Would you save your dog's life over a stranger's?

El Dorado News-Times - - Opinion - DEN­NIS PRAGER Den­nis Prager's latest book, "The Ten Com­mand­ments: Still the Best Moral Code," was pub­lished by Reg­n­ery. He is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated ra­dio show host and cre­ator of PragerUniver­sity.com.

Awhile ago a hu­man-in­ter­est story from South Africa was re­ported in­ter­na­tion­ally. As de­scribed in the Wall Street Jour­nal:

"On Aug. 4, Gra­ham and Sheryl An­ley, while yacht­ing off the coast of South Africa, hit a reef, cap­siz­ing their boat. As the boat threat­ened to sink and they scram­bled to get off, Sheryl's safety line snagged on some­thing, trap­ping her there. In­stead of free­ing his wife and get­ting her to shore, Gra­ham grabbed Rosie, their Jack Rus­sell ter­rier. (One me­dia ac­count re­ported that Sheryl had in­sisted that the dog go first). With Rosie safe and sound, Gra­ham re­turned for Sheryl. All are do­ing fine."

Since the 1970s, I have asked stu­dents if they would first try to save their drown­ing dog or a drown­ing stranger. And for 40 years I have re­ceived the same results: One third vote for their dog, one third for the stranger, and one third don't know what they would do.

In the Wall Street Jour­nal col­umn, Robert M. Sapol­sky, a pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy and neu­rol­ogy at Stan­ford Univer­sity, re­ported about an­other such ex­per­i­ment:

"A re­cent paper by Richard Topol­ski at Ge­orge Re­gents Univer­sity and col­leagues, pub­lished in the jour­nal An­thro­zoos, demon­strates this hu­man in­volve­ment with pets to a star­tling ex­tent. Par­tic­i­pants in the study were told a hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nario in which a bus is hurtling out of con­trol, bear­ing down on a dog and a hu­man. Which do you save? With re­sponses from more than 500 peo­ple, the an­swer was that it de­pended: What kind of hu­man and what kind of dog?

"Ev­ery­one would save a sib­ling, grand­par­ent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when peo­ple con­sid­ered their own dog ver­sus peo­ple less con­nected with them — a dis­tant cousin or a home­town stranger — votes in fa­vor of sav­ing the dog came rolling in. And an as­ton­ish­ing 40 per­cent of re­spon­dents, in­clud­ing 46 per­cent of women, voted to save their dog over a for­eign tourist."

To his credit, Pro­fes­sor Sapol­sky is not pleased with these results. He con­cludes:

"We can ex­tend em­pa­thy to an­other or­gan­ism and feel its pain like no other species. But let's not be too proud of our­selves. As this study and too much of our his­tory show, we're pretty selec­tive about how we ex­tend our hu­mane­ness to other hu­man be­ings."

So, then, the most im­por­tant ques­tion for hu­man be­ings to ask is how we teach our­selves to "ex­tend our hu­mane­ness to other hu­man be­ings."

Or, to pose the ques­tion within the frame­work of the dog-stranger ques­tion: How do we con­vince peo­ple to save a hu­man be­ing they do not know rather than the dog they do know and love?

There is only one way. We need to teach — as we did through­out Amer­i­can his­tory un­til the 1960s — that hu­man be­ings are cre­ated in God's im­age and an­i­mals are not. That is the only com­pelling rea­son to save a hu­man be­ing you don't love be­fore the dog you do love.

What we have here is the clas­sic ten­sion be­tween feel­ings and val­ues — or, more pre­cisely, be­tween feel­ings and rev­e­la­tion (i.e., di­vinely re­vealed val­ues).

All of us feel more for a be­ing we love than for a be­ing we don't know, let alone love. There­fore some­thing must su­per­sede our feel­ings. That some­thing must be val­ues. But these val­ues must be per­ceived as em­a­nat­ing from some­thing higher than us; higher than our opin­ions, higher than our fac­ulty of rea­son, and even higher than our con­science.

And that higher source is God.

Once again, let us be clear: There is no com­pelling rea­son to save the stranger first, ex­cept for the as­ser­tion that hu­man life is in­fin­itely pre­cious, and in­fin­itely more pre­cious than that of an­i­mal life. Even those who vote to save their dog first live by this as­ser­tion. After all, nearly all of them are meat eaters: They have oth­ers kill an­i­mals for their culi­nary plea­sure, but they would never coun­te­nance killing hu­mans for their culi­nary plea­sure. It is only when their heart gets in­volved that they aban­don their be­lief that the value of hu­man life is greater than that of an­i­mal life.

With­out rev­e­la­tion, we can­not know what is right (we can have opin­ions and be­liefs about moral­ity but not moral knowl­edge). And even if we could know what is right with­out rev­e­la­tion, our feel­ings too of­ten over­whelm that knowl­edge.

I, too, love my dogs. But I be­lieve that God de­mands I save any of you first.

The results of all these polls pro­vide ex­am­ples of the ter­ri­ble moral price we pay think­ing that sec­u­lar­ism is as good a guide to moral behavior as rev­e­la­tion.

If you don't be­lieve me, pose the dog-stranger ques­tion to 10 peo­ple who be­lieve Ge­n­e­sis is di­vine writ and 10 peo­ple who be­lieve the Bible is writ­ten en­tirely by men.

When you tally the results, you will feel safer swim­ming among re­li­gious Jews and Chris­tians.

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