In a fourth grade class at Whittier Elementary School yesterday, we read chapter 3 of Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills, and the children asked the question, "Does everything have a right to live?" Most of the children responded initially that they thought that everything did have a right to life.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
"If everything has a right to life," I asked, "does that mean that if I swat and kill a mosquito because it's about to bite me, I'm doing something that's morally wrong?"
"Well maybe," one child replied. "I mean, if you get bit by a mosquito it's not going to kill you, and so it seems unfair that a mosquito should die so that you won't get bit."
"But if you were in a country where mosquito bites could kill you it would be different," another child noted. "Like it you could catch malaria or something."
"And mosquitos need to bite humans to live," observed a third child. "If you have to do something to survive, it seems like there should be less negative consequences than if you just want to hurt someone else for fun."
"I think everything has a right to life, but every right to life is not equal," suggested another student.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I think that everything starts off with a right to life. All creatures that are alive have a right to life. But not all of these rights are equal. It depends on how important you are to the whole environment. People think human beings are the most important, but we might not be."
"I agree," replied a student. "If all the humans died, it probably would cause greater harm to the environment than if all the mosquitos were gone. But that doesn't mean that nothing is more valuable than people."
"We think that people are the most important," put in another student, "but that's just because we're people."
"I agree," said a student. "You always see things from your own perspective. I mean, mosquitos probably think they're the most important beings on the planet. Imagine living on a planet where we were tiny and there were these giant mosquitos that were constantly swatting at us whenever we got near them. We wouldn't think that just because we were smaller and less powerful, that the giant mosquitos had more of a right to life than we did."
"What you think about which creatures are the most important," responded a student, "really depends on your attachments. We think people, and dogs and cats and other pets, are more important than mosquitos, but that's just because we have relationships with them. If someone had a mosquito for a pet, they would probably see it differently."