On 30 May 2016 a gorilla was killed after a small child fell into its enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The type of gorilla was a Western Lowland Gorilla, which are endangered.

Now, what if the situation was this: The gorilla was the last male of the species and killing it meant extinction for the Western Lowland? Do you kill it? How does one weigh an entire species of animal against the life of one of 7 billion homo sapiens?

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    I'm assuming you're asking within a utilitarian framework (if only because of the word "weigh" in your question). If you mean to ask in some other framework, please adjust the question and tags to make clear.
    – virmaior
    Jun 1, 2016 at 13:57
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    Worth pointing out that if the gorilla is truly the last of its kind, then killing it isn't really extinguishing the species, but merely accelerating that fate.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 1, 2016 at 14:17
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    For purposes of sharpening this question, may we assume it's YOUR kid? Does that make this question simpler for you?
    – user4894
    Jun 1, 2016 at 20:57
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    @RoastBeast That's the only assumption that makes this question interesting. Lots of peole will vote to kill someone ELSE's kid for some abstract political idea.
    – user4894
    Jun 1, 2016 at 23:28
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    Why is killing the last of a species necessarily bad? Mar 24, 2017 at 21:59

6 Answers 6


To answer with a kantian perspective (surprise, surprise!):

In the realm of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price is such that something else can also be put in its place as its equivalent; by contrast, that which is elevated above all price, and admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:434, Cambridge Edition p. 52)

This could mean that the last of a species, as nothing could be placed as its equivalent, would have dignity, whereas one child under millions does not. But oh! on the contrary!

That which refers to universal human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which, even without presupposing any need, is in accord with a certain taste, i.e., a satisfaction in the mere purposeless play of the powers || of our mind, an affective price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have merely a relative worth, i.e., a price, but rather an inner worth, i.e., dignity.

Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, because only through morality is it possible to be a legislative member in the realm of ends. Thus morality and humanity, insofar as it is capable of morality, is that alone which has dignity. (Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 4:434-5, Cambridge Edition p. 52-53)

That means that only rational (perhaps more modern sentient) beings have a dignity, and their worth is "above all price". The moral descision would therefore always be to rescue the human being, no matter the cost.

  • I was about to refer the OP to the Kingdom of Ends, then I realized that there was never a dilemma in the first place, the species can be saved either way. Also it seems that the OP is looking for a consequentialist answer, not a deontic one. I wonder how Kant would respond to the new dilemma I suggested in my answer? Jun 2, 2016 at 16:51

If saving the species is to be done at all costs, then the scenario you present does't really present a dilemma. Even after the last male Gorilla is killed, certain steps can be taken to preserve the genetic material of the Gorilla. His sperm can be collected and used to impregnate the remaining females, and his DNA can be preserved for cloning purposes.

The real dilemmas arise at the meso- and macro-ecological levels: Consider a lost tribe on a Pacific Island whose entire culture and way of life centers around hunting a single species of whale, and that whale species is about to go extinct. The tribe has only a few 100 individuals left and their whole culture and language are in danger of being forgotten. Who do we save? The tribe or the whale species? Keep in mind that the individual members of the tribe are safe. At any moment they can simply be integrated into another society. It is there culture and way of life, not the individual members who are in danger.


Well, it wasn't the last of its species, so your question is hypothetical. I'd also be wondering whether you think there would be a difference between a child, an adult, or a drunk adult, and why.

If it was the last of its species, the problem wouldn't be a decision between the life of a rare animal and the life of a human. The problem would be whether safeguards are in place to keep the rare animal safe - including safe from kids falling into the animals area leading to a shooting.

Apart from that, if you are the guy with a gun who has the choice of killing the animal or putting a human at severe risk, you can't ask questions on philosophy sites. You don't have the time. You have to make a decision in very short time, and you make a decision. In that case, making no decision is also making a decision.

PS. I'd bet the zookeepers did make a decision. They didn't ask for advice on the internet, they didn't ask their management, they looked at the possible choices and decided what was the best.

  • I'd bet the zookeepers made no decision -- they'd already been clearly instructed to protect visitors' safety. The zoo's lawyers had equally clearly advised management they'd be sued for millions if anybody was killed by an animal, and the staff hadn't done everything humanly possible to prevent it. Arguably, the kid's parents had some contributory negligence, not more carefully watching their kid. And arguably the zoo should have built more child-proof enclosures. Either way, the zoo would've lost lots of money. And that fact demonstrates society's gorilla-vs-kid (philosophical) value.
    – user19423
    Jun 1, 2016 at 5:23

It depends on the value you place on a species existing. Popular opinion is that extinction is bad, and on a mass scale it is for bio-diversity, but if a species goes extinct, especially in numbers from 10ish individuals to zero, in the long-range of earth's future it doesn't really matter.

For that reason I'd argue that if the zoo keepers were faced with the same decision but in your circumstance, they still would have killed the gorilla.

  • "in the long-range of earth's future it doesn't really matter" -- that can be very problematic as a moral consideration. You could use it to justify killing people.
    – E...
    Jun 1, 2016 at 16:22
  • I don't know about that, I think the argument is that eliminating a species is inconsequential, not killing an individual Gorilla. And so extinction of a genetic strain shouldn't be a serious consideration in whether we save a child's life. Of course if eliminating a species means eradicating hundreds of thousands of individuals, that's very different.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jun 1, 2016 at 18:58

It is a question that pits two different principles against each other. For that you must ask whether there is a difference between value of life of an animal "commonly found" and one that is "rare". There can be two types of arguments that can be made to support saving an "endangered" animal over a "non-endangered" animal. One is from a pragmatic perspective that the extinction of a species negatively affects us (deteriorate delicate balance of nature, disturbs food chain, some species may contribute in development of medicines etc.). The other factor to be considered is just "aesthetics"- We won't get to see the animal again, animals are cute etc. Leaving pragmatism aside, as it would involve arguments beyond the scope of this forum, and be heavily dependent on animal under discussion, the question becomes whether aesthetics have any more value than life. If one agrees that it was not wrong to kill the animal to save child, if it was not endangered, then the reason he most probably is in doubt about the issue is because he is considering aesthetics (or pragmatism) to be almost of same order of value as human life.

Now let us consider some moral frameworks. As the saving of an "endangered species" will be more beneficial to state (debatable) hence in State Utilitarianism, it is right to save the animal. In Ethical Egoism, zoo keepers should do what is best for them, and I think, that would probably be killing of animal, unless it is very costly to replace it (opportunity cost comes into play). In Utilitarianism, the decision would be based on what will make people happy most. However as in Kantian Utilitarianism, people are not to be treated as means, it could be argued that child should be saved.

In all, it means that it depends. The main point is that you are not comparing two lives, but an aesthetic (if no other significant benefits are there) to a life.


If it is the last male member of a species, then that species is probably already extinct.

If a species is critically endangered, to the point that the death of one specimen could probably make the difference between its extinction and its reproduction, then the place for the individuals of such species is probably not a zoo.

If the species is so endangered that it only exists in protected environments, not in nature, then its extinction won't have any ecological impact further than what has already resulted from its reduction from a viable species into a non-viable one.

In any case, I can't see how one could justify the decision to let a children (or an adult human, fwiw) die to "preserve a species". If so, then it probably would be moral to actively kill a human being if that could someway save an endangered species. Would you cross that line?

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