How Ethical Are You?

An old ethics question raises the hypothetical dilemma of the value of life

Photo by Eric TERRADE on Unsplash

A philosophy professor at Portland State University, Peter Boghossian, went viral this week when he posed an old ethics question to his 124k followers on Twitter. He simply asked, “If the Louvre were burning and you could only save the Mona Lisa, or an old dog, which would you save?”

The tweet utilized the polling option and allowed people to vote on the issue. While not entirely surprising, the results still showed how wildly different people viewed this scenario through their own lenses of morality and estimations of value regarding the preservation of history and the transience of experience. Far more people said they would choose to save the Mona Lisa than one might have expected, though the dog still ended up winning the most votes.


This hypothetical scenario is usually presented by putting the choice of art preservation against that of human life. A somewhat famous poem by Linda Pastan called “Ethics” references this question, with the choice being between saving an old woman, or a Rembrandt painting, in a 1979 issue of POETRY.

In both cases, the question asks us to weigh the complexities of a moral dilemma that in reality we would have to choose under the duress of a moment pressured by imminent danger. It’s hard to imagine that many people actually living the experience of such a moment could see another person or an animal such as a dog that we consider in many ways to be on par with humanity, with many people owning dogs that they think of as members of their families, under direct threat of death and suffering, and that they could coldly choose to ignore them in favor of salvaging a painting.

The truth is, when in direct experience of such a moment, empathy and instinct would direct the mass majority of people to help someone or another life in need. But the segregation of the hypothetical scenario from the empathy of human proximity allows the mind to argue over things that it normally would not argue.

Those that argue for saving the painting, argue that art and historic artifacts are priceless because they are unique and it is important to preserve these aspects of our history. They say that the life of the individual is transient and when compared to the significance of cumulative history, the life of the individual doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. No one remembers the common person, but everyone should remember Leonardo da Vinci and his contributions to society.

By putting the age of the person/dog into the equation, we are meant to think less of the value of their existence, because they are already “close to dying anyway.” This should really clue people in to the way elderly members of society are routinely thought of as a burden, and not considered all that important. Isn’t it a question of ageism when presented this way, rather than a question of the importance of life? When thinking on this, you might also find some of the reasoning behind why certain countries were slower to react to the Covid pandemic, realizing that the elderly populations were the most impacted.

Those who argue for saving the woman/dog in this scenario, put forward their empathy in the moment. They say that preventing the unnecessary suffering and death of another sentient being should come before salvaging an object. In the case of art history such as a Rembrandt or the Mona Lisa, these things have already been preserved many times over, documented in photographs and duplicate prints available all over the world. In regard to its value, that is entirely arbitrarily assigned by society and the age of the item. This runs exactly counter to the way human life is valued, in that the older a person gets, the less important they are.

Others try to think of the scenario as to the likelihood of monetary reward. They say that if they save the Mona Lisa, a priceless painting, they would expect to be rewarded enough money that they could then turn around and use the funds for humanitarian purposes allowing them to save far more lives than the one they sacrificed to meet this goal. This outcome is perhaps far more blindly optimistic than the realistic fallout of such circumstances.

For one thing, saving a painting from a museum fire doesn’t grant you ownership of the artwork. You couldn’t sell it. Any reward from the museum would likely be lackluster. Assuming you somehow did get a large sum for saving the painting, how likely would you be to focus that money toward humanitarian aid rather than personal comfort? Let’s be honest here. Most people are thinking of themselves first.

This question brings a lot of the underlying frameworks of morality to the surface of our thoughts. It does not ask religious dogma or to reference legal guidebooks. It merely asks for what matters most to humanity as a whole: the life of the individual, or the preservation of the history of human society.

Given that most people would choose to save the woman/dog in this hypothetical, why then is it that in reality we allow our elderly populations to be pushed to the fringes of society in the often ignored assisted living facilities, where they finish their lives in diminished states of loneliness? Why are modern societies plagued by epidemics of homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty? Why are so many animals euthanized daily in shelters? If we would choose good in one hypothetical scenario, what prevents us from choosing to do good in reality? Does this make the choice hypocritical?

These are all valid questions.

So, what would you choose? And why would you choose it? How certain are you?

Provocative truth teller, author of 18 poetry collections. Cat dad. Dog dad. Currently working from Portland, Oregon. Learn more at:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store