A Pet or a Stranger

Over the course of forty years, I have asked young people in America if they would first save their pet or a stranger if both were drowning. A smaller and smaller minority have said they would save the stranger. Why would the majority save their pet before a human being? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger. In other words, they follow the dictates of love. That is one reason the Torah and other books of the Bible warn us against trusting our hearts (see, for example, Numbers 15:39).

— Prager, D. (2018). The Rational Bible: Exodus. http://www.amzn.com/B075Y3X51R

This is an interesting thought experiment, as it’s true that many of us will love our pet more than we might a stranger. It also calls into question the value we place on human life over life in general. If I were in this predicament where I had to choose between Nozomi, a dog I’ve loved for 12 years, or a person I’ve never seen before, which life would I try to save first? Would I try to justify saving Nozomi by searching for a reason to abandon a fellow human? What sort of excuse might pass for reasonable justification?

Is it acceptable to choose my dog over someone who is 90? How about 80? Or 55? Or 30? Is age a justifiable discrimination given that Nozomi has perhaps three or four years left of her natural lifespan?

Is the traditional model of “women and children first” applicable here? If the person is an adult male, is choosing to save my dog over a drowning man justifiable simply because they are neither a woman nor child?

The problem with hypothetical situations, though, is that they lead to hypothetical answers. I think I would first aim to save the drowning person before my dog, no matter the pain that might come from the decision. This is because it’s the least selfish option, which generally means it is the right thing to do. Nozomi is important to me, whereas the stranger will be important to a lot of people1.

One of the questions I’ve been thinking through over the last few months is this: What does it mean to be “good”2? One of the more common truisms is that a person who is good to others is generally seen as being good themselves. To be good to others we must treat them the same way we wish to be treated. This idea is thousands of years old and captured in such ancient texts as The Bible:

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”3
> — Matthew 22:39

To love the neighbour — a stranger — as myself would make their rescue my responsibility and solemn duty. The idea is repeated multiple times in other books, such as Corinthians:

No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

— 1 Corinthians 10:24

And perhaps more succinctly in Galatians:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

— Galatians 5:14

This isn’t to say that one should allow their pet to drown to save a human because God commands it, per se, but because the act is considered honourable and good, thus making the rescue the right thing to do.

Sorry, Nozomi.

  1. This will be true regardless of a person’s profession or social status.

  2. When I've had conversations about this, people look at me as though I've gone insane. However, when I ask them what being "good" means, few are able to formulate a response that is clear and concise. I am not looking for vague adjectives. I am looking for something deeper. People generally believe they're good, even if society believes otherwise. Good cannot be subjective, otherwise it is without meaning. Therefore, there must be an objective description of what it means to be good. This is what I am seeking.

  3. The full context for this verse is as follows:

    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”

    — Matthew 22:37-39