When Do 100 Dogs Equal One Human?
For millennia, we have used animals for food, clothing, scientific inquiry, and entertainment. This is viewed as socially acceptable since most people accept, without question, that human lives are worth more than animal lives. This pervasive belief shapes law, policy, and people’s behavior. But where do these views come from, and at what point in children’s development do they arise?
Researchers in this study conducted two experiments to see how children compare to adults when placing moral value on animals. A total of 207 children aged 5-9 took part in the first experiment and 61 in the second. The adult samples comprised 222 in the first experiment and 64 in the second. Adults completed the study online, while children were tested in a laboratory, at schools, festivals, a local museum, and public parks.
Each experiment presented moral dilemmas involving humans, dogs, and/or pigs. In the first, participants were presented with a hypothetical scenario involving two sinking boats, where they had to decide which boat to save. The boats held one, two, 10, or 100 humans, dogs, or pigs. In the second, subjects had to decide which boat a “Mr. X” would choose. Researchers described Mr. X as a person who always does the morally right thing.
Results of both experiments showed that children displayed less of a tendency to prioritize humans over animals. They often chose to save a number of dogs over a single human. Indeed, many kids placed equal value on the life of a dog and a human. Pigs weren’t valued as much, but children still prioritized the lives of 10 pigs over one human. Adults, on the other hand, would allow the death of 100 dogs or pigs to save one human. These effects became more pronounced as the ages in the adult cohort increased.
These outcomes suggest that a human-centric view of moral worth arises late in development and that it is socially acquired. Perhaps somewhere in adolescence, children absorb the cultural narrative of human superiority and begin to exhibit speciesist attitudes. Perhaps also, the lower level of speciesism seen in younger adults in this study may reflect greater exposure to animal rights messaging that began in the 1970s. If so, this is good news, and advocates can capitalize on this trend.
Since younger children have not yet been socialized in the concept of innate animal inferiority, advocacy campaigns targeted towards children and teens could inoculate them against speciesist conditioning and the carnism belief system that’s prevalent throughout society. This also presents an opportunity for humane educators to teach children about speciesism in the school system. Even a small nudge in this direction could pay significant dividends for animals.