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Throw out the dog: are pets expendable?

Little Tiger, big enthusiastic Buddy, and laid-back Smokey are some of the furry individuals who share our living rooms, our kitchens, and sometimes our beds. Most people consider their companion animals—their “pets”—to be friends or members of the family.

Despite the depth of many people’s relationships with the cats and dogs who share their lives, many people also assume that these animals are in certain ways expendable: that it matters less that an animal dies than that a human being dies, and that the death of an animal is not as bad as the death of a human being.

Philosopher David DeGrazia, for example, imagines the following scenario: “If a lifeboat is sinking with several normal human beings and a dog aboard, where it is clear that all will drown unless someone is thrown overboard, nearly everyone agrees that it is morally right to sacrifice the dog.”  This is because, he says, animals have very little, if any, self-awareness. They lack psychological unity—a connection to themselves in the future—and their mental life is not sustained over time. A dog cares only about the present moment, or just the immediate future. So the death of a dog is not as bad as the death of a human being.

Martha and Millie
Martha and Millie Image credit: Photo by Sophie Alinton of Martha Kane with Millie. Used with permission of photographer.

Can that view be philosophically justified? I have my doubts.

The problem is, the criterion of psychological unity and continuity, which is intended to distinguish nonhuman animals from human ones, seems to justify our first throwing overboard the dogs, then throwing out the infants, and then, in order, the one-year-olds, two-year-olds, and three-year-olds, along with those of any age who are severely cognitively disabled. Even a six-year-old, compared to an adult, will have a smaller proportion of mental life sustained over her lifetime, and will have fewer memories and intentions with regard to the future.

Nonetheless, DeGrazia believes that the lifeboat case reflects “our considered judgments about the harm of death.” But who exactly are the people who are giving “our considered judgments”? It is suspiciously convenient that those who are to be sacrificed are precisely those who have no input into the lifeboat decision about whom to sacrifice. These ideas are extraordinarily opportune for any human beings who might well prefer to throw the dog out of the lifeboat rather than to jump out themselves, and are pleased with the notion that animals can, despite—or maybe because of—their innocence, be sacrificed for human benefit.

DeGrazia claims that an extraterrestrial would share his judgment about the expendability of the dog, thus suggesting that there is a god’s-eye or objective view of what is true in the lifeboat situation. But it is inappropriate for the badness of death for nonhuman animals to be assessed solely by reference to a criterion that has little or no connection to their lives. While dogs may have a low degree—if any—of psychological investment in and unity with their own futures, they do have capacities for enjoying their lives and forging connections with human beings and other animals. It is the termination of these capacities that makes death bad for them.

Setting aside extraterrestrials, the “considered judgments” about whom to toss from the lifeboat are in fact not likely to be unanimous. First, it seems unlikely that beings who do not fall into the category of “normal human beings” would accept DeGrazia’s “considered judgment.” I imagine if a puppy were to be thrown overboard, and his canine mother witnessed the act, she would oppose it. Also, I’m not sure that children would favor discarding the dog.

Bella in a Boat. Image Credit: Photo by Peter Renders of Bella. Used with permission of photographer.
Bella in a Boat. Image Credit: Photo by Peter Renders of Bella. Used with permission of photographer.

Even among adults, most people don’t use psychological unity and continuity to ground their judgments about the expendability of individual lives and the badness of death. They are more likely to decide based on their concern for or relationship to the individuals involved. Some people will have a stronger connection to and concern for the dog than any of the people in the boat. Mikita Brottman writes, “People like to make fun of those who love their dogs ‘excessively,’ but who decides how much love is too much? Why can’t we let ourselves take dog love too seriously?”.

Speaking for myself, although I am, presumably, a member of the category of “normal human being,” I don’t accept DeGrazia’s considered judgment. I regard all the potential deaths in the lifeboat case with horror, and would be unwilling to throw out any of the passengers—including the dog. I only hope if I were ever in those circumstances that I could find the personal strength to volunteer to jump overboard myself.

If we are going to regard Tiger, Buddy, and Smokey as friends or family members, then we need to consider the ethical meanings and implications of our relationships with them. A dog is not necessarily expendable in the way that the lifeboat case seems to imply. Or if he is, a stronger argument is needed before we can justifiably throw him out.

Featured image credit: “Puppy” by Karen Warfel, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Traruh Synred

    I have spent a lot of money at the vet on cats.

    Money that might ha ve saved a few human livies if given to ‘save the children’ or “Doctors w/o borders’.

    I feel a guilty about that, but I guess most people woul spend more on a cat or dog thy know and love than on a kid they don’t in a far away country.

    ‘psychological investment in and unity with their own futures’r or lack thereof is not going to influence many people, even philosophers.

  2. Mackenzie Bell

    This was very helpful because I am writing a paper about how animals should be used in war time, and one of my supporting ideas was “Animals are More Expendable”.

  3. Fredrika Norrbin

    I believe that when we have taken an animal “under our wings” and promised to protect them, it is our duty to care for them. There is absolutely no need to feel guilty about that! Without us, the dog wouldn’t have been on the ship that launched the life boat in the first place! I also see a dismissive attitude towards animals as a character flaw in a person, which also implies a lack of empathy towards any human who is weaker than her/him.

  4. David Lamb

    Preference utilitarians like De Graxia and Peter Singer emphasize lack of awareness as a criterion for full membership of a moral community. But determining self awareness is very much an arbitrary matter, lacking the scientific backing they assume. Maybe if they spent a little more time engaging with non human animals and did so without their theoretical blinkers they might find it hard to maintain a distinction between self awareness and mere consciousness.
    Time and space here prevents me from calling into question the very idea of a moral community an its alleged entitlements. Somehow, that kind of thinking ignores a vast range of empirical evidence regarding the moral status of non human animals throughout history and the present,

  5. John M

    I’ve never found the argument that accepting the criterion of psychological unity and continuity means we must also accept that children are “next in line” particularly convincing. All else equal, using that criterion against animals and children makes sense. But all else is not equal. There’s a much higher opportunity cost associated with sacrificing a child (in terms of future experiences of happiness) than there is in sacrificing a dog. We might even think that expected happiness (or social utility) means older people should be “next in line” after animals. To some degree, it seems this is borne out in, for example, the notion of “women and children first.”

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