Imagine a case: there is a fire in a house, there is a person and my pet dog and you only have enough time to save one. Which one should you should rescue?

I think most people would choose the person.

Consider another case: if I have a dog that is critically ill, I could take it to a vet to save its life, but doing so might require a lot of money. I could instead donate that money to save the lives of the children that suffer from famine in Africa.

The question arises: If I have 2 different options in these 2 cases, is it reasonable to value human life more?

What are some common views on this topic, and the arguments for and against them?

  • Did you see the post philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/26698/… ?
    – Jo Wehler
    Aug 28, 2015 at 9:41
  • 4
    This question would seem to have different answers depending on who answers it - e.g. a Utilitarian, and Anthrpocentrist, and a Biocentrist would all have different 'correct answers'.
    – DTR
    Aug 28, 2015 at 18:33
  • 3
    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! I edited your question to adhere better to our standards concerning subjective questions - i.e., to ask for references rather than opinions. I hope that's okay with you.
    – user2953
    Aug 28, 2015 at 19:42
  • Some human lives have a negative value; we're better off with them gone. A bent stick has more value than them. More generally, in regard to value, you have to ask "value to whom", since values are a tool for an individual's decisions. Sep 1, 2015 at 16:33
  • If I correctly understand, what you are aiming at is a distinction (or lack thereof) between a situation in which my immediate action is evidently required (should I grab John and pull him out of the fire, or should I do that to Rex?) and a situation in which my actions are, apparently at least, much less urgent (should I spend my money trying to heal my dog, or trying to heal people who are far away, who I am not seeing, and who I do not know personally?) If that is your question, I would expand a little more in a proper answer; it is a quite interesting discussion. Jul 5, 2016 at 13:56

12 Answers 12


I don't think that it is necessary to motivate your choice from 'how important' human lives are. But from the fact that humans are responsible for other humans, in a different way from the way they are responsible for other animals.

Species naturally advance their own genes. By the standards of many biological theories, that is what makes a species a species. And one of the most logical ways to advance them is to preserve them. So any non-domesticated animal would choose to save the members of its own species before those of another.

[By domestication I mean when one species -- any species (we are not the only species that domesticates others http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/15/science/before-adam-and-eve-the-farmers-were-termites.html) -- adapts the behavior of another for its own ends.]

We are non-domesticated animals. So it is only natural for us to do the same.

Your own dog is one of the very few exceptions. Heavily domesticated species like dogs and horses have been bred and raised to value humans above themselves. The dog might save the human. Well-bred horses do quite uncomfortable or dangerous things to protect their riders or drivers.

But rather than some absolute 'value', I think this is better looked at as the contents of a certain kind of social contract. We agree to take care of our own lives, and to trust nature more with the lives of everything else.

The dog has been brought into that contract in another way -- its existence is due to our choice. The entire species would not exist, had we not adopted it as our own set of personal servants. (We have evidence that even the most peaceful, primitive, vegetarian societies did so, keeping them as sanitary agents -- garbage disposals and walking napkins). Likewise, the cows people eat would not exist if we had not fostered them, and we feel entitled to determine what purpose they should serve.

I think we should avoid a moral basis in absolute human value, which seems to me to culminate in the tradition of trophy hunting, where human comfort and enjoyment is of value, and the lives of animals hold little intrinsic value. Instead, we should look at the agreements 'negotiated' by our societies and our genes, and consider where everyone's best interests lie, but accept that we will always value those more like ourselves higher than others to some degree.

  • 2
    There is a clear fault in the claim that "[humans] are non-domesticated animals". Society is predicated on the domestication of humans. Domestication is defined by the process of raising something for human use. Since we are raised (by family, social law, civil law, etc.) to socialize and participate in society, we are by definition domesticated. Semantically, this is differentiated from other animal societies because domestication require human use. National Geographics Encyclopedia Jul 5, 2016 at 23:47
  • @alampert22 That is a narrow and silly notion of 'domesticated', and it pretty much begs the question, by giving humans rights no other animals have, therefore affording our lives more intrinsic value. We are not purposely developed for use by a different species. We are at home in our own homes, and not adapted to the home of something else. Accepting bigoted definitions is like arguing from the Bible. It is an appeal to authority that effectively begs all related questions.
    – user9166
    Jul 6, 2016 at 2:36
  • The only authority I am referring to is the definition, which is man-made and clearly defines the usage of the word. I am unsure how you determined it was bigoted. However I am merely arguing that the proposition that humans are non-domesticated had an issue based on the fact that we exist in a society and are widely codependent on each other for survival - which I am arguing requires that we acknowledge our own domestication. Jul 6, 2016 at 3:21
  • @alampert22 We disagree on a definition, deriving it from different sources choosing authorities that favor our respective positions. By mine, which is actually used, ants domesticate fungus, and that does not involve humans. How does this affect the value of this answer? If it doesn't -- then don't be irrelevant. If it does, tell me how, and I will choose different vocabulary to avoid the confusion.
    – user9166
    Jul 6, 2016 at 18:14
  • 1
    I would try to argue along the lines of Richard Dawkins, which would make it "phenotypes, which advance the survival of the genes producing said phenotypes, advance their genes" and not "species advance their genes". The difference is relevant: Ultimately the genes are the ones being removed from the pool, if they fail to produce useful phenotypes. Individuals, and species, are always just temporary vehicles. - The result is still that a member of the own species is statistically "more valuable" to the survival of the genes. Nov 8, 2016 at 7:53

In nearly all commonly accepted ethical and religious traditions, human life is considered intrinsically more valuable than animal life. However, there are significant exceptions. Most notably there's a school of Utilitarianism, dating back to Jeremy Bentham, and most closely associated in more recent times with Peter Singer, that holds human life to NOT be intrinsically more valuable than animal life.

Outside of Western thought, Jainism is notable for the high value it places on animal life, although it still maintains a hierarchy with human life at the top.


Assuming the person saving the life is equally unfamiliar with both the human and the dog, I would expect them to save the human because of their "gut reaction," not because it is "reasonable to value human life more." I should expect that gut reaction to be the result of our genetic kinship.

However, assuming the other human was a stranger and the dog was the saviour's long-time friend, I would expect them to save the dog due to personal familiarity.

Personally, I don't consider either to be morally superior.

Side note, everyone in this conversation is using the term "intrinsic valuable" incorrectly. Something which is intrinsically valuable has value without regard to any consciousness beings. More likely they mean "instrumental value."


It's more reasonable to save the human life because overall in society the lives of animals are valued less than human ones.

For example if a dog is terminally ill the owners will often be able to have a vet legally kill the animal... which is assisted suicide at best (if we ignore the issue of whether or not the dog would have consented). In most countries if this were to happen with a terminally ill human then the people involved would be arrested and imprisoned.

Consider that we eat meat from animals that have been killed. Can we eat human meat? Of course not. Animals are also killed for fur and used for drug testing.

Now in a society that does all this, would you really be surprised when a human's life is valued more than a dog's life by a fireman looking for people trapped in a burning building?

  • 1
    You can compare between “a dog” and “a human”, and the dog loses. But if you compare between “my dog” and “some random human”, it’s different.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 9, 2022 at 14:30

I think the answer to this can vary widely depending on who you ask. Personally, I would save the dog both times. They are less capable of saving themselves. My opinion is probably the less popular one among humans, but I am popular among the dogs.


I think the more intelligent the creature is, the harder for you, morally, to kill it, that's why it's easier for you to kill a bug over a mammal, also its size matters, the bigger it is the harder it is to kill. And there are other parameters here, like how important is each one of them for you personally and your conscious, and the society pressure.

  • I edited it, I meant it's morally harder for you to kill it.
    – ronenfe
    Jul 5, 2016 at 14:32

This is a very interesting question, in particular the question of local versus universal obligation. Organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) do receive endowments and donations for the sole purpose of protecting animals, despite on going global humanitarian issues. Some could argue that these funds could have been diverted to human strife intervention. However, I don't believe its a purely moral differentiation. When you consider that both human and animal protection organizations co-exist, the question of whether diverting all of one to the other would deliver significant advantage or a diminishing return.

In an immediate situation, I think that socially and civically, our first obligation should be human life. For example there was a recent news case where a young boy fell into a gorilla pit at the Cincinnati zoo. I agree with the actions of the facility in deciding that the life of the child was priority and the action taken (killing the gorilla to ensure the child's life) was therefore justifiable - though certainly tragic. The urgency of protecting human life justifies this scenario. I would argue that morally, this is somewhat analogous to eliminating a hostage taker in an effort to protect the hostages. Though this is not to say the intention to harm is the same in the case of the gorilla's actions, but the potential of harm a human.

In an opposing example, the tragic incident involving the fatality of a child from an alligator attack at a Florida resort, resulted in what I would argue is a morally questionable alligator hunt after the attack. Compared to the first example, this second situation is more similar to capital punishment, which I would argue is more grounded in emotionality than moral validity.


The answer in my opinion is a clear no to the phrase "always". There are many humans who have done evil things and threaten to continue, who in countries with capital punishment are executed. According to the law such humans do not deserve to live. Therefore it would be a mistake to sacrifice an animal in favour of such a human.


In addition to other responses, one more approach to the problem is the issue of reciprocity (one of the many consequentialist way to approach the problem).

Simply put, do you want to live In a society where, if it was you versus the dog in the fire, other people would choose to save you over the dog? If you would like to have people save you, you could require or try to force people to do it, but chances are that you won't be very successful because your power, just like every one else's, is limited.

One way you could obtain this behavior from others is by proclaiming it a universal rule ("it is good to choose to save other humans") and show the example by choosing to save people yourself (otherwise, people would judge you hypocritical and wouldn't be motivated to comply).

This goes further than the famous golden rule ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), because this behavior would favor most citizens (most citizens happen to be humans, not dogs) and could establish a solid consensus, and we could legitimately make it a rule, a law, to save people and have it enforced by society (police and justice system). Which is precisely what many countries do: in my country choosing the dog could be considered failing to assist an endangered person, and you could go to prison.

So not only is it reasonnable to choose to save the human, it is reasonable to make it mandatory by law.


If you believe all life is valuable then valuing one more than another is problematic. Should a cat value the life of a human more than its own kittens?

Are smarter people more valuable than stupid people?

The phenotype argument is terrible because Nazis where pretty successful at perpetuating their genes.

The truth is that 'value' is subjective and living things tend to do what advances their own interests with some exceptions.


It’s your decision and it depends on the situation. If there was a house on fire, and inside one man in a wheelchair, one healthy man, and my dog, I’d try to get out the man in the wheelchair and pray that the healthy man gets out himself and brings my dog with him.

Really, the question “what should you do” has the answer “rescue whoever is most valuable” (taking into account who is easy/hard to rescue, and who can get out themselves). The question “what would I do” has the answer “rescue whoever has more value to me”. Also to take into account is your reputation and possible revenge: If I leave a baby to burn while getting my dog out, someone might come after me.


I once had Fire at my house. Luckily I was able to save myself and my two dogs. But if I were stuck in a situation where I had to chose to save one or another,I would save myself because as Jesus Christ said, one human life is worth more that all he birds in the world and a bird is an animal, so you should definitely choose yourself (and family if you have any in your home.)

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! I tend to agree with this line of thinking, but can you spiff up your answer a bit by, eg, providing a citation to the Bible verse you have in mind. Apr 11, 2016 at 18:18
  • 2
    Also, could you restructure this as primarily a philosophical rather than internally religious answer. i.e., one reason people give for valuing human life above animal life is religious.
    – virmaior
    Apr 11, 2016 at 23:43

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .