A few weeks ago a human-interest story from South Africa was reported internationally.
As described in the Wall Street Journal this past Friday:
"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 Anthrozo?s, 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.