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?

Isn't this one of those Ethics in Emergencies questions that people get so wrapped up in that Miss Rand warned against getting too wrapped up in? Hmmmm....You sure seem smart enough to figure out how to save everybody!

And if you couldn't, how can anyone else answer what you would value? Aren't you the one who has to choose what you'd be able to live with the next day?

Now with that off my mind, I'd like to compliment all the other posts for their wisdom! and I agree with them. Brilliant, really :excl:

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Isn't this one of those Ethics in Emergencies questions that people get so wrapped up in that Miss Rand warned against getting too wrapped up in? Hmmmm....You sure seem smart enough to figure out how to save everybody!

I think the main caution is that we do not live on lifeboats so we do not base our morality on those sort of situations. But they are of some interest nonetheless. Ayn Rand addressed one rather fascinating instance of this which I mention in this post --> .

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I think the main caution is that we do not live on lifeboats so we do not base our morality on those sort of situations. But they are of some interest nonetheless. Ayn Rand addressed one rather fascinating instance of this which I mention in this post --> .

"Decisions" like this are often done in a flash, and may not present themselves as a choice with clearly fatal consequences until you are involved. Thus one may well find that events overtake deliberate consideration. You may dive in to save a stranger, only to be followed into the water by your dog. By this time you are committed to the stranger.

In addition, there is usually some indication of whom you are dealing with, and that makes a difference. Let's face it, some folks would benefit the world by checking out early, and I would be happy to wave them goodbye. The circumstances are the controlling factor here, not the moral principle. On this forum I bet all would do their best to save both dog and man, so in that sense they express their moral answer. Usually the circumstances make the FINAL decision of how they carry it out.

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I think the main caution is that we do not live on lifeboats so we do not base our morality on those sort of situations. But they are of some interest nonetheless. Ayn Rand addressed one rather fascinating instance of this which I mention in this post --> .

Thanks so much for the reference about what Miss Rand said. I must have heard/read it on another occasion, for it is just as I remember but with better detail.

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I would go for saving the human under those circumstances, provided there was no significant or foreseable risk to my life. I have had pets (dogs and cats mostly) all my life, but in general I still value human life over animal life.

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I would go for saving the human under those circumstances, provided there was no significant or foreseable risk to my life.  I have had pets (dogs and cats mostly) all my life, but in general I still value human life over animal life.

But your explanation, "in general I still value human life over animal life," does not address the issue. The choice was not between saving a human stranger and an animal you do not know. The choice was between human life (a complete and utter stranger) and the life of a specific animal that you love and value highly. So, granted that you would save the stranger over the animal you love, the question to be answered is why you value a human stranger more than an animal that you love?

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But your explanation, "in general I still value human life over animal life," does not address the issue.

While you are correct that I did not address the original question, I answered as to what I would do rather than provide a yes or a no. The original question can be answered in the yes or no format. Though it could (and rightfully should) be assumed, your question didn't actually ask for the reasons behind your answer. :) But I digress.

The choice was not between saving a human stranger and an animal you do not know.

I didn't take it that way. I understood the question as asked. You can put a name on the pet, Missy (my favorite pet cat), and I would still answer the same way.

I will give a more specific response as to why I generally value human life over animal life (known or unknown) as it pertains to this situation.

My pet cannot hold a job or provide a good or service that may be essential to my life. And the value that the pet does provide is definitely not essential. Whether or not the drowning person does or not is unknown, but it's a reasonable gamble that he/she does.

As you said above, if I were that stranger, I would hope someone would save me. Thoyd mentioned above the dedication his dog would have in attempting to save his life, and perhaps his dog has that capability, but I'm willing to gamble that a person would have a greater capability of saving my life than any of my pets.

I may make the best friend I'll ever have in my life. No pet can offer me the mental or social stimulation that a good friend can. I have pets because I'm not in an either/or situation.

Occupationally speaking, I'm in more of a position where I'm expected to save the human. While it's unlikely I could be criminally held responsible not attempting to save the human, I could certainly suffer occupational punishment and/or dismissal.

Maybe I'm more of a gambler or risk-taker than others, and that's part of what's going on here, a gamble. The actual value of a pet vs. the potential value of a human stranger. I play poker with the actual value of the money I put in the pot vs. the potential value I may get out of it.

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Given that this question is subsumed under the issue of values, I'd have to ask - which lies higher on my hierarchy of values, an animal who is an actual value, and a human who is a potential value? So I don't think there can be an automatic answer either way, because some actual values can lie below some potential values, and vice versa.

But if I had to make a choice between the two, I'd say that a potential of someone is in most cases not likely to be as high up, on a hierarchy of values, as an actual value. I am just assuming this statistically, especially in today's environment, given which even if you rescue someone they're not likely to be appealing for a strong personal lifetime friendship.

However I think the issue of inanimate objects is considerably different from the issue of animals. I don't value things for them being animate or inanimate, or anything like that, because life as such doesn't have a personal significance to me, i.e. I can ponder about and be impressed by the wonders of life vs non-life, but I wouldn't be inspired by a goldfish's passionate desire for survival, because I'm not inspired by any action motivated purely by survival. In the context of being inspired by life, I'm only inspired by a passionate pursuit of chosen values, so that even a human being whose only motivation in life is to survive against all odds won't do much for me - I will not be inspired by Rambo for example insofar as he is an example of this passion for survival; to me he is driven by an animal desire for survival.

So that is my view on the issue of animate vs inanimate objects - the living entities don't hold an automatic inherently greater value than non-living objects.

An inanimate object, that has an intense symbolic value to me, can conceivably be more valuable to me even than a loved pet (though I am an "animal person"), or even a human stranger. Let's think of the hero of Atlas Shrugged, to whom the symbol of the dollar which he traced in the end was more important than all of the lives which he could have saved, but didn't.

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Given that this question is subsumed under the issue of values, I'd have to ask - which lies higher on my hierarchy of values, an animal who is an actual value, and a human who is a potential value? So I don't think there can be an automatic answer either way, because some actual values can lie below some potential values, and vice versa.

But that is the real question: can it be rationally proper to value the life of a loved animal over that of a human stranger?

So that is my view on the issue of animate vs inanimate objects - the living entities don't hold an automatic inherently greater value than non-living objects.

An inanimate object, that has an intense symbolic value to me, can conceivably be more valuable to me even than a loved pet (though I am an "animal person"), or even a human stranger.

I'm curious what sort of inanimate object you might have had in mind. Can you name one actual object -- not necessarily one you currently have , but one you can conceive of -- that you might value more highly than the life of a human stranger?

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But that is the real question: can it be rationally proper to value the life of a loved animal over that of a human stranger?
Well the answer I came up with is: yes it can be rationally proper. However I also made a caveat that not all actual values are higher than comparable potential values, so the same person can value his very smart and dear dog higher than some homeless bum, but at the same time he can value a young child with the potential for brilliance over the same dog. In this case the guy has the actual value of the dog be higher than the potential value of a human being ( the bum who can still be rational, but is not likely to be), and yet that same guy has actual value of the dog lower than the potential value of another human being (the young boy who can still be rational, and shows an actual promise of being so). Same actual value of the dog, but different human beings and thus different potential values, one that is lower than the actual value of the dog, and one that is higher.

So my result would be contextual; the mere potential presence of a capacity to reason does not hold in it (for me) an automatic personal value, just like a mere presence of life and capacity for survival does not hold in it (for me) an automatic personal value.

You might say that in our example we don't know the stranger, and don't know his capacity for reason. I'd respond that we would have to choose, based on our life experiences, which of the two archetypes, the 'homeless bum' or 'the eager child', he will most likely come closer to, i.e. whether he will ever make himself to be someone that you'd be lifelong dear friends with, or not. If a person grows up in the ghetto and never hangs out with any Objectivists, he will definitely assume the stranger is probably not worth saving, because of the people he has to deal with every day. If it's a person who has Objectivist parents, goes to the OCON and such, he will think that even a regular stranger will have good chances for being a good man. So, as I said, I believe the answer to be dependent on context, and both answers can be proper given the right context.

Can you name one actual object -- not necessarily one you currently have, but one you can conceive of -- that you might value more highly than the life of a human stranger?
I did make such an example, not for me personally but for the main character in AS -- namely, the dollar sign. Will that answer work, or were you asking me for a more personal example?

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If there is a moral obligation to help another human being in an emergency situation where risk to oneself is negligible, then there is a moral obligation to ignore the family pet or heirloom in favor of the person. If you would consider someone immoral for walking past a drowning person when he could have saved that person without risk to himself, then he is immoral for pulling out his cat instead of the person.

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If you would consider someone immoral for walking past a drowning person when he could have saved that person without risk to himself, then he is immoral for pulling out his cat instead of the person.

How does this follow? If the cat is a value to him, then losing his cat is a risk to himself in the same way that losing a loved human is a risk to himself. If by "risk" you mean "risk of bodily harm," then who would you choose if saving either were no risk to yourself: the same stranger, or your spouse? I think it is inarguably proper to save your spouse in that case, yet bodily harm is not a distinguishing factor between the case of your cat and the case of your spouse.

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How does this follow?  If the cat is a value to him, then losing his cat is a risk to himself in the same way that losing a loved human is a risk to himself.

I disagree. A pet cat is replaceable, but his spouse isn't. There are tens of thousands of cats out there who can fill the same spot as the one he currently owns without any dimunition in his quality of life. The same isn't true of his spouse, or the spouse of some person on the other side of town who he's never met.

I know there are people who will argue that their particular cat is an irreplaceable value, so I'll go ahead and say now that I disagree. Cats have 'personalities' within a certain range of behaviors, and there are good cats and bad cats, but within the very broad category of good cats, one is as good as another. The same is true of dogs, hamsters, canaries and goldfish.

If by "risk" you mean "risk of bodily harm," then who would you choose if saving either were no risk to yourself: the same stranger, or your spouse?  I think it is inarguably proper to save your spouse in that case, yet bodily harm is not a distinguishing factor between the case of your cat and the case of your spouse.

I'm not sure what exactly you're getting at here, but I would risk my life to save my spouse, something I'm not likely to do for a stranger and very unlikely to do for a pet. I'm not sure what that proves, though. I brought in the issue of risking his life because I don't believe there's a moral obligation to risk one's life for the stranger, or the life of any other person. Risking one's cat is a different matter entirely.

I'm saying that if there's any obligation whatsoever to save a stranger's life, then the cat's life has to be forfeit. It can't be immoral to walk past a drowning man, if it is moral to save your cat instead of him. If you can choose a cat over another human, then you can choose anything you happened to be on your way to do at the moment.

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So, as I said, I believe the answer to be dependent on context, and both answers can be proper given the right context.

Look at the question again:

"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?"

You cannot discern anything significant about the stranger, so all the talk about bums and the like is not relevant. And, the question is, would it ever be morally proper, so your choice is: 1) No, it can never be morally proper, or 2) Yes, it can be morally proper, or 3) I don't know. I take it from all else that you said, your answer would be "2."

I did make such an example, not for me personally but for the main character in AS -- namely, the dollar sign. Will that answer work, or were you asking me for a more personal example?

I asked if anyone could conceive of a real, specific, concrete object that they would value over the life of our stranger. You've already said yes, you could conceive of such an object, so I just wanted to know what specific inanimate object would that be.

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I know there are people who will argue that their particular cat is an irreplaceable value, so I'll go ahead and say now that I disagree. Cats have 'personalities' within a certain range of behaviors, and there are good cats and bad cats, but within the very broad category of good cats, one is as good as another.

I know of many, many pet owners who would disagree with you here.

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I know of many, many pet owners who would disagree with you here.

They're wrong. I've owned a number of cats. They were slightly different in their personalities, but not one of them was an irreplaceable value. The same with dogs. Anything lower on the scale than a cat shouldn't even be a question.

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They're wrong. I've owned a number of cats. They were slightly different in their personalities, but not one of them was an irreplaceable value. The same with dogs. Anything lower on the scale than a cat shouldn't even be a question.

They're wrong? All of them?! That's a pretty sweeping statement, and I find it hard to believe that you are able to assess for every pet-valuer exactly what value their pet should hold to them.

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Also, if you do have some method of deciding how much value a specific pet should hold to its owners, can you apply that same method to other values? Why pets, specifically, but not other values?

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They're wrong? All of them?! That's a pretty sweeping statement, and I find it hard to believe that you are able to assess for every pet-valuer exactly what value their pet should hold to them.

That's what the question asked us to do, though. You don't think you can state emphatically that some values should always be placed below other values? What about pets vs spouses? If it's a beloved pet and a beloved spouse in the water, shouldn't the person always go for the beloved spouse? Assuming that both are loved, shouldn't the spouse always be loved more? If not, wouldn't you agree that there's a problem with either the person's sense of proportion in placing such a high value on his pet, or in his willingness to be married to someone whom he didn't love more than his pet? What about a pet vs. a son or daughter? A nephew or niece? A first cousin once removed?

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That's what the question asked us to do, though. You don't think you can state emphatically that some values should always be placed below other values? What about pets vs spouses?

The question was about a beloved pet vs. a human stranger you know nothing about, not beloved pet vs. beloved spouse.

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Also, if you do have some method of deciding how much value a specific pet should hold to its owners, can you apply that same method to other values? Why pets, specifically, but not other values?

I'm not saying where, specifically, a pet should fall within someone's hierarchy of values. I'm simply making the broad statement that in a situation like the one described in the question, the pet should be lower down than the human.

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The question was about a beloved pet vs. a human stranger you know nothing about, not beloved pet vs. beloved spouse.

I know, I'm just trying to find out whether you think that it's impossible to make sweeping statements about where two things should always be, relative to one another, in a person's hierarchy of values. I said that pets should always be below the human stranger, and you said that my statement was too sweeping. So now I'm asking whether you would agree with the statement that a beloved pet should always fall below a beloved spouse, even though that is also a sweeping statement. In other words, is it the sweepingness of it that makes my claim wrong, or would you say that it is just wrong that human strangers should be rated higher than beloved pets?

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So now I'm asking whether you would agree with the statement that a beloved pet should always fall below a beloved spouse, even though that is also a sweeping statement.

A beloved spouse vs. beloved pet? The spouse should absolutely be a higher value than a pet. That is because the of the nature of a spousal relationship. A spouse is (or should be) the reflection of ones sense of life and highest, deepest values. A spouse is (or should be) a value so great that life would be meaningless without them. If your spouse doesn't hold that kind of value, then why did you marry them?

I didn't say that your statement was necessarily too sweeping, just that it was sweeping and required some sore of support.

In other words, is it the sweepingness of it that makes my claim wrong, or would you say that it is just wrong that human strangers should be rated higher than beloved pets?

The "sweepingness" of your statement doesn't make it wrong. I'm not even saying it's necessarily wrong, I'm just saying that I won't accept it as right until you point out the fact(s) of reality that make it so. I certainly don't say it's necessarily wrong that human stranger should be rated higher than beloved pets, either. What I do say, is that the individual making the choice must determine the objective value of each and act accordingly, and that I do not have enough data on owner-pet relationships to make a sweeping generalization about the nature of those relationships as such. What I was really trying to find out is: Do you have enough data to make that generalization, and, if so, what is it?

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What I was really trying to find out is: Do you have enough data to make that generalization, and, if so, what is it?

Ah, okay then. Here's some data. The lifespan of a dog or a cat is about 8-12 years. Anyone who says he couldn't live without his pet has become far too attached to something that by its very nature is going to be gone from his life in a relatively short span of time. Pets have to be a replaceable value, or else it is very unwise to get attached to them in the first place.

Add to that what I said about pet personalities falling within a fairly narrow range, and I think it's conclusive that pets are very replaceable.

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As someone who spent many years in the animal field, I have had this discussion several times. A pet is definitely of value and can be considered a high value since someone can get emotionally, as well as physically, attached or even dependent on one.

It is easier to make a general statement, like "I value human life above an animal's." It is harder when you are talking in terms of an unknown human life and a known animal life.

We decide this every day on some level when we feed our pets, but don't send food to a homeless shelter or to that starving kid on television. However, that is not an immediate life and death situation.

In view of an immediate need to act, I would try to save the human life first, but not give up on the animal's either. Animals can survive a lot and a cat or dog can often last far longer in a dangerous situation than a human (especially since the human will panic, the animal will follow instincts and just try to survive). If there is a way to throw a floatation device to the human and dive in for the cat, I would do that. The human should be smart enough to grab hold, the cat would just slip.

As far as the topic of an animal have a general personality (I believe that is how it was put), I would say that generally animals act in a limited fashion for that species. A reptile can not have a personality, but can be docile or aggressive. A cat can not act as a human, no matter how much we please ourselves with our anthropomorphisms. BUT, a cat (or dog or bird) can show limited affections and can exhibit behaviors that are somewhat characteristic.

I do not believe an animal to be replacable simply because it lacks a human concious, but it is easy to find an animal that is "almost exactly like" another. I have heard this many times with one of my own animals. "Wow, your cat reminds me so much of my old cat ____! Do you want to get rid of him?" So if any of you have a medium-haired grey cat with blue eyes that likes to lie around, be lazy, and will come over and snuggle with you, I had one too. :)

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