a baby, a puppy, a burning building

You probably already know where I’m going with this just by reading the title, don’t you? If you’re veg*an, you’ve probably been asked a similar question before, probably more than once. If you’re anything like me, there was probably some part of you that 1) realized the question is sort of ridiculous, since the scenario it presents is so unlikely to occur 2) felt strangely unsatisfied with your answer to such an admittedly silly question. But as silly as it is, this is a question that vegans need to take seriously and they need to give serious thought to their answer to it, especially to the fact that most answers are necessarily convoluted and hard for outsiders to understand (not Outsiders like Ponyboy and Sodapop, but outsiders like non-vegans).

The setup is simple and the specifics can be changed around. There is a building on fire. You approach it and see that there is a baby and a puppy inside. A ceiling beam is about to collapse and you know you only have time to save either the baby or the puppy, not both. So, which do you save? If your answer is “the baby” then congratulations, you’re a human, one that doesn’t disgust 99% of humanity, no less.

If your answer is any variation on “well, it depends” then you are full of shit. If your answer is “the baby” but then you have a three paragraph explanation of why your decision has NOTHING to do with species, you too are also full of shit. If your answer is a non-answer lamenting the implausibility of the situation, you need to ask yourself why you’re afraid to answer a hypothetical moral experiment. It’s not real, it doesn’t need to be believable and your reluctance to answer speaks volumes about your supposed position.

To this day the only answer to this question that rings of authenticity is the quick, almost unthinking, response “I’d save the baby.” It’s the answer that virtually all non-vegans give. It’s only vegans that get tripped up on this question because they have to protect the sanctity of anti-speciesism as an inviolable concept.

And it makes vegans look like morally confused, misanthropic idiots.

The comments on this YouTube video illustrate the avoidance approach very well. A commenter sets up a fairly similar scenario: “You’re stranded in the middle of no where. There is a chicken and a human. Do you eat either in order to survive and it means killing one or the other, or do you starve and die?” How does the video’s author respond? Straight up avoidance: “If there’s no plant life, then there’s no chicken.” Wow, brilliant. After that gem fails to silence her rival, she tries to pretend like the question is so irrelevant that it’s beneath her to even try to answer: “Seriously 😉 you will need to find a better argument than that.” Yup, just ignore it. Because answering it honestly exposes a flaw in your argument and answering it dishonestly just makes you look stupid.

If you have a different answer that you think makes sense, I’m all ears.

– – thanks for reading – –

SV

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24 Responses to a baby, a puppy, a burning building

  1. Nicola says:

    It’s not that I want to ” protect the sanctity of anti-speciesism as an inviolable concept.” at all. I feel like I have to say ‘the baby’ for fear of sounding ridiculous to people who I know don’t agree with my views, and anything else I have to say being ignored because of my evil answer.

    My honest answer, from a completely non speciesist point of view, doesn’t favour either species. Doesn’t favour the human, doesn’t favour the dog. Not being speciest doesn’t mean putting humans last as much as it doesn’t mean putting dogs last. My answer would be similar to the question: ”if there were two babies in a building and you could only save one, which would it be?”. How do I answer that?

    A non speciesist wouldn’t answer ‘the dog’ would they? They would tell you that they are both equal so they don’t favour either.

    • Not favoring either species (in theory) is great (if you’re into that – I’m not), but here’s the thing: the point of this moral exercise is that you have to make a choice, and you can only choose one. So choose – puppy or baby. I guess the moral exercise allows the possibility for complete inaction, so I guess you can say “I’d save neither, because I won’t be forced to make a speciesist choice.” That’s fine.

      If I had to answer the question you propose (two babies, can only save one), I would just say “the one I’m closest to” or “the one on the left.” It doesn’t really matter. But I would definitely save one of them. I wouldn’t let them both die just because I can’t save them both.

      And, no, a non-speciesist wouldn’t answer ‘the dog.’ In my experience, most vegans find a way to avoid answering the question 😉

  2. nicola says:

    Exactly, ”the one I’m closest to”, or ”the one on the left”, resembles my honest answer to the puppy baby question. I wonder how well that answer would be received? I wouldn’t like to give it and find out, especially to a non vegan, or someone against the idea of non speciesism. And that’s my point, which brings me to where you said ”If your answer is any variation on “well, it depends” then you are full of shit.” My answer is a variation on that, and I’m not full of shit. It depends on which was closest to me, it depends on if the babies mother or the dogs carer was waiting outside the building, it depends on whether I knew either of them, depends on lots of things, and it also takes an understanding of what I mean by non speciesist (as in, not favouring the dog either) to appreciate my answer and realise that I’m honestly not just trying to worm my way out of answering ”the baby” as most people want to believe that that would be my honest answer. Which it isn’t.

    (Will get round to answering the others shortly!)

    • The way that the question is set up is that you have time to save one, but not both, so your proximity to one or the other is actually irrelevant. Even if it did matter, and I found myself closer to the dog than the baby, I’d still save the baby. The point of this exercise is “which species would you save?” You seem determined to demonstrate that you do NOT favor one species over the other, so I’ll just take as your answer that you would potentially be willing to let a baby die instead of a dog. I don’t agree with it (and neither do essentially any non-vegans), but whatever – we don’t have to beat this thing to death. We can still find common ground on other things.

      And I don’t mean to say that YOU are full of shit. You actually have answered the question, albeit in a kind of roundabout way. I just don’t like the answer. You’d really (potentially) let a baby die so that you could save a dog? Huh. And if a reporter outside the scene asked you why you let the baby die, you’d just explain to him that you’re non-speciesist, so you just flipped a coin and it ended up being heads, so you saved the dog? I could, in completely clear conscience, tell the reporter “I would have saved both if I could have, but I had to make a choice, so naturally I saved the baby.”

      It just seems like a no-brainer to me. But you’ve illustrated my point. Only vegans think that it ISN’T a no-brainer.

      • Nicola says:

        If I were to save the baby, it wouldn’t be because I favour it, is all I’m saying, It would be because I know what people would think. Quite weak of me, yes. And you illustrate my point clearly by pointing out that I would have to tell the reporter outside why I made my choice.

        I didn’t want to beat it to death, but I had to point out that asking me to save the puppy or baby or, the baby or another baby would illicit the same response; I don’t know – which ever’s closer. Except there is no option for my answer which is why it requires a bit of beating to get to.

        And just because only vegans think it isn’t a no brainer, doesn’t really say much. Only vegans generally think that it’s heinous to eat animals’ secretions, only vegetarians and vegans think it’s disgusting to eat dead animals but it doesn’t make them wrong 😉

  3. Yeah, I know. I don’t think the fact that only vegans think it isn’t a no-brainer proves anything. That would be an ad populum fallacy.

    It would be easier for me not to find some significance in the vegan/non-vegan “no-brainer” split if vegans’ ultimate answers (dog vs. puppy) were 50/50 or 60/40 or even 70/30. But it’s not like that. Most vegans (almost all, actually) still find a way to get to “I’d save the baby,” even while maintaining that they don’t favor one species over the other. So, even though I dont think it “proves” anything in itself, I think it’s evidence of something else going on in vegans that is not going on in non-vegans i.e. rationalizing and moral gymnastics.

    But thanks for your response. One thing that comes through in your response is that you really are trying to be honest. I appreciate that. Most vegans just try really hard for a way to be “right.”

    take care

  4. Nathan says:

    I am uncertain that this controversy really exists. You save whoever is closest to the door. Boom. Done. Who is trying to be “right?” I think it’s a fallacy to assume there is a right answer to this question. There is only the question of what you would do in extraordinary circumstances, and that is never a pass/fail exercise.

  5. The way that the question is set up is that you have time to save one, but not both, so your proximity to one or the other (or their proximity to the door) is actually irrelevant.

    I feel there IS a right answer to this question. I’d save the baby.

    I realize that it would be an extraordinary circumstance. No doubt about it. But you have an equal opportunity to save a dog or a human. To me this is just not a hard questions to answer definitively and truthfully.

  6. Matt says:

    I need a late pass on this one – I was just directed to this blog today. Let me preface my comment by saying that I am vegan, and that all other things being equal, I would save the baby over the puppy.

    I feel that part of this post is based on a misunderstanding of what the term ‘speciesism’ means, and that this misunderstanding appears site-wide. It’s NOT speciesist to treat a human in a different way to how you would treat a non-human animal in a given situation. It’s only speciesist if you treat them that way for no other reason than because of their species-membership.

    If we were to alter the scenario such that the burning building contains two babies, one of whom is very severely mentally handicapped – to the extent that he or she would never grow up to lead what others among us might call a rewarding and fulfilling life – then I believe we would be justified in saving the non-handicapped baby. This is because we’re being forced to make a calculation, about which one of these beings will benefit more from our help. The situation with the puppy is analogous; our reason for saving the baby over the puppy need not be speciesist, it can be that we’re saving the being that can benefit most from our assistance.

    Being anti-speciesist doesn’t entail always treating all species the same. Singer makes this abundantly clear in ‘Practical Reason’ and ‘Animal Liberation’, and Reagan has a similar answer regarding ‘lifeboat cases’ in ‘The Case for Animal Rights’.

    • Daz says:

      ^^ This.

      Interesting site, but your views about speciesism are incorrect. In a lifeboat case, nobody is expecting exact moral calculations like how utilitarians are expected to do. Non-speciesism is about acknowledging that other individuals, regardless of their species (like races), have equal interests in living and being free from harm; the puppy doesn’t want to die, neither does the baby. It’s then up to the rescuer to decide who to save whilst acknowledging this, their conclusion will not solely focus on their species membership like a racist would on skin colour.

      What you’re missing is that we do not spend our everyday lives making life-or-death choices between individuals of different species – but we do make choices that needlesly harm animals. Non-speciesism recognises that the animals we rely on for food, clothing etc.. have interests of their own, not to be hurt or sacrificed for a ‘greater good’ in a similar way we respect the life-rights of humans. In this way, veganism is a sensible lifestyle choice to match with this philosophy, but you could also eat meat or use the skin from animals that died by natural causes without ethical contradiction.

      If you think of specisism like racism, then your position of speciest Veganism could perhaps be likened to that of: ‘I don’t harm dark skinned people, but I don’t think they have the same rights as fairer skinned people’, which obviously I do not think you’re saying.

  7. Ethan says:

    i would almost definitely save the dog. i feel like that answer is going to be so hard for people to swallow that i can’t even begin to describe the circumstances under which i would consider saving the baby. the reason for my decision is exactly what you’ve been articulating; nearly every human thinks saving the baby is a “no-brainer”. the dog is so WORTHLESS to humans that they would be, and have been, and are, sacrificed at the snap of a finger. not just to “save a baby”, but for the most trivial, selfish, repulsive reasons. their life means nothing. well, it means something to me. and also, for the record, if the choice was between a developmentally “normal” baby and a baby with disabilities, i would choose the baby with disabilities. for similar reasons. i opposes the idea that physically/mentally “able” humans live lives that are somehow more “fulfilling”, “rewarding”, or “worthy” than nonhuman animals, or people with disabilities. i believe the lives that are the most disposable and disrespected are, as it is, the most deserving of defense and support.

  8. meagan says:

    here’s another interesting question: when did you cry most – when your pet dog or hamster died or when the most recent tsunami hit japan and killed 10s of thousands of people? would you save a baby – a stranger to you – or your pet dog you’ve known for 20 years? it doesn’t matter what the species is – you care about who you’re close to.
    consider this : you likely feed your pet dog more food than you give to starving people in 3rd world countries. the chicken you just ate received more food, water, and other resources than less fortunate people in 3rd world countries. it’s not that vegans prefer animals over humans, or nonvegans prefer their own species… we prefer who we have close relationships with, regardless of species. people devote their time and energy to whomever they care about. and it is possible to care about animals and humans at the same time, without making it an either or situation where only one can be saved.

  9. meagan says:

    if all of these people want to save babies and babies with disabilities: go do it. dedicate your money time and energy to the cause you care about. pay attention to how and what you consume is affecting others. for example: how many slaves work for you? http://slaveryfootprint.org if you care about babies and feeding the booming human population of the world, do your own research and find a diet that is less wasteful and more sustainable for the environment.

  10. stijnbruers says:

    Choosing the baby does not yet imply speciesism.
    1) suppose you have to choose between saving your child (or a child from your town) versus an unknown child with a different skin color. Saving your child does not yet imply racism. Imagine the father of that other child saves that other child. Than you can react in two ways. You can say that he should have saved your child, because your child has moral rights and a higher moral status (based on e.g. race or ethnic group or whatever). This reaction is racist. The second possible reaction is to say that although you feel sad that your child died in the fire, you understand and tolerate the choice of the father to save his child. If you and this father are equal, then both children in the burning house inherit a subtle kind of equality what I call “Tolerated choice equality”. Hence, there is emotional inequality (for you, you value your child more), but if that is accompanied with tolerated choice equality, it is not racist discrimination.
    2) The reason to save your child has nothing to do with race, species, genus, order, class or whatever arbitrary biological classification. I would probably choose a chimpanzee over a hedgehog, but that does not mean that I am orderist (prefering individuals who belong to the order of primates), infraorderist (preferring the infraorder of dry-nosed primates), familist (preferring the family of great apes) or whatever. Yes, the baby and I are both dry-nosed primates, just as we both are humans, we both are great apes, we both are mammals,… But saving the baby instead of the puppy doesn’t yet make me an infraorderist, neither a speciesist, nor a genusist or whatever. I would not ask the question: “could a close family member of this baby have gotten fertile offspring with a fertile individual who we classify as Homo sapiens, if they would have sex? Yes? Ok, than I’ll save this one.”
    3) To avoid speciesist discrimination, we should tolerate the choice of the one who saves the dog instead of the child. Most people already tolerate this to a degree: these people do not condemn someone who gives more food and medical assistance to his pet than to a poor child in Africa.
    In summary: it is permissible to be partial to a degree, as long as you tolerate similar levels of partiality of everyone else. This is the pink principle of the moral hand, see e.g. http://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/the-moral-hand-a-complete-and-coherent-ethic-short-version/
    According to this moral hand, there are five different notions of equality, and they are compatible with the emotional inequality and with some level of partiality. So it is possible to save the baby without being speciesist or racist.
    For a much more elaborate discussion, see my PhD dissertation on the ethical consistency of animal equality http://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/e-book-the-ethical-consistency-of-animal-equality/
    Veganism can be based on the basic right not to be used as merely a means to someone elses ends. But as I explain in my dissertation, we can extend this basic right: we should not use nor consider someone as merely a means. Now, if you save the dog and if I would negatively judge you, saying that you should have saved the baby, then I am considering you as merely a means, and then I would violate your extended basic right. Therefore, we have a duty to tolerate someone’s partial choice (to a degree, this duty is not absolute, neither is the extended basic right absolute)
    More than 3 paragraphs, I guess, so no shit 😉

  11. This is always my reply to such a question: even if the baby is more important to me, why would that make being a vegan any less of a valid choice? Just because the baby’s life is more of a priority to me, that doesn’t mean I support animal cruelty, and support the systematic abuse of animals for no need other than palate entertainment, at the health expense of human beings as well and forced captive markets. In short, just because the child matters more to me, it doesn’t mean that the animal doesn’t matter at all. The animal matters enough to me for me to be respectful of it’s basic rights. Veganism is also not a single-sided issue. There are many human and environmental issues as well that tie in with eating animals and their secretions. I also find eating animals and their secretions pretty gross when you look into what they actually are. Case closed.

    • ” even if the baby is more important to me, why would that make being a vegan any less of a valid choice?” – Did you actually read the this post? Or anything else I’ve written? The question is not meant to be a litmus test for being vegan or not.

  12. Abielle92 says:

    Since this is all hypothetical, my response would be that I would save the baby, even if a beloved puppy was also inside. I also don’t think it is fair to assume that this question accurately evaluates one’s specieist or anti-specieist values or beliefs. My response is based on that fact that it would be self-serving and have little to do with which life I valued more. One bit that everyone overlooked is the impact the decision would have on one’s self. In actuality, it would probably be best for me to die trying to save the baby even if the puppy was the more reasonable choice based on proximity or safety. Better yet if I died trying to save both – as long as no one thought that I died because I was also trying to save the puppy which resulted sacrificing the baby as a result of my poor choices. I know that I would endure endless torment from other members of my community for failing to save the baby and rescuing the puppy. I would certainly not be viewed as a role model for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. I would likely be ostracized by other people. Certainly not by dogs. Even if the puppy’s mother, a dog who was my companion was outside watching, she would not hold my decision against me. Animals are more understanding, animals also don’t pose hypothetical questions or come up with exaggerated situations to expose our theories of actions to prove themselves right and us wrong and then judge us based on our position is accordance with their own. They wouldn’t expect me to be a hero either just to prove a point or maintain my position in society.

    • So… are you declining to anwwer which one would be more ethical? Are you simply saying you’d save the baby to meet the expectations of other humans? Simply because dogs can’t verbally judge you?

      Weak sauce, try again, this time be honest.

  13. Hoss says:

    The baby, now let me explain. I choose the baby because human life is a precious thing even though it’s not rare and we are everywhere, but image yourself as the caretaker of this baby. You love your child don’t you? So I would want my baby. Dogs are not like babies you can’t buy another baby that baby was yours and if you chose the dog you ended the lifeof a one in a billion creation the dog however may have been the same but the dog is nit going to be able to live a life like the baby would. The dog could not find love the dog could not give you grandchildren the dog could not give you life experiences like the baby could. So the dog is not as important as the baby. But that is my opinion and I will respect yours aswell but to me humans are more valuable than dogs or any animal at all.

  14. Pingback: Why I am vegan |

  15. Shaman Naman says:

    I don’t think there is one good answer to this question, but certainly there are many wrong ones; to me, the difference between a good answer and a bad answer is the justification behind it, and no position is inherently indefensible. “Well, it depends” is a bad reason insofar as all the relevant information has already been presented in the scenario or can be reasonably inferred (i.e. both the baby and the puppy are typical representatives of their respective species; the distance to either is irrelevant; you have ample time to save one, but not the other; and so on). I also agree that saying “the baby” but having to come up with a very convoluted explanation in order to preserve a dogmatic anti-speciesism belief would probably be a case of dishonesty.

    With that said, I fail to see how the common sense answer would be morally superior to a more reasoned position. Saying “the baby” simply because it’s intuitive is insufficient and smells of intellectual laziness. Isn’t the goal of a thought experiment to, well, think? I don’t think this scenario is as black and white as it appears.

    For example, from a negative utilitarian perspective, where one tries to minimize suffering or disutility (as opposed to maximizing pleasure or utility), one could make the case that an average human life contributes to more global suffering than an average dog life. For one, there’s a good chance that the baby might not grow up freegan or even vegan, and thus cause additional “unnecessary” animal deaths. Well, dogs aren’t vegan either, but, depending on their race, they eat a lot less than humans and have a lower life expectancy. Granted, this might not be the most socially acceptable position but, when combined with a certain degree of non-speciesism, it could make an interesting defense of choosing the puppy over the baby.

    Anyway, I think I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. What I’m saying is: the answer to this question depends on the individual’s ethical system. I would personally choose the baby for humanistic reasons; I’m not a VHEMT advocate and I’m also a speciesist under your definition. But I won’t pretend that my answer is universally right.

  16. Shaman Naman says:

    I don’t think there is one good answer to this question, but certainly there are many wrong ones; to me, the difference between a good answer and a bad answer is the justification behind it, and no position is inherently indefensible. “Well, it depends” is a bad reason insofar as all the relevant information has already been presented in the scenario or can be reasonably inferred (i.e. both the baby and the puppy are typical representatives of their respective species; the distance to either is irrelevant; you have ample time to save one, but only one; and so on). I also agree that saying “the baby” but having to come up with a very convoluted explanation in order to preserve a dogmatic anti-speciesism belief would probably be a case of dishonesty.

    With that said, I fail to see how the common sense answer would be morally superior to a more reasoned position. Saying “the baby” simply because it’s intuitive is insufficient and smells of intellectual laziness. Isn’t the goal of a thought experiment to, well, think? I don’t think this scenario is as black and white as it appears.

    For example, from a negative utilitarian perspective, where one tries to minimize suffering or disutility (as opposed to maximizing pleasure or utility), one could make the case that an average human life contributes to more global suffering than an average dog life. For one, there’s a good chance that the baby might not grow up freegan or even vegan, and thus cause additional “unnecessary” animal deaths. Well, dogs aren’t vegan either, but, depending on their race, they eat a lot less than humans and have a lower life expectancy. Granted, this might not be the most socially acceptable position, but, when combined with a certain degree of non-speciesism, it could make an interesting defense of choosing the puppy over the baby.

    Anyway, I think I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. What I’m saying is: the answer to this question depends on the individual’s ethical system. I would personally choose the baby for humanistic reasons; I’m not a VHEMT advocate and I’m also a speciesist under your definition. But I won’t pretend that my answer is universally right.

  17. Gabe Winski says:

    I won’t pretend to be very well versed in the philosophies surrounding speciesism but I have to think that, in all practicality, these issues of ethics exist on a spectrum like others have mentioned.

    The baby and puppy example can give people pause because we so often have a positive, familiar association with puppies. What if it was a goldfish? A termite? I feel like there’s a certain point when there’s just a level of rationality that makes a decision done for speciest reasons the “right” call.

    I’m probably missing a key layer of understanding of the anti-speciesist position here. One that would somehow otherwise justify choosing a baby over a brook trout, but, in my mind, we all tend to have this unspoken hierarchy of importance in our minds when we think of other species. We can recognize that earthworms have their own interests, desire to live etc. and we should avoid stepping on them but who among us would feel as bad about the likelihood of chopping them up when digging a garden as we would had we just killed a snake. Or snake vs. chicken, chicken vs. raccoon and so on.
    Respecting the interests of other animals while more closely identifying with and therefore favoring our own species don’t seem like incompatible beliefs to me.

    Needless to say, based on the limited criteria of the baby and puppy question I would choose the baby. I don’t buy the slippery slope argument that speciesism begets racism or that by not caring as much about very distant species I should revoke my vegan card. The “whenever practical and possible” clause of the vegan definition is basically a way for each of us to decide what our OWN moral baseline is, not everything need be so mutually exclusive.

holler!

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