I believe that people have more value than animals.
I am not alone in this belief. A fairly recent Psychology Today article entitled “Is a Dog’s Life Worth More Than a Person’s?” has the following to say:
“I am sure that any rational person reading the title of this article would believe that it poses an astonishingly dumb question. Certainly, if we are thinking rationally and morally, we are bound to conclude that a human life has more value and importance than that of an animal.”
This idea, however, did not sit well with my four Grade 12 English B students. We started talking about humans and their value as a lead into a unit about human trafficking. I first asked “What makes someone human?” As secular students with not even the vaguest of religious background, their list included “has a moral sense of right and wrong” and “ability to empathize.” Solid answers.
When asked, “What gives human life more value than animal life,” they protested. “We are animals,” they said.
But certainly we, even with all religious arguments aside are, due to intelligence or some sort of evolution, still somehow more valuable than a dog, aren’t we?
I made a lot of confusing noises before then asking, “If animals and humans have the same value, why is it okay to put a dog in a cage, but not a human?”
“You think it’s okay to put a dog in a cage?” one student asked.
“I don’t think it’s the best life for that dog, but yeah, if you leave your house and your dog is bad, you put your dog in a cage and that’s not morally wrong.” I thought my reply was logical, and pretty morally flawless. After all, animals are animals.
My students, once again, did not agree.
We argued about it for a while. Like, for two whole class periods.
I posed the question: You have a gun. You have to shoot either a human or a dog. Which would you choose?”
They all agreed that the decision was too hard, that from a purely “logical” standpoint, the life had the same value. They wouldn’t choose.
“I would shoot a dog for your life,” I said, “and I have only known you for two days.”
We circled around the dog idea, as one student in particular was not able to move away from the idea that I thought it was okay to temporarily put a dog in a cage. I wondered if he ever had a dog, and asked. He had, but they didn’t purchase it from a pet shop, instead getting the dog second hand, from a family friend. (“Even worse,” I thought, “it’s a second-hand dog. You wouldn’t pass around a younger sibling or family member…”)
At the end of the conversation, one student, normally quiet but now bold, confidently claimed, “You are just trying to force your opinion on us!”
“No,” I replied, “I am just trying to get you to think about this in a different way.”
“But it’s your way,” she accused.
“Well… yes. And it’s different than yours. We will agree to disagree, but not before I have you question why you think what you think.”
Let’s just say there were a lot of glares, all directed at me.
Their (not my) conclusion? Humans can empathize with other humans better than with animals because they know the human experience. They don’t know the experience of being a dog. But it’s not that humans have more intrinsic value than animals.
I choose to record and share this snapshot of my teaching experience for a few reasons. First, because it’s a good example of how things don’t always go according to plan, especially when you let student express their opinions instead of simply having them regurgitate facts. Two, because it’s dangerous to assume that students will respond to ideas in a logical manner. And finally, because it has been a conversation that I have replayed in my mind over and over again. How can these 17 year-olds not believe that people — that they themselves– have more value than a dog? And, even if they were convinced that humans were worth more than animals, would they ever admit it after such fervently expressed sentiments?
We are reading a book called “Radhika’s Story,” which is about a girl who was trafficked first for her kidney, and then into a brothel. I am hoping that as they learn more and more about trafficking they will start to make deeper connections about human value and understand why the term “dehumanization” has significance.
I am an English teacher, and it’s rare for me to actually express any sort of belief or opinion on my students beyond what is purely academic, but I feel like these kids need to know that they are worth more than a dog, even a dog in a purse carried by a celebrity.
“Don’t be afraid,” it says in Matthew, “for you are worth more than many sparrows.”