The case of The Dog in the Lifeboat describes a scenario where a dog and four humans are trapped on a lifeboat. The lifeboat, by virtue of having space for only four, is on the verge of sinking, and the passengers must see to their survival by sacrificing one among them. This article addresses the question of whether sticks should be drawn to determine who survives.
In the original scenario presented by Tom Regan, he suggests from the outset that the dog should be sacrificed for the sake of the others. He grounds his argument in all passengers on the boat having equal inherent value, and all having an equal unquestionable right not to be harmed. He, however, contends that because the harm of death is that of lost opportunities, the death of the human passengers is a greater prima facie loss. On these grounds, the dog may be sacrificed: through a fair accounting of prima facie rights not to be harmed (Regan, 2004).

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The suggestion to draw sticks appears to both confound and expand the initial argument. The notion of equal inherent value would buttress the proposal because the dog and all four humans are given an equal chance. The notion of an equal unquestionable right not to be harmed would, however, be discarded if sticks were to be drawn, because, as seen above, the harm is greater with the loss of a human. The notion of drawing sticks can be confounded further when humans’ capacity to negotiate survival is considered. Were the decision to be made based on barking or ferocity, perhaps it would be fairer. Humans, however, have the capacity to cheat and conspire against the dog at drawing sticks.

The argument presented by Regan is sufficient. Nothing else is necessary to palliate the conscience. If the dog must die, let them kill it. Furthermore, this scenario is not comparable to animal testing or cruelty. All passengers are subject to the same danger because the boat is bound to sink if nothing is done. There is no coercive transfer of risk to the dog that it would otherwise not encounter.

  • Regan, T. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley, LA: California University Press.