Posted by: Renee Owens | October 25, 2010

The Dog in the Lifeboat: The Importance of Teaching Ethics to Children

Below is an essay by Marc Bekoff, from the website, July 23, 2010.

Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. He has published numerous essays and books, and has received several awards for his work with animals.

~ Note from the blogger: I think this article is an excellent reminder of how animals – wild and domestic – and excursions into the natural world provide a perfect opportunity for conversations about ethics with today’s kids, a topic I find all too often missing in the conversations (and actions) of the adult world.  Teaching in nature is a logical and effective way to relate to kids the importance of compassion to all the creatures of the world, humans and non-human alike. ~

Children are inherently and intuitively curious naturalists. They’re sponges for knowledge — absorbing, retaining and using new information at astounding rates.

We all know this, but often we forget when we’re helping to develop their roles as future ambassadors with other animals, nature and ourselves. Some are also future leaders on whose spirit and good will many of us will depend. That’s where Jane Goodall’s global  Roots & Shoots program comes in, to engage young students in discussions about animal behavior, ecology, conservation biology and the nature of human-animal interactions through activities focused on care and concern for animals, human communities and the places in which we all live together. The basic tenets of the program are that every individual is important and every individual makes a difference.

In a third grade class that was part of the Roots & Shoots program, I posed the following question as a often-used thought experiment to a group of young students: There are three humans and one dog in a lifeboat that can only hold three bodies — which of the four should be thrown overboard?

How Would You Resolve the “Dog in the Lifeboat” Question?

– The dog should get equal consideration; if one of the humans is old or sick, the dog stays.
– I’m with the kids, there has to be a way to save everyone.
– Human lives are more valuable than animal lives, the dog has to go.
Generally, when this situation is discussed, many people agree that, all other things being equal, reluctantly the dog has to go. But then I started to introduce variations on the theme. For example, perhaps two of the humans are healthy youngsters and one is an elderly person who is blind, deaf, paralyzed, without any family or friends, and likely to die within a week. The dog is a healthy puppy. The students admitted this was a very difficult situation and that maybe, just maybe, the elderly human might be sacrificed because he had already lived a full life, wouldn’t be missed and had little future. Indeed, this is very sophisticated thinking that perhaps the elderly person had less to lose than either of the other humans or the dog. Let me stress that all students agreed that this line of thinking was not meant to devalue the elderly human. And, in the end, the students, like most people, reluctantly concluded that regardless of the humans’ ages or other characteristics, the dog has to go.
But the students didn’t give up easily.

The level of discussion overwhelmed me. Students raised considerations of quality of life, longevity, value of life, and losses to surviving family and friends. But what really amazed and pleased me was that after we discussed alternatives, the students wanted to work it out so that no one had to be thrown overboard. I experienced this line of reasoning in numerous different countries in similarly aged kids.

Why did any individual have to be thrown over? they asked. Let’s not do it. When I said that the thought experiment required that at least one individual had to be tossed, they said this simply wasn’t acceptable! Then they started to generate ideas about how all individuals could be saved, such as having the dog swim along the side of the boat and feeding her, having them all switch off swimming, taking off shoes and throwing overboard all things that weren’t needed in order to reduce weight and bulk, and cutting the boat in two and making two rafts. All students thought that even if the dog had to go, she would have a better chance of living because more could be done by the humans to save the dog than vice versa. Very sophisticated reasoning indeed.

I’ve discussed this example many times with numerous different groups of older students and adults, and never before had a group unanimously decided that everyone must be saved. I sat there smiling and thinking, now these are the kinds of people in whom I’d feel comfortable placing my future.

In the future, these youngsters will be other animals’ and our voices; indeed, the voices of the universe. So, it makes good sense to teach children well, to be role models, to infuse their education with kindness and compassion so that their decisions are founded on a deeply rooted, automatic reflex-like caring ethic. If we don’t, the children, adults, other animals, human communities, and environments will suffer.

These children will be the ones rowing the lifeboat for all of us.

Photo credit: hillary h


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