Apr 30, 2021 | LIFE | By Zeke Lloyd | Illustration by Xixi Qin

For those who just finished Introduction to Psychology, the end of Block 7 was bittersweet. The last day of class was marked not only by a final, but also by the impending death of the class’s lab rats.

At the course’s conclusion, the trained Long-Evans lab rats were euthanized and sent to the Pueblo Raptor Center. The last day with the animals was a melancholy one for students.

One individual was willing to recount their final moments with their rodent companion: “Usually we reward the rats with small little pieces of Cheetos, and I was giving the rat full Cheetos today … You do definitely form a bond with the rat, so it doesn’t feel great.”

This particular student, who chose to remain anonymous, was the first to think of the idea to purchase an identical rat to swap out with their own before the euthanizing.

“I am guessing if I got the same breed, it would probably look pretty similar. I know the weight of the rat as well, so I could account for that,” the student said. “It probably would have gone okay.”

Despite their desire to save the animal, they ultimately did not make the switch. In the last few weeks of the block, the class maintained its rigor; students found themselves with little time to plot rat rescues.

In addition to logistical challenges, though, the individual considered the ethics of such an enterprise. After all, if the plan were carried out, an innocent rat would be sentenced to death.

“I would have felt a twinge of guilt. At least this way, the rat is getting euthanized. I will feel less guilt,” the student said. “As I am sure is the thing with the trolley problem. I am sure you feel less guilt just walking away from it.”

The trolley problem, a famous ethical conundrum, is a comparable moral dilemma to the rat swap. In the trolley problem, a person is given the choice between taking no action and allowing five people to die or taking some action (like pulling a lever) and killing only one instead.

“[It is] whether motive makes an action right or wrong or whether consequences make an act right or wrong,” professor of philosophy John Riker said. “So you can argue back and forth on that. It’s a nice thought problem. What counts more, intentions or outcome? To me what counts more is what kind of person are you.”

This comment is indicative of Professor Riker’s view of morality: “I specialize in what I would call philosophical psychology … Your way of being in the world is what’s most ethically important, not whether you follow a standard set of rules.”

This can be applied to both the trolley problem and the rat lab. Performing an action is discouraged by a simple rule: do not take a life. But following this directive without fail might not be the most moral lifestyle. In the trolley problem, for example, taking a life actually saves the lives of five others.

So perhaps violating that same rule can be equally defendable in the rat situation.

“If you looked at all the consequences, no one is going to get hurt,” Professor Riker said. “You’re going to feel better, maybe your roommate will feel better, and the rat will feel better. So, if you are a utilitarian you say: “I’ll just take [the rat] to my dorm room until I get slapped.”

The anonymous student shared this sentiment. While they acknowledged that the replacement rat would be hurt, they considered this reconcilable.

“If somebody said that wasn’t morally correct, I would probably say that it’s no less morally correct than the other way around,” the individual said. “No rat’s life is more important than another rat’s life. Rat lives are all pretty equal to each other.”

It is possible that someone has swapped out their rat before. It could have happened in the last block or anytime in the last 30 years. It seems unlikely that many do, though. Whether it is due to poor thieving ability or a lack of moral confidence, there is undoubtedly some hesitation from students to save their rats. The trolley continues on along the tracks, and maybe someday someone will flip the lever.

Do you have an opinion about this ethical conundrum? Let me know at the following survey.

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