When Ingrid Newkirk says that “a rat is a dog is a boy,” she is not
collapsing all differences among them; rather, she is emphasizing that all
equally are sentient mammals who share the capacities for pleasure and pain,
for enjoyable and horrible lives.
Too often, animal rights advocates (ARAs) are challenged with the hysterical hypothetical of the “burning house dilemma.” It runs something like this: If you were caught in a burning house, were running out the door to save your life, and only had time enough to save a dog in one room and a human being in another, which would you choose?
Invariably, the question is asked with the intent to find an inconsistency in the value scheme or commitments of the ARA, such that for all their talk about animal rights or species equality, they would still save the human. Deep down, therefore, the ARA is like everyone else and a speciesist at heart. When faced with the burning house question, you are always damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you answer that you would save the human being, your interlocutor glibly and gleefully derides you as a hypocrite. If you answer you would save the dog, you are vilified as a miscreant and deviant misanthrope with warped values.
A Pseudo-Scandal Rocks the Heartland
I was asked this question recently during a question-and-answer session of a presentation I gave at the University of Iowa. In November 2004, the Animal Liberation Front made a bold raid on laboratories in the Psychology Department. They smashed computers and lab equipment and rescued 401 animals. While the wound was still fresh — with the audience full of security, undercover agents, and members of the Psychology Department; and during Martin Luther King Jr. Week events — I spoke in substantive detail on the comparisons between the 19th century movement to abolish human slavery and the 21st century movement to abolish animal slavery. I extended King’s notion of justice and his embrace of civil disobedience to a defense of animal rights, as I pointed out the limitations any of humanist framework, however broad, that does not extend the notion of community, justice, and rights to animals. Using King’s idea that “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” I defended the ALF raid on the hideous laboratories at UI as a good and just act.
But despite the Sturm und Drang of the occasion, it was my parenthetical response to the burning house question during the Q&A — whereby I said I would save my dog over a human stranger — that made headlines in newspapers and blogs throughout the nation. The insipid student paper, The Daily Iowan reported that Professor Best’s “remarks [were] so inflaming that they left his audience gasping and whispering.” Brian “Brain Dead” O’Conner, a retired biologist and vivisector whose only meaning in his senile life is torching straw man depictions of ARAs in his virulent and toxic anti-animal rights blog, cunningly commented that, “Prof. Best’s ethic is the `Me First’ ethic — an ethic which doesn’t require him to measure the consequences of his actions against anything other than what gives him personal pleasure. It is the self-indulgence of the egocentric masquerading as a lofty moral principle.”
Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns
Move over Ward Churchill, you have company. Apparently, in this country, you just don’t favor the life of a nonhuman animal over a human animal in any circumstance unless you want to be strung up in the same gallery with sexual deviants, pedophiles, and champions of incest. I recall the phony furor provoked after 9/11 when Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns said that “It is speciesist to think that this event was a greater tragedy than the killing of several million chickens, which no doubt also occurred on September 11, as it occurs on every working day in the United States.” Her just analogy got international media attention and even landed her an interview on the Howard Stern radio show. Similarly, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) caused a sensation with their “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit that most judiciously compared the confinement, suffering, and death of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps and billions of animals (10 billion every year in the US alone) in human concentration camps – AKA, factory farms. I was stunned that so many people were scandalized by my incidental remarks, especially since the substance of my talk was infinitely more radical and provocative. From my causal conversations and unscientific polls taken with friends, students, and various audiences, I have found that even people who don’t support animal rights would save their own dog or cat over a human stranger in a burning house situation.
Clearly, to answer the burning house question at all, we have to break it down in order to specify concretely and in various situations: Just who is the dog and who is the human between whom we have to choose? The burning house question cannot be answered in the abstract; one’s answer to it will – or at least should – vary according to the specific being occupying the abstract placeholders of “dog” and “human being.” I say “should vary,” knowing that the speciesist will, no matter what, favor the human over the dog.
A “speciesist” is someone who a priori (literally, “before experience”) prejudicially favors the interests of human over nonhuman animals, such that humans always count more by sheer virtue of their species membership as Homo sapiens. In a circular and question-begging manner, speciesists in effect argue that humans count more because they are humans and animals count less because they are animals. From their prejudicial standpoint, they fail to ask and answer the real question of why a being’s species membership is valorized over its existential nature. The wrongness of inflicting pain on a living being does not depend on the species to which it belongs, but rather turns on its nature as an individual sentient life. As Peter Singer observes, “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their own race.”
So then, as I briefly did at University of Iowa, let me answer the burning house question properly, not in the abstract, but in various concrete ways.
C’mon Fido, Let’s Go!
Scenario #1: As I am running from the burning house for my very life, hurtling down the stairs toward the front door, hearing the bark of a dog in the room to my left and a human cry from the room to my right, as the ceiling falls around me, smoke gathers in choking clouds, and I realize I can only save one life, what should I do? If the dog is my dog and the human is a total stranger to me, I will in every case save my dog. To me, this is obvious, axiomatic, de rigeur, and uncontroversial, something that even most speciesists and certainly “animal lovers” would do. But apparently for many it is shocking, irresponsible, horrifying, and scandalous. I will save my dog and not the human because the dog is family, an intimate member of my most inner circle of relations, whereas the human is a complete stranger.
My choice is neither arbitrary nor wrong — and I haven’t even begun to get controversial. Anyone forced to choose between their father, mother, brother, sister, or friend and a stranger would naturally and rightly choose to save their own family member. Using similar reasoning, I might choose a member of my local community over someone who lived in Australia. If a person can only save one life, it is natural and intuitive to choose – understanding this still is only a very general principle which might change under different conditions – someone who is relatively “near” over someone relatively “far.” I shall call this the existential proximity principle.
All in the Family
To argue on behalf of saving the human stranger over the canine family member is speciesist and arbitrary. It privileges one being over another simply due to its species membership without explaining the absolute relevance of that criterion. There are two flaws in this approach: (1) it offers no argument why species is the decisive moral criterion for decision making in such dilemmas, and (2) it fails to see that socio-familial proximity legitimately trumps the species criterion, and that we rightly consider our beloved dogs and cats (as well as other animals) to be cherished members of our families. Indeed, people often are closer to their animals than to their family members. They often spend more time with their animal family and — unlike their human family – even share their beds with them.
To be frank, I would save my own dog over 1, 10, oh, I don’t know how many human strangers, especially if they were vile animal abusers – more on that below. Let the speciesists bitch and bray, reader; just be glad that you are not their dog or cat, for they would sell you out to a lousy biped in a heartbeat. I do suspect, however, that many of these facile humanists and speciesists are hypocrites who in fact would save their own dog over a human stranger despite their prejudices against other animals (such as the thousands of land and sea animals who end up in the ghastly graveyard of their stomachs) and their irrational allegiance to a species as demented, troubled, and undeserving as Homo sapiens.
I think that if the choice were between one’s own child and 100 strangers, many or most would choose to save their own child. So what do you think, Herr O’Conner, is that “self-indulgence” and “egocentric” behavior too? Do you want me to believe you would sacrifice your son or daughter for a stranger, one who may well be an unpleasant person or, good heavens, an ARA? What’s the big deal if the “child” is one’s dog? Family is family is family – it doesn’t matter if the family member has four legs or two, a furry coat or naked skin, drinks from a bowl instead of a glass, or does its business outside rather than inside.
Mom, Dad, Sis, Oh My!
Scenario #2: The situation may change, however, if one were forced to choose between human and nonhuman family members, such as the dog or the father, brother, or son. Most – but not all — would probably choose the mom or brother over their dog, even if they would always choose their dog over a human stranger.
Scenario #3: But now what if one had to choose between two human family members. Would you save your mother or father, brother or sister, son or daughter, father or son, mother or sister? Who would you choose and why?
Utilitarianism and the Quality of Life
Let’s change the scenario a bit to make it more interesting and reveal more about the nature of moral value and ethical considerations.
Scenario #4: Let us suppose this time that the dog is a healthy young puppy I have never met, and the human is my elderly (85 years old) next door neighbor in the last stages of cancer. Who should I help? Once again, I am going to save the dog. My reasoning has nothing to do with species, but rather with utilitarian considerations and the viability of life. The puppy I don’t know has a full and rich life ahead of it, but the human I know has his life in the past and is soon to die. Suppose the human in the room to the right is Terri Schaivo who has lost all significant brain activity and is kept alive only through a feeding tube. This is, no pun intended, a no-brainer: I am leaving the house with the dog in my arms, even if the dog is 20 years old and has no more than a month to live. There is still more quality of life to be found in Fido than in Terri. If the roles are reversed, however, and the dog is sick and dying and the human is young and healthy, I would save the human. But my choice would be made again on quality of life considerations (however quickly or intuitively I could grasp these in the heat of the moment), not species membership.
This is an appeal to utilitarianism, a philosophical doctrine that defines the right action as that which promotes the greatest amount of pleasure or happiness for the greatest amount of (sentient) beings, human or animal. I freely admit that the two principles I have so far evoked – existential proximity and utilitarianism — can easily contradict one another. My desire to save my own dog over 100 humans on the grounds that s/he is a family member, for instance, clearly does not maximize the total amount of pleasure or happiness for all beings involved in my decision. I am happy, but 100 people are dead and their friends and family members are forlorn and disconsolate. If the stranger I sacrificed to the flames were a genius who had the solution to world hunger or species extinction, then on utilitarian criteria I clearly should save him or her over my dog. I can easily justify saving my dog over a non-descript Joe or Josephine Schmo, but there is a certain point where existential proximity choices will be hard to defend over utilitarian considerations and will indeed be selfish.
There is a third ethical perspective I think is extremely important to think through the burning house dilemma, involving the concept of personhood. Here I draw from Peter Singer’s notion of “person,” as well as Tom Regan’s related concept of “subject of a life.” Although Singer and Regan work from incompatible theoretical frameworks (Singer’s utilitarianism vs. Regan’s deontological rights approach which focuses on the intrinsic value of living beings and not the consequences of an action), both reject the speciesist a priori privileging of humans over animals, while allowing for cases where the value of human life will outweigh that of animals.
For both Singer and Regan, the ethically relevant question is not whether one is a human or nonhuman, but rather whether one is a “person” or “subject of a life.” To count as either, one first has to be sentient, that is, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. To be sentient is to have profound interests in avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure. Lacking brains and nervous systems, rocks and trees cannot count as beings with rights, intrinsic value, and moral significance, unlike sentient human and nonhuman animals. In addition, to count as a person or subject of a life, a being must possess more “advanced” mental and psychological qualities such as self awareness, memory, desires, preferences, an emotional life, and understanding of the future. For Singer, oysters and clams probably do not meet these criteria and fall into a moral grey zone, such that, unlike with cows and pigs, one might legitimately consume them as food. To the dismay of Karen Davis who has carefully studied the complex intelligence of chickens and turkeys, Singer suggested that such birds may not count as persons. For Davis, however, they are persons in every sense of his term.
Once we make something like personhood the relevant factor to decide questions of ethics and moral worth and abandon speciesist appeals to Homo sapiens, the whole game changes because the rules are now radically different. For when we shift the center of gravity from humans to persons, there will be many cases where nonhumans (such as cats, dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees) are persons and, conversely, humans (such as infants, the severely brain-impaired, the comatose, and those suffering advanced stages of Alzheimer’s) are non-persons.
In situations where there is greater mental complexity in nonhuman persons, Singer favors the life of animals. Following the logic of his argument, Singer says that it would be more ethical to use human nonpersons such as Terri Schaivo for “scientific research” and experiments than nonhuman persons such as a cat, dog, or chimpanzee. But given a choice between an animal and a “normal functioning” adult human being, Singer favors the human being over the animal due to the human’s more advanced cognitive qualities.
Singer points out that if we appeal only to language and reason to deny animals rights, then on the same grounds we must also deny rights to large categories of human beings. Fetuses, infants, comatose patients, some elderly people, and the severely retarded have no complex form of consciousness and so have no claim to rights. As a chimpanzee is smarter than a three or four year old child, and surely has a lot more awareness going on than a “cognitively impaired” human, why not leave chimpanzees alone and instead confine human infants in cages and try to induce the AIDS virus into their bodies? From a non-speciesist ethical perspective, it is the right thing to do. And surely from a scientific perspective it would be far more valid as there is no longer the problem of extrapolating data from one species to another. If we reject the validity of experimenting on infants, the comatose, Alzheimer’s patients, and other classes of cognitively undeveloped or impaired humans, then logically we must also renounce the right to experiment on animals.
On Singer’s view, there is a moral premium on self-awareness and mental complexity to which one can appeal to weigh different values if necessary. For Singer, “it is not arbitrary to hold that the life of a self-aware being, capable of abstract thought, of planning for the future, of complex acts of communication, and so on, is more valuable than the life of a being without these capacities.” It is worse to cut short the life of a human than a fish, there is less suffering and loss because the fish has a shorter life and less mental complexity. If we apply the criterion of personhood to a highly artificial coerced choice scenario, I would choose my dog over my brain dead mother, a dolphin over a cat, and a chimpanzee over a dog.
Like Singer, Regan also privileges mental complexity and will favor humans over animals in burning house or sinking lifeboat scenarios. In fact, Regan takes this position to absurd extremes, whereby he claims he would throw a million dogs overboard in a sinking boat to save four human lives. In comparison to dogs and other animals, he argues, humans have a far greater “number and variety of opportunities for satisfaction,” and thus Regan’s “rights view” favors a tiny tribe of humans over a vast nation of dogs. Regan makes this argument with no knowledge of the satisfactions available to a dog, and given the stressful and competitive nature of contemporary life, I suspect a well-treated domestic dog has far more satisfaction in life than his or her human guardian. One might well ask: Is not a happy dog preferable to a miserable human being whose consumer lifestyle is a burden on the planet? Regan’s unjustified fidelity to human life shows that at some level utility is a legitimate criterion of appeal. At what point – ten, one hundred, one thousand, — I’m not sure, but I feel that there is more value in the lives of a million dogs than any one person. Personally, I’d jump from the boat and drown to save a million dogs from death.
Throw Down Your Straw Men
Animal rights critics take note. It is a crude caricature of animal rights philosophy to claim that ARAs think there is no difference between human and nonhuman animals. To all appearances, Homo sapiens is the most creative and intelligent being on the planet; unlike animals, human beings can write poetry, compose sonatas, and design spaceships. If there is a true ethical dilemma, such that one has to make a choice between a viable human life and an animal, philosophers such as Singer and Regan always privilege human existence, and, in contradistinction to Regan’s abolitionist and anti-vivisectionist views, Singer will embrace experimentation on animals any time there is potential to favor human interests.
Given their allegiance to animal liberation and animal rights, however, they emphasize that there are few bona fide cases where human and animal interests might conflict, such that the pleasure and lives of animals can rightly be sacrificed to that of humans. Exploiting animals for their fur, meat, bodily fluids, and entertainment value are not examples of such cases as there is no need or compelling reason to exploit animal lives for human interests. The pleasures human derive from eating meat, for example, are trivial satisfactions that in no way justify the confinement, suffering, torture, and violent death of billions of animals.
My point is here is to show that the welfarist Singer and the animal rights proponent Regan are examples of how philosophers and others do not conflate differences between human and nonhuman animals. When Ingrid Newkirk says that “a rat is a dog is a boy,” she is not collapsing all differences among them; rather, she is emphasizing that all equally are sentient mammals who share the capacities for pleasure and pain, for enjoyable and horrible lives. For Singer, “equality of interests” means that both humans and animals have interests equally, have concerns, needs, and preferences. Once that is acknowledged, Singer will evaluate the specific nature of humans and animals who are parties in a potential moral dilemma, and decide according to the substance of the human claim over animals and the competing degrees of personhood. For Regan, humans and animals are equal in that they are sentient subjects of a life who have intrinsic value and rights; only in the most extraordinary situation – not vivisection, but a sinking life boat – does Regan allow human interests to trump animal interests.
The question is not are there differences between humans and animals, clearly there are. The question is are these differences morally significant? When, if ever, does the mere fact of human intellectual complexity justify using animals for our alleged benefits and selfish whims? And when do human and animal interests really clash in such a way that (1) human beings have a substantive interest at stake, where (2) the only possible way to realize it is to cause suffering and/or death to animals?
The Gestalt Shift Whose Time Has Come: The Biocentric Perspective
Scenario #5: Never mind how they got there, suppose there was a baby harp seal in one room, and a sealer in the other. Not only would I save the seal from the barbarian who makes his living clubbing such beautiful pups over the head and skinning them alive, I would save the seal over a billion bastards like him. Similarly, I would send an infinite number of Ted Nugent cretins over a steep cliff to save a deer, elk, bear, or any other animal they kill for pleasure. I’d do it to save a cockroach, a flea, or a tick. Or a blade of grass. The planet is a better place without sadists who kill animals for pleasure or profit.
Scenario #6: I would also choose a member of an endangered species (such as a Florida Panther, Black Rhino, or silverback Gorilla) over any human stranger(s), unless, again, this person was so important to the planet s/he could do dramatic things to help it. For anyone quick to uncover more evidence of “egocentric masquerading” here, I would gladly give my own life to save an endangered species.
I adopt an earth-centered perspective (“biocentrism”) over a human-centered perspective (“anthropocentrism”), such that I view the needs of the earth and biodiversity to be more important than the life of any single human being, myself included. It is extremely rare for a member of Homo sapiens to value the needs of the earth above all else, but one can find biocentric values in deep ecology, Earth First!, and eco-warriors like Paul Watson.
I once heard someone say that they would exterminate every last remaining chimpanzee on the planet in order to save a single human being from AIDS. This is the height of moral perversity and betrays the insane logic of anthropocentrism that grossly overstates the value of an individual human life in the big picture of evolution and biodiversity.
The shift to a biocentric perspective should be humbling for most humans. From the point of view of the earth — of Gaia — the earthworm, butterfly, honeybee, and dung beetle are far more important to its needs and future than the bloated population of over six billion human beings. For whereas earthworms enrich the soil, butterflies and honey bees pollinate the flowers, and dung beetles spread nutrients throughout the rain forest, Homo sapiens attack the body of the earth like a deadly virus or cancer.
Eco-humanist Murray Bookchin thinks that the planet would be devoid of interest without human beings. I, on the other hand, believe that the planet would have been far better off had not a hominid species named Homo evolved into the violent and destructive locust that it is, a species fattened on war, genocide, environmental decimation, annihilation of animals, and out-of control economies, population growth, and lifestyles.
Humans have a right to live on the planet just like any other animal. But unless humans – and of course I am principally referring to those living in advanced Northern economies, but also increasingly the rapidly modernizing populations of China and India — can get their act together and learn to reduce their numbers, simplify their lifestyles, and harmonize their existence with the needs of the planet, I would not shed too many tears for their demise – which will come sooner or later: at once or with painful protraction, ending with a bang or a whimper.
I would rather that elephants again freely roam the African savannas, that chimpanzees fill the rainforests with playful hoots, that rainforests once again swell majestically, that the rivers and oceans become cleansed and teem with dolphins, whales, and fish. I would rather the regeneration of the earth transpire than have humans continue to devour and destroy the planet with their SUVs, superhighways, urban sprawl, cookie-cutter suburbs, bloated families, fast food addictions, Supersize Me appetites, arrogance and alienation, and grotesque fat asses.
Ponder Thy Plate
I have conflicting thoughts about the burning house dilemma. On one hand, it is a helpful device to clarify ethical values. Species membership may be relevant to moral dilemmas, but not in an a priori way that always favors human animals over nonhuman animals. Other factors are more decisive to moral choices, such as existential proximity and personhood.
On the other hand, I think the burning house scenario is an empty, sterile, and hypothetical question that is completely useless and raised disingenuously by vapid fools who do nothing to help the planet, but carp on those who do. Its academic nature distracts from the all-too-real and concrete issues every person faces concerning how to live a life that does not cause harm to animals and the earth.
The real issues people have to face are not what will they do when they find themselves in a burning house with choices to make and lives to save, but what type of clothing do they put on their back, what kind of food do they put on their plate, what type of products do they use, and what kind of transportation do they choose.
When asked the burning house question again in the future, I think I will simply reply, “When I am in a burning house and have to choose between an animal and a human, I will let you know what I do. In the meantime, I have some serious ethical choices to make every day.”
Steven Best, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on philosophy, cultural criticism, social theory and animal rights. He has appeared on TV shows like Extra! and is frequently interviewed by national print and radio media including the New York Times and National Public Radio.
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