I am sure that any rational person reading the title of this article would believe that it poses an astonishingly dumb question. Certainly, if we are thinking rationally and morally, we are bound to conclude that a human life has more value and importance than that of an animal. However, that is only if we are thinking "rationally and morally" and psychologists know that humans often make choices based upon emotions rather than rationality.
There are a group of psychologists who study moral behavior and they have been joined by another group of researchers who classify their field as "experimental philosophy". In order to understand people's thinking these researchers have created a set of "moral dilemmas" which they use to study our decision-making behavior. Thus they might present a woman with a dilemma by asking her to consider a situation where her mother and her daughter are on a rickety bridge which has started to collapse. She only has time and strength to save one of them, so the woman is asked which one she would save — her mother or her daughter. By using scenarios such as this researchers can explore how our relationships affect important moral decisions.
Researchers, Richard Topolski, J. Nicole Weaver, Zachary Martin and Jason McCoy from Georgia Regents University, Augusta, Georgia and Cape Fear Community College, Wilmington, North Carolina, decided to use a similar set of moral dilemmas to test the importance of our pet dogs, and how we might treat them in comparison to the way that we treat people. The study, published in the journal Anthrozoos, involved 573 participants, tested in a variety of settings (in groups, individually, and online). These participants spanned a broad age range from 18 to more than 75 years of age. Each individual was tested using a moral dilemma in which two lives (one human and one animal) were placed in imminent danger in a situation where only one can be saved. Thus the scenario presented to a person might run something like this. "If you don't own a pet, imagine that you do in the following situation. A bus is traveling down a busy street. Your pet runs out in front of the bus. Unfortunately at the same time a foreign tourist steps out in front of the bus. Neither your pet nor the foreign tourist has enough time to get out of the way of the bus. It is clear, given the speed of the bus, it will kill whichever one it hits. You only have time to save one. Who would you save?"
The value of such a hypothetical scenario is that the nature of the human being can easily be changed from a foreign tourist, to a hometown stranger, a distant cousin, your best friend, a grandparent, or your brother or sister. Furthermore, your relationship to the animal can be changed from it being your pet to it being someone else's pet.
Before I present the results, it is important that you understand that psychologists now think that moral decisions are actually controlled by two separate neurological systems, one which they call the "emotional hot system" and the other which they call the "rational cold system". The belief is that the hot system is older in evolutionary terms, and brain scan studies show that it includes many of the more primitive centers in the brain. The logical, rational cold system, which is capable of more abstract reasoning, is found in evolutionarily newer centers which include more frontal and parietal parts of the brain and may be quite specific to humans. Brain scans, such as MRIs, show that when faced with a personal moral dilemma much of the activity is in the emotional hot system.
I'm sure that many of you will find some of the results of this study quite surprising. When it comes to saving a foreign tourist versus saving your own pet, an amazingly large percentage of the participants in this study (40% ) choose the pet, and a hometown stranger does not fare much better with 37% choosing the animal's life over the human's. However if the animal is somebody else's pet, only around 12% choose to save it rather than the tourist or stranger. The situation is quite different if the human in peril is a close friend or family member. Here only a bit more than 2% of the people choose to save the animal in preference to the human.
When asked for the reasons for their choices more than one in four people (27%) who choose to save the animal engage in what psychologists call dumbfounding, meaning that they really can't explain or provide a reason for their decision but feel certain that this is the choice they would make. However in most instances when a reason is given for saving the animal it clearly involves the hot emotional system when people say that "I love my pet" or "My pet is part of my family." When the choice is to save the person the reason usually involves the rational cold system such as saying "Human life is worth more than an animal.".Sometimes cold system reasons have a religious flavor such as "Humans have souls" or a guilt-based rationale like "I hate to think what people would say if I failed to save the person."
There is a strong sex difference in the pattern of results. In virtually every comparison women are more likely to choose to save the pet over the human than are men (although the differences become very small when the danger involves a close family member). In fact viewed across all of the results females are approximately twice as likely to save the animal when compared to the decisions made by males. In addition, when explaining the reasons for their choices, women use hot system emotional responses four times more frequently than do men.
Of course it is very important to note that this piece of research looks at moral judgments and not moral behavior. A person's actual behavior in a real life-threatening situation might be quite different from the way that they report they would act when considering a hypothetical scenario as they are doing here. But still these results give you something to think about. Certainly human life is worth more than that of an animal, but there may come a time when a dangerous situation is unfolding and you find yourself thinking "that dog is my best friend, and a family member, and I don't know anything about you, other than the fact that you were so careless or stupid that you wandered out in front of a speeding bus…"
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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