Dennis Prager’s column this week is a well-meaning attempt to shed light on important questions about the foundations of morality, but it makes a few troubling points that deserve closer examination.
First, Prager explicitly argues that the only basis for morality is divine (and perhaps only Judeo-Christian) revelation: “Without revelation, we cannot know what is right (we can have opinions and beliefs about morality, but not moral knowledge).” On that point, I would note that there is a long tradition of religious believers who have recognized that natural reason can serve as a guide to moral conduct. If, as Prager says, God has created human beings to be uniquely and even infinitely valuable, should not the unique and infinite value with which we have been endowed by our Creator be evident – one might even say self-evident – without the specific revelation contained in the Bible?
Of course Prager is right that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a source of moral wisdom. More problematic, though, is his use of extreme situations as thought experiments to illuminate moral issues. Prager uses the recent story of a shipwrecked South African couple, where the husband saved their dog before returning to rescue his wife, as a sort of real-life example of a similar thought experiment he has posed to his students since the 1970s, asking them whether they would “first try to save their drowning dog or a drowning stranger.” (He also mentioned this hypothetical scenario in one of his books.) Thought experiments like these are meant to provide clarity by boiling complex moral situations down to their essential elements. They are staples in college ethics courses: Do you push the fat man in front of the trolley to save the five innocents on the track?
Ironically, these scenarios muddle more than shed light on real-life situations, since the actual choices we face are rarely so stark. Consider an example that has been frequently bandied about during debates over the ethics of embryo research: In a burning building, do you save an endangered child or a petri dish with a dozen embryos in it? This dichotomy badly distorts the ethical stakes in embryo research, implying that the policy choice is about whom to protect from imminent danger, when the core issue is really about intentionally harming embryos.
On the difficult questions concerning beings who are generally considered to be on the margins of inclusion in the moral community, such as animals or human embryos, the choices we face are rarely so clear-cut as these hypotheticals imply. Even in the real-life situation Prager discusses, the husband might have reasoned that his dog, rather than his wife, was at greater risk of drowning. Indeed, the wife reportedly “insisted” that he rescue the dog first, surely not because she had a moral belief that her own life was worth less than her dog’s but because she made a prudential judgment that she would be able to fend for herself better.
Thought experiments of the sort Prager embraces leave no room for such prudential judgments. Rather, they demand that we make absolute choices under imaginary and extreme conditions, implicitly (or explicitly) encouraging us to abandon the values attached to what we have chosen against. If you save the child rather than the embryos, then it supposedly follows that you must accept the wholesale destruction of embryos for medical research. If you save your wife instead of your dog, it goes, then you must side with the interests of consumers over the welfare of animals raised in factory farms. In real life, though, ethical dilemmas need to be addressed with a combination of principle and prudence, and often different values need to be weighed against one another.
Finally, it is worth taking a moment to examine Prager’s argument that because man, unlike the animals, is made in God’s image, we must value the lives of human beings more highly than the lives of animals. It’s important to note that Prager’s readers should not, from the fact of man’s exceptional stature among the animals, conclude that other animals are unworthy of respect. The practical questions raised by man’s relation to the animals – questions about how we ought to treat and use them, and what obligations we have toward them – deserve sustained moral consideration from conservatives, not just bumper-sticker fearmongering about the excesses of “animal rights” activists. One way to begin to think seriously about the animals is to try to understand them more clearly on their own terms, as we sought to do in our recent New Atlantis essay “Do Elephants Have Souls?” Whether you want to better understand what makes human beings special or to glorify the Creator, why not begin with an appreciation of the strange and wonderful fellow creatures with which we share this world?
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Society and Technology and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.