The Moral Worth of Dogs and Pigs

New research demonstrates that children’s moral concern for animals runs deep.

Posted Dec 16, 2020

Matheus Bertelli/Pexels
Source: Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

My nine-month-old daughter is smitten with our pet dog. That’s typical of young children; non-human animals are widely beloved from an early age. Not only do children express a deep love for animals, but they also believe that animals are worthy of moral concern.

Where does this moral concern come from? Many scholars have suggested that morally valuing animals is a product of likening these creatures to humans. Research has shown that, if we anthropomorphize animals (that is, if we consider them to be humanlike), we become more concerned about their welfare. For example, people are more likely to express a willingness to help dogs that are described in anthropomorphic terms than dogs that are not described in this way.

If our moral concern for animals stems from likening animals to humans, then our moral valuation of animals should be subordinate to our moral valuation of humans. In other words, if we value animals only to the extent that we consider them to be humanlike, it seems to follow that we should consistently value humans more (since humans are virtually always more humanlike than animals).

The notion that valuing animals is an offshoot of valuing humans suggests two hypotheses. First, in dilemmas where human and animal lives are pitted against one another, we would expect humans to be consistently prioritized. Second, during the course of child development, we would expect kids to first begin morally valuing humans, and then to eventually form moral values for animals––once they come to appreciate how various qualities they value in humans may also be possessed by some animals.

The results of a new paper, published today in the journal Psychological Science, convincingly challenges the assumption that morally valuing animal lives spawns from a more basic moral value for human lives.

Francesco Bovolin/Pixabay
Source: Francesco Bovolin/Pixabay

This research presented several hundred child and adult participants with a series of tragic vignettes involving shipwrecks. The participants were told that two ships were sinking and that passengers could be saved from only one of these ships. In each case, the passengers of one boat were humans, while the passengers of the other boat were either dogs or pigs.

Elementary-school-aged children valued dogs nearly as much as humans––and only 57 percent felt confident that they would save a single human rather than a single pig. This sharply contrasted with adult participants, who overwhelmingly indicated that they would save a human over an animal.

These decisions were modulated by the number of passengers on each ship. But even when there was only one human on one ship and 100 animals on the other, the majority of adults indicated that they would save the human. Conversely, the majority of elementary schoolers indicated that they would save the animals.

Overall, this research confirms that most people prioritize the lives of humans when they are presented with dilemmas in which either humans or animals must die––but, intriguingly, the research also demonstrates that some people prioritize the lives of animals. Furthermore, children are much more likely than adults to prioritize dogs and pigs over humans. These findings, therefore, cast doubt on the idea that the moral value of animals is necessarily a subsidiary of the moral value of humans.

Even though anthropomorphism undeniably increases moral concern for animals, it may not create this form of moral concern. Instead, moral concern for animals could be a basic element of human nature that emerges separately from moral concern for humans. The extreme prioritization of humans over animals might be learned. When animals are sacrificed for the sake of human welfare, as billions are each year, we might be suppressing a basic moral urge to care for them.

References

Wilks, M., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., & Bloom, P. (2020). Children prioritize humans over animals less than adults do. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620960398