Saintly or silly unto death?

A man who was both a hero and an obviously fine human being died a tragic death in San Francisco the other day. However, I also wonder if it wasn’t something of a pointless death:

Michael James Keenan, who risked his life once before to save a stranger from drowning in the bay, died Monday at St. Francis Memorial Hospital of complications from burns he suffered while rescuing a friend’s dog from a fire.

Mr. Keenan turned 44 in March while being treated at San Francisco General Hospital. He was moved to St. Francis for continuing care of burns he had sustained over 80 percent of his body in the Feb. 6 house fire on Russian Hill.

An artist and sometime carpenter and fashion designer, Mr. Keenan grew up in Maine but spent most of the past 20 years on the West Coast. He started a hip clothing line with friends that honored his home state, called Maine-iacs, featuring durable designs and vibrant colors.

“He was the kind of guy who would walk into any pub and walk out with 15 friends,” said Owen Kelly, who knew Mr. Keenan since childhood.

In 2001, Mr. Keenan saw a car drive into the bay near the St. Francis Yacht Club. He jumped into the water, broke out a window with a heavy wrench and managed to pull a woman to safety. Her husband drowned.

“He will always be my hero for life,” the rescued woman, Heather Rosnow-Laarif, said Monday.

Mr. Keenan had been house sitting for a friend on Bonita Street, waiting for renovations to be completed on his own apartment, when the early morning blaze broke out. He made it out of the townhouse safely before realizing the dog was still inside.

Mr. Keenan was a lifelong dog lover. He later told a longtime friend, Frank Hsieh, that he had thought he could get the dog quickly, but found he had to search a while before finding the 10-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Bobby, cowering under a bed.

Clearly, Keenan was a truly altruistic man, one who had no problem placing himself at risk to save others. People like that are admirable, and humans definitely need that type of man in the gene pool. But doesn’t there need to be some balance and common sense along with that innate altruism? I’m absolutely crazy about dogs, I truly am (to the point where I have a dog in my lap as I write this), but I question the wisdom of someone taking what proved to be a deadly risk to rescue a dog. As the above quotation shows, when he went in, he thought the risk would be minimal but, even when that proved untrue, he didn’t pull back. Why not? Was he bad at measuring risk? Stubborn? Or did he accord a dog’s life equal value to a human’s life?

If it’s the latter, that’s quite troubling. No matter how wonderful dogs are — and they are wonderful — they’re not human. To begin with, their lives are measured in a scant percentage of human years. Should I live out my full life, I can expect to have had at least five dogs in my life who lived with me from puppyhood through to old age. Dogs pack a lot of living into their short years but it doesn’t erase the fact that those years are short. For a human in the prime of life to put himself at serious risk for a dog that was already 50% or more of way the through its own life doesn’t make sense to me.

Dogs also don’t have human thought capacities, and that’s no trivial thing. A rich dog life involves eating well; sleeping well; satisfying levels of physical activity; and having a nice pack, whether human or canine. That’s it. There is no room in this life for invention; science; religion; philosophy; poetry; nation-building rich, multi-layered memories; politics; space travel; emotional connections that transcend food and cuddling; or any of the other sophisticated mental and emotional interactions that make up even the most basic human life.

Significantly too, dogs do not have an existential sense. Even as Bobby the dog was crouched under the bed feeling fear, it was almost certainly unaware of imminent death. That’s an overwhelmingly big difference — and certainly the one that enables me to eat meat with impunity. The cow, the chicken and the pig that I routinely consume do not stand around in pasture-land bemoaning the fact that they’ll soon be led to slaughter. Their feelings are limited to their immediate physical sensations, so I try to eat the cow that had room to graze, the chicken who could peck, and the pig who could root, with the hope that each was slaughtered in the most humane way possible.

I’m uncomfortable criticizing the ultimate choice Keenan made, because I wasn’t in the burning house with him as he made it. However, I’m also deeply saddened by the thought that a valuable human being is no longer on this earth because he might have elevated a dog’s life above his own.

I’d be very interested in what any of you have to say on this subject.

UPDATE:  Incidentally, on the subject of fires and the decisions we make, the nine firefighters who died in S.C. did all the right things — based on the information they had, they made the right decisions for the right reasons.  Their deaths are a tragedy, unclouded by logical or moral ambiguity.  I offer my sincere condolences to those they left behind.  Little Bookworm summed it up perfectly:  “That’s really sad.”

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4 Responses

  1. Wow. Being a passionate “animalphile” myself I THINK I would stay outside and call to my animals. And hope that their own instinct for survival would overcome their fear. I doubt that Mr Keenan knowingly sacrificed his life for a dog’s. I think he thought he could get them both out.

    Since grade school, I have been taught over and over, “once you are out do not go back for any reason.” And from what I hear from fire-fighters that’s because a fire is very unpredictable. Maybe they don’t teach fire safety in schools anymore. Whatever, it’s very sad but not silly.

  2. that he had thought he could get the dog quickly, but found he had to search a while before finding the 10-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Bobby, cowering under a bed.

    Small dog thing got him. I’ll elaborate.

    Everyone has to pull their own weight, because if they can’t, then at times this means the death of their protectors. It also means that the person or entity being rescued must do everything it can to help the rescuer and the hero. Otherwise, fundamentally they are not worth helping, because you cannot help even people who don’t want your help; let alone animals. Fundamentally, those who need help, are categorized as unable to help themselves. Therefore in the grand scheme of things, if their rescue continues to cost the lives of protectors while the rescued ones live, that means there are less and less protectors while the number of people who need rescuing keeps growing. Sort of like social security or the demographic problems of Europe concerning Muslim immigrants.

    There has to be at least some balance to level things out. Dogs have saved the lives of humans and infants in fires. But let’s suppose that all dogs were terriers, would there ever be a life balance for risking the lives of humans for such? Possibly, but unlikely if most terriers behaved as the one in the story did.

    Michael did what he did because that was the way he was. Certainly he saw it as the right choice. Meta-ethics however, argues that there is an objective standard or checklist concerning good and bad. My particular brand of ethics includes not only the choices and thinking of the rescuer, but also the choices and thinking of the entity being rescued. The reciprocity might communicate the correct meaning. Reciprocity as in, Jihadists only deserve good treatment if they treat our folks well. When Jihadists get more than they deserve, as the terrier got more than it deserved (life and a human life as well), is it silly? *shrugs* It is a loss in the long term of decades, centuries, and milleniums. But is it right or wrong in the short term? That’s a different consideration, because the short term simply includes Michael’s life, and it was Michael’s choice what to do with it. He is no animal. Yet it is true that in the long term, the greater pool of humanity has lost more than it has gained, using the long term focus of meta-ethics. What is right in the long term, after many repetitions. The short term deals only with one person’s decisions at one time, which is not often repeated in the exact same manner. The short term focus of my meta-ethics has to recognize that if Michael was not the person he was, then he wouldn’t have went in to save the dog, but then neither would he have saved the woman either, Book. To compare it to GitMo, I have to recognize that America does what it does with captives at GitMo because that is how America is, just like Bush is how he is. This fundamental nature cannot be changed simply with a long term analysis of certain decisions, risks, and long term gains. Hopefully, whatever short term risks are taken, the long term rewards pan out. It didn’t pan out for Michael, but it might pan out for the United States concerning treatment of terrorists, if other events such as Iraq succedes and changes the long term result.

    but I question the wisdom of someone taking what proved to be a deadly risk to rescue a dog.

    Risk wasn’t too bad, if the dog was larger and was barking or something and going crazy running around the rooms, then he might have come out only with 40% burns or less. 80% is an infection’s dream.

    For a human in the prime of life to put himself at serious risk for a dog that was already 50% or more of way the through its own life doesn’t make sense to me.

    You should also consider the fact that this human had already saved one human life by direct action. So who knows what other human lives he might have saved in the future, that would have been lost without his direct intervention. And also calculate the good and lives that the terrier would save with his remaining life.

    People would be a lot safer from fire if there was some way to make cheap fire resistant fabric and perhaps have an small oxygen re-breather close at hand that was cheap to make but efficient. Course the Warmies would stop it, since fire is their best friend. It clears out the human pollution makers in California so to speak.

  3. From what little I know about Mr. Keenan in the report, he was certainly a fine, valuable member of society. If he had tried to save the dog and failed, and lived, that would be one thing. If he had not tried to save the dog and lived, the memory of that failure to act could have haunted him and affected his behavior for the rest of his life. He made a choice. He acted as he saw fit. For him, that was the right choice.
    Yes, Mr. Keenan is no longer on this Earth to possibly save others any more. But the memory of his behavior remains on this Earth, to possibly influence others’ behavior.
    Al

  4. […] shift once again to the ethical realm of argument, we can look at Bookworm’s latest post on a man dying to save a neighbor’s dog. The question of pulling your own […]

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