yes - it could be morally proper to save the pet over the stranger.
      45
    • No - it couldn't be morally proper to save the pet over the stranger.
      17
    • Am not sure.
      6

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360 posts in this topic

Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger? Given a scenario where both are drowning and you can only save one, and granted that you do not know and cannot discern anything significant about the stranger, can you value your pet over the stranger and choose to save the animal?

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Yes, of course! Many of us think of our pets as a member of the family - an actual value, and a big one, at that. A stranger you know nothing about is only a potential value. This doesn't mean that all pets are a greater value than a stranger. If your pet had only been with you a week or two, I doubt it would hold that kind of status in your life, but in the case of a dog that has been with your family for 10 years, which has grown up alongside your children (many children, and some adults, think of their pets as a best friend), saving the pet would be completely justified, and even morally required.

I would seriously question a person who chose to save a guinea pig or a goldfish over a human, since the guinea pig is going to die in a few weeks anyway, and one goldfish is just as good as any other, but in the case of pets that show some sort of "personality" and really do give back some value in return (protecting the house, affection, a playmate), by all means save your family member.

I think most pets can swim, though, so your scenario might not "hold water." :excl:

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Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger?
I hope so, otherwise I could be in trouble if I fall in the river again with that stupid leash on. I'm having problems with the way it's phrased, since I can't see how loving a pet can be immoral. Going for what I think you mean, if I valued a pet in extremis, I don't see how it would be moral to not save its life over that of an un-valued stranger.

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To Dave and David, and anyone else who might support their position: Could you value an inanimate object as much as you valued the pet in our scenario? If so, then, in a similar scenario would you likewise save the inanimate object from sure destruction rather than save the life of the human stranger?

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I hope so, otherwise I could be in trouble if I fall in the river again with that stupid leash on. I'm having problems with the way it's phrased, since I can't see how loving a pet can be immoral. Going for what I think you mean, if I valued a pet in extremis, I don't see how it would be moral to not save its life over that of an un-valued stranger.

I would save the human stranger.

Just thinking that it could be some great man, or that he might have a big love in his life... for the one in a billion chance that he could be a John Galt or a Francisco D'Anconia...

No pet can be an irreplaceable value. If my cat died, with all the sorrow involved, I will soon feel the same joy with another cat. For the small chance that this stranger is a person who could become irreplaceable to me - I'd save him instead.

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To Dave and David, and anyone else who might support their position: Could you value an inanimate object as much as you valued the pet in our scenario? If so, then, in a similar scenario would you likewise save the inanimate object from sure destruction rather than save the life of the human stranger?

I think an inanimate object is too broad a term. An inanimate object can have life and death implications for humans.

It could be a bottle with a cure for cancer, the secret code to an atomic bomb launcher, or the last surviving copy of Atlas Shrugged. Each of these is objectively more valuable than a stranger or a cat.

That's entirely different from some inane object, like your favorite pair of Gucci boots.

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Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger? Given a scenario where both are drowning and you can only save one, and granted that you do not know and cannot discern anything significant about the stranger, can you value your pet over the stranger and choose to save the animal?

This is assuming that there would be no risk to my own life in saving the stranger if he were the only one drowning, right? Meaning that I do not have a moral duty to save the stanger in the first place, and more of an obligation morally not to in proportion to the risk to my life. Clearly then it must be the pet if one truly loves their pet. Since it is a value (and for me a very high one) I am bound to protect its life within a certain degree of risk.

PS. My dog just looked up at me from her nap. She would die to save me from drowning. So, if you are that stranger in the water-you're dead.

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I think an inanimate object is too broad a term. An inanimate object can have life and death implications for humans.

It could be a bottle with a cure for cancer, the secret code to an atomic bomb launcher, or the last surviving copy of Atlas Shrugged. Each of these is objectively more valuable than a stranger or a cat.

Your use of "objectively more valuable" sounds suspiciously more like "inherently more valuable." I thought that when we speak of "value" we have to ask of value to whom, and for what purpose.

But, regardless, in light of Eran's comments, let me clarify my scenario to Dave, David, and others. By inanimate object I mean a personal value to you in a manner similar to the personal value you place on your pet. In other words, I want you to replace your pet with a non-living entity, and then determine if your conclusion of whom or what to save remains the same.

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I don't accept Eran's 1 in a billion change reason, because there's a greater that 1 in a billion chance that the stranger will turn out to be Hitler 2 or one of those a city councilmen. There's also a greater that 1 in a billion chance that if our house were to catch on fire, I (well, the picture, not the real me) would bark and wake us up and maybe drag us to safety. I can't base my actions on arbitrary assumptions about strangers. Of course there's a significant element of "playing along" in this scenario since of course I would try to save both the dog and the stranger. I don't own a lot of really valuable inanimate objects so it's very hard to imagine a plausible scenario.

I suppose if, somehow, I were faced with the choice "your dog or your house", esp. where magically the insurance were cancelled on the house, I'd keep the house. OTOH, ask me the same question in 12 years, I might be willing to trade the dog for something of less value (knowing dog life-spans and all). Under the right circumstances, I would pay to have my dog killed (it sucks to have to do that). The point is, I would save the higher value, and I have a hierarchy (the two dogs are even in a known ranking). I don't abstractly value life, but I do value my life, and think of things in terms of how they relate to me.

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The point is, I would save the higher value ...

Well, yes, but the underlying question is, what is the basis for forming that hierarchy of values? How much value do we impute to an otherwise innocent stranger by virtue of the fact alone that he is a member of our rational species, by comparison to the personal value we can place on a non-rational animal. After all (and for this put your hands over the ears of your alter ego in the picture) I know of places where dogs are eaten but not people, but I do not know of a vice versa place.

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I don't accept Eran's 1 in a billion change reason, because there's a greater that 1 in a billion chance that the stranger will turn out to be Hitler 2 or one of those a city councilmen.

See? It depends on your appreciation to other people in general. :excl:

I think it's more likely, in America, to be a productive hero than a collectivist monster.

However, I think even if it's a regular honest Joe who has a nice family and works hard for a living - knowing I saved him would mean more to me than a pet.

Maybe it's because I'm not a pet person... :)

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Your use of "objectively more valuable" sounds suspiciously more like "inherently more valuable." I thought that when we speak of "value" we have to ask of value to whom, and for what purpose.

You're right, I meant those things should hold a greater value to a rational person. Not in the sense of an inherent value floating around without any person doing the valuing.

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Would it ever be morally proper to love a pet so much as to value its life over that of a human stranger? Given a scenario where both are drowning and you can only save one, and granted that you do not know and cannot discern anything significant about the stranger, can you value your pet over the stranger and choose to save the animal?

May I throw in a few thoughts here? There is no shortage of human strangers we can save. A few dollars a day could well save one of millions of third world children via a foster care program for example. So there you already have an objective dollar value for the life of a stranger to yourself. Granting this example is chronic rather than an emergency, it still allows us to estimate the value of a strangers life, say $A.

Now, ask yourself how much you would pay a vet to save your pet, say B$.

Subtract A from B and if you have change, it's goodbye stranger, otherwise it's off to the pet shop for a refill.

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Well, yes, but the underlying question is, what is the basis for forming that hierarchy of values? How much value do we impute to an otherwise  innocent stranger by virtue of the fact alone that he is a member of our rational species, by comparison to the personal value we can place on a non-rational animal.
I can't think of any reason why I should value someone / something for being of the same species, by itself. The best I can do is assign some minimal value to all rational strangers because, as rational beings, there is some chance that they will turn out to benefit me in some way -- and on the whole, rational beings get more such value-points than dogs. If rational beings from Tau Ceti were commonplace, they might fair no better than humans -- though if they were plug-ugly or stinky they would fair worse than humans: but again, it's not because of their species, but because of their nature. (It should go without saying that if they were rare, or even better, there were only one, then I'd probably value them much more than a random human, for what I could learn from them). To reduce this to something highly specific, I would trade my favorite dog for an opportunity to study the language of the Tau Ceteri (this assumes they aren't some wierd electronic beings), but that's me.

Except for breeding purposes, I don't see how species itself is a rational value. I value other rational beings not for the intrinsic goodness of being rational, but for the objective goodness of how the specific being will improve my life.

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May I throw in a few thoughts here? There is no shortage of human strangers we can save. A few dollars a day could well save one of millions of third world children via a foster care program for example. So there you already have an objective dollar value for the life of a stranger to yourself. Granting this example is chronic rather than an emergency, it still allows us to estimate the value of a strangers life, say $A.

That is not a fair analogy. Under normal circumstances we do not accept another person's need as a moral claim upon our being, and a refusal to provide financial support to all needy strangers does not reflect badly upon our moral worth. By contrast, I would say that if we arbitrarily refused to help an otherwise innocent stranger in a life or death emergency situation that we are directly confronted with, then such an act would indeed by immoral. The fact that these two situations are different leads to different conclusions, so you cannot conflate the two.

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Except for breeding purposes, I don't see how species itself is a rational value. I value other rational beings not for the intrinsic goodness of being rational, but for the objective goodness of how the specific being will improve my life.

And you grant no potential value to an innocent stranger based on the fact that he is a human being?

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And you grant no potential value to an innocent stranger based on the fact that he is a human being?

Of course, the innocent stranger has potential value, but the loved pet has an actual value.

As far as non-living entities are concerned, it's the same as with pets. If I must chose between entity A, which I know is of such value that my happiness will be compromised without it, and entity B, which is only a potential value, I will chose entity A. I know some people who would not be happy without their pets, and I disagree with Eran's assertion that no pet is irreplaceable (one can get a new pet, but this doesn't mean it will hold the same value as the old pet). Replaceability is a factor that must be taken into consideration. If the object (pet or non-living entity) at risk is, in fact, completely replaceable, by all means save the human.

I am at a loss trying to come up with a specific non-living entity which I think could hold that kind of value (perhaps the only remaining memento of a dead spouse?), because I couldn't imagine placing that kind of value in a non-living entity myself. For that matter, I've never had a pet which was more valuable to me than human life. (The only pets I have observed others valueing this much are dogs; I don't generally care for dogs, and don't really understand why dogs tend to have this effect on people.) The fact is, though, that some people do value their pets as highly as an immediate family member.

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(The only pets I have observed others valueing this much are dogs; I don't generally care for dogs, and don't really understand why dogs tend to have this effect on people.) The fact is, though, that some people do value their pets as highly as an immediate family member.

Er, don't you mean that some people seem to value an immediate family member almost as much as they value their dog? :excl:

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And you grant no potential value to an innocent stranger based on the fact that he is a human being?
You'll notice that I used the word species. Because man is a rational animal, the potential value I assign to any man is what I would assign to any other rational species (we know of only one at present) -- the value is assigned on the basis of rationality, not species. This explains why I do not value irrational humans, who happen to be of the same species. And I do recognise the potential value of an unknown person, but to clear about this, it is not because he is a member of the species, but because he is by presumption rational.

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Er, don't you mean that some people seem to value an immediate family member almost as much as they value their dog?  :excl:

or goldfish. :)

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And I do recognise the potential value of an unknown person, but to clear about this, it is not because he is a member of the species, but because he is by presumption rational.

Well, I am thankful for that, just in case it's a dark night and I'm the one who is drowning. :excl:

I don't think we have advanced the discussion much in the last few posts, but so far Eran is the only one who has unequivocally stated that he would value the innocent stranger's life over that of loved pet (but, then again, Eran also said he is not a pet person :) ). I was hoping to hear more views.

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I don't think we have advanced the discussion much in the last few posts, but so far Eran is the only one who has unequivocally stated that he would value the innocent stranger's life over that of loved pet (but, then again, Eran also said he is not a pet person  :excl: ). I was hoping to hear more views.

It's been less than 12 hours, though. :)

With a few very specific exceptions, I'd save any human over an animal, but I, too, am not a pet person.

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May I throw in a few thoughts here? There is no shortage of human strangers we can save. A few dollars a day could well save one of millions of third world children via a foster care program for example. So there you already have an objective dollar value for the life of a stranger to yourself. Granting this example is chronic rather than an emergency, it still allows us to estimate the value of a strangers life, say $A.

Now, ask yourself how much you would pay a vet to save your pet, say B$.

Subtract A from B and if you have change, it's goodbye stranger, otherwise it's off to the pet shop for a refill.

I was assuming we were not talking about serving a person from themselves, but from an objective danger out of their control.

I was also assuming that the person you save will be in your area, and that after you save him you would have the potential of enjoying his gratitude, getting to know him, or benefit indirectly from his continued productivity (if he's a big businessman, or an artist, or whatever).

If your plane crashed in Sudan, and you have to choose between saving your cat Boris, or saving a Sudanese peasant woman who's 20 but looks like she's 50 - I'd go with Boris every time.

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The person who said a goldfish can't have a personality, is wrong. I've known one. For eight years, stimulated perhaps in unusual directions by the wierd environment I provided her, she was an embodiment of greed: thrashing the water whenever she saw me, or swimming back and forth at reckless speed--because I spoiled her on everything I could imagine: peanut butter, pizza, ice cream, roast beef, baloney--almost everything I ate, except nuts. Baloney threw her into a veritable feeding frenzy.

Granted, a goldfish cannot have as much personality as a dog or cat.

As far as saving a stranger: I would take far more risk for a child, than for an adult. The child is more likely to be innocent. And more likely to resemble me in personality and sense of life. (For many years I was a Montessori teacher, of 3-6 year olds. Many of them I would risk my life for.)

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I live among strangers who greatly benefit my life. Strangers made the computer and software that I use for so many purposes, including writing this post. Strangers make the food that I enjoy every day. Strangers built the house that I live in. Strangers protect me and my property against criminals and accidents. Strangers made the drugs that restore my health (and the health of my cats) when I am sick. I communicate with strangers in forums such as this one and gain interesting new perspectives on life.

This does not mean that I consider myself indebted to any random stranger but that I benefit from strangers in varying degrees. I trade with some strangers directly, other strangers trade with me indirectly. The smaller the degree of separation between me and a stranger the more obvious it becomes to me that I should choose to rescue the stranger instead of my pet.

Another interesting question is whether there is a connection between how a person solves this problem and the kind of society he lives in. Would someone living under socialism be more inclined to save the pet than someone who lives under laissez-faire capitalism?

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