Saturday, May 28, 2005

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Steven Best on the 'burning house dilemma':
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.

In November 2004, during Martin Luther King Jr week, Best had said that he would save his dog over a human stranger: a reply that provoked much furore. Now, amplifying his response, he lays out an interesting list of scenarios: dog or family member; family member or family member; baby harp seal or sealer; and so on. But his conclusion is the most interesting part of this essay:

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.”

Read the whole thing here.

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