The Approximate Dollar Value of the Lives of Your Pets

In Slate today, David Grimm asks: How much money can we ethically spend to save our sick pets? An excellent question (for arguing)! Let's try to construct a rough list.

Grimm tells of countless people spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on surgeries and medications to save their beloved pets, and the queasy ethical questions that naturally go along with this. Even assuming that you do have the money to spare, is it not a moral imperative to spend our lifesaving dollars in a way that maximizes their impact, rather than on a single doggie? And should that money be spent on needy humans instead of animals?

"I can spend my money how I want! Fluffy needs me!" exclaim the pet owners. "You're a ridiculous, short-sighted prick! There are starving children in Africa who could be saved with that money!" scream the hard-hearted realists. This argument will never be won with emotion. We must make an attempt—however crude—to quantify what a pet's life is worth. That is, how much money can ethically be spent to save a pet's life. What is the dollar amount past which spending becomes wasteful and selfish and could be better directed towards other, more useful forms of lifesaving?

"Infinity" is one answer, yes, but we will ignore that position, because it refuses to take into account the reality of suffering in the wider world. We will also ignore the answer "zero," because it fails to take into account the reality that a pet can suffer, too. As Jeremy Bentham, one of the first thinkers to reckon with animal rights, said, "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"

Now that we have displayed a quote from a real philosopher, let's construct a rough hierarchy of the monetary value of the lives of various pets, based upon the amount that we imagine they can suffer, relative to a human. (We take as our starting point the estimate via Peter Singer that the world's most effective charities can save a human life for somewhere between $1,000 and $2,300.)

How Much Can You Ethically Spend to Save the Life of This Pet Before You Should Put This Pet to Sleep and Give the Money to a Good Lifesaving Charity?

Rat, hamster, or other rodent: $5

Fish: $20

Lizard, snake, or other reptile: $50

Parrot or other bird: $100

Cat: $300

Dog: $800

Horse, cow, or other livestock: $1,500

Monkey: $2,000

This is obviously a rough guide but I believe it's a good start.

[Photo: Flickr]