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The Dog in the Lifeboat: An Exchange

In response to:

Ten Years of Animal Liberation from the January 17, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

During the past ten years or so Peter Singer and I have been independently developing and applying very different ethical theories to a variety of moral and social issues, including the treatment of nonhuman animals. Singer, a utilitarian, denies that animals (and humans) have moral rights, and endeavors to rest his case for what he calls “the animal liberation movement” on utilitarian calculations. In The Case for Animal Rights, recently reviewed by Singer in these pages [NYR, January 17], I attempt to lay the theoretical foundation for what, in contrast to Singer, I call “the animal rights movement.”

There is more than a verbal difference here. It is by appeal to basic moral rights that the rights view, as I call the position developed in my book, issues its categorical condemnation of chattel slavery, for example. This institution is categorically wrong, whatever the consequences, because it systematically violates the right of human beings to be treated with respect. Singer’s position, however—(assuming that equal interests have been counted equally)—must be that chattel slavery is wrong, if it is, because of the consequences, a position which, because it makes the wrongness of the institution contingent upon consequences, clearly implies that it would not be wrong, if the consequences happened to be optimific [sic]. It is difficult to exaggerate the radical moral difference between Singer’s utilitarianism and the rights view.

This same difference can be illustrated when we consider the treatment of animals. The rights view offers a categorical condemnation of the harmful use of animals in science, for example, calling for its total abolition. And it does this independently of appeals to consequences, resting its case here, as in the case of its condemnation of chattel slavery, on this institution’s systematic violation of the right of animals to be treated with respect. As a utilitarian, Singer cannot offer a critique that is independent of appeals to consequences; indeed, he is obliged to concede—and he has—that some harmful uses of animals in science may be morally permissible. Singer’s position is not antivivisectionist. The rights view’s is. Again, the difference between the two positions could not be clearer.

The Case for Animal Rights, as the preceding discussion of the institutions of chattel slavery and the harmful use of animals in science might suggest, primarily is concerned with offering a basis for assessing ongoing social practices or policies. This is something a reader of Singer’s review might miss, since Singer concentrates his critical fire, not on this aspect of the book, but rather on my brief discussion of a lifeboat case: four normal, adult humans and a dog will all die unless one of the humans sacrifices his life, or one of the humans or the dog is thrown overboard. Would it be wrong to throw the dog overboard in these dire circumstances? I do not believe it would, and I argue that the rights view supports this judgment. Singer, for his part, “confess[es] to some difficulty in understanding” my answer, and wonders whether my willingness to sacrifice the dog in this case might not be inconsistent with my categorical opposition to the harmful use of animals in science.

There is no inconsistency here, however, since the two cases differ in morally crucial ways. In the case of the harmful use of animals in science, animals are coercively placed at risk of harm, risks they would not otherwise run, so that others might benefit. Day in and day out they are forced to run our risks for us (or for others), and so are institutionally treated as if they exist as mere resources, whose place in the moral scheme of things is to serve the interests of other individuals. This coercive transference of risks, from others to these animals, when the animals themselves would not otherwise be at risk of suffering the harms imposed on them, is, as I explain at length in The Case, an indefensible violation of their right to be treated with respect.

The lifeboat case differs. The dog’s risk of dying is assumed to be the same as that run by each of the human survivors. And it is further assumed that no one runs this risk because of past violations of rights; for example, no one has been forced or tricked on board. The survivors are all on the lifeboat because, say, the mother ship has sunk or the river has flooded.

There is no hint of inconsistency, therefore, in making different moral judgments in the two cases. It is wrong—categorically wrong—coercively to put an animal at risk of harm, when the animal would not otherwise run this risk, so that others might benefit; and it is wrong to do this in a scientific or in any other context because such treatment violates the animal’s right to be treated with respect by reducing the animal to the status of a mere resource, a mere means, a thing. It is not wrong, however, to cast the dog on the lifeboat overboard if the dog runs the same risk of dying as the other survivors, if no one has violated the dog’s right in the course of getting him on board, and if all on board will perish if all continue in their present condition.

Given that these conditions are fulfilled, the choice concerning who should be saved must be decided by what I term the harm principle. Space prevents me from explaining that principle fully here (see The Case, chapters 3 and 8, for my considered views). Suffice it to say that no one has a right to have his lesser harm count for more than the greater harm of another. Thus, if death would be a lesser harm for the dog than it would be for any of the human survivors—(and this is an assumption Singer does not dispute)—then the dog’s right not to be harmed would not be violated if he were cast overboard. In these perilous circumstances, assuming that no one’s right to be treated with respect has been part of their creation, the dog’s individual right not to be harmed must be weighed equitably against the same right of each of the individual human survivors.

To weigh these rights in this fashion is not to violate anyone’s right to be treated with respect; just the opposite is true, which is why numbers make no difference in such a case. Given, that is, that what we must do is weigh the harm faced by any one individual against the harm faced by each other individual, on an individual, not a group or collective basis, it then makes no difference how many individuals will each suffer a lesser, or who will each suffer a greater, harm. It would not be wrong to cast a million dogs overboard to save the four human survivors, assuming the lifeboat case were otherwise the same. But neither would it be wrong to cast a million humans overboard to save a canine survivor, if the harm death would be for the humans was, in each case, less than the harm death would be for the dog.

Having endeavored here to dissipate the grounds for Singer’s confessed “difficulty” in understanding my treatment of the lifeboat case, I want to re-emphasize my earlier point, that The Case attempts to offer a theoretical basis for assessing the ethics of ongoing social practices and institutions, and, in the course of doing this, attends to the task of laying the foundations of the animal rights movement. To make much of my brief discussion of an isolated, bizarre, and scarcely common occurrence—the lifeboat case—is to miss the greater part of what The Case attempts, whether it succeeds or not.

Tom Regan

National Humanities Center

Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Peter Singer replies:

Regan seeks to emphasize the differences between his view and mine. He says that his position requires the total abolition of the harmful uses of animals in science, while mine does not. It is true that on a utilitarian view there could conceivably be circumstances in which an experiment on an animal stands to reduce suffering so much that it would be permissible to carry it out even if it involved some harm to the animal. (This could be true, incidentally, even if the animal were a human being.) But if we focus on the social practice of experimentation, as Regan would have us do, a utilitarian position requires that we seek to end such tragic conflicts of interest by developing methods of research which do not involve the harmful use of sentient creatures. The abolition of all harmful uses of animals in science is thus as much the aim of my view as it is of Regan’s.

But, Regan would protest, for the utilitarian this is only an ultimate goal; on the rights view it is an immediate requirement. In fact—thinking still of the social practice of experimentation as a whole, and not of individual cases—good utilitarian arguments could be offered for the immediate abolition of animal experimentation. The suffering animals would be spared would be immense; the benefits lost at best uncertain; and the incentive thus provided for the speedy development of alternative means of conducting research, the most powerful imaginable.

If, on the other hand, we switch our attention from the existing social practice of experimentation to hypothetical cases, then Regan’s view also cannot consistently imply the total abolition of all harmful uses of animals in science. In my review I suggested that, given what he says about the lifeboat case, he cannot consistently deny that it would be permissible to sacrifice an unlimited number of dogs to save a human life. He now responds that the lifeboat case is different from animal experimentation, because the animals in the lifeboat have not been coerced into the situation in which they are at risk of harm. This difference, however, does not distinguish the lifeboat situation from all possible circumstances in which animals might be experimented upon.

Suppose, for instance, that a new and fatal virus affects both dogs and humans. Scientists believe that the only way to save the lives of any of those affected is to carry out experiments on some of them. The subjects of the experiments will die, but the knowledge gained will mean that others afflicted by the disease will live. In this situation the dogs and humans are in equal peril and the peril is not the result of coercion. If Regan thinks a dog should be thrown out of the lifeboat so that the humans in it can be saved, he cannot consistently deny that we should experiment on a diseased dog to save diseased humans.

That is not all. Since Regan says that in these cases numbers do not count, and a million dogs should be thrown overboard in order to save a single human being, he would have to say that it would be better to perform the experiment on a million dogs than to perform it on a single human. Here we can see the extraordinary consequences of the refusal to take notice of numbers: in the circumstances described, Regan’s allegedly “totally abolitionist” rights view actually permits much more—in fact, literally infinitely more—animal experimentation than the utilitarian view, which adds up the harm suffered by the dogs and would at some point say that this harm is greater than the harm which would be suffered by a single human being.

Quite apart from this unfortunate consequence of Regan’s view, it seems wrong to hold that what we may do to a dog in a lifeboat depends on how the dog came to be in the lifeboat in the first place. The point is well made in an as yet unpublished paper by Dale Jemieson, a philosopher at the University of Colorado. As Jamieson argues, it scarcely seems appropriate to inquire, before we decide to pull them into our lifeboat, whether drowning animals or people are in the water because they have been pushed (which would presumably be a violation of their rights), or because they fell (which would not be).

So Regan has not succeeded in reconciling what he says about the lifeboat case with his professed support for the total abolition of animal experimentation. I entirely agree, however, that such bizarre hypothetical cases are of no practical significance. The practical value of Regan’s book lies in its attack on our social practices of using animals as research tools and as mere lumps of palatable living flesh. On these practical issues Regan and I are in full agreement. Viewed from the perspective of a society which continues to accept these practices, the philosophical differences between us hardly matter.

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