The idea that human beings rank higher than animals in terms of worth as forms of life has been around since ancient humanoids began hunting animals for food. Killing an animal has always needed less justification than the killing of a person. According to an article published by Cambridge University, “the distinctive enjoyments of human beings have greater moral worth – are ‘higher’ – than those of an animal,” [Cambridge University Press 1992]. This philosophical issue of whether animals are as important as humans is inherent to the core of the 2010 animated feature film, DreamWorks Studios’ How to Train Your Dragon.
The film’s protagonist, a Viking teenager named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (voiced by Jay Baruchel), has been brought up in a society that is at constant war with dragons. Hiccup has been indoctrinated by his community to believe that killing dragons is the only way of dealing with them as they frequently steal the Vikings’ food and destroy their village in self defence against the Viking retaliations.
According to an article published by Cambridge University, although there is an inherent “moral objection to killing animals, the value of animal life is much lower than that of persons” [Cambridge University Press 1992], suggesting that the Vikings have the right to kill the dragons if they pose an inconvenience to the human community of the area. Schwietzer counters this by stating in his thesis The Philosophy of Civilisation that “Very little of the great cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty, therefore, are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time may come” [Schweitzer 1923].
As the plot progresses, Hiccup downs a particularly difficult dragon to capture and can not bring himself to kill it. His father, Stoic the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) wishes his son to begin Dragon Training so he too can kill dragons with the others, but Hiccup says, much to his father’s extreme disappointment, “Dad, I can’t kill dragons!”. Hiccup and the dragon he captured, called Toothless, form an inseparable bond throughout the film. Young Vikings openly discuss their conquests and defeats of dragons as though it is a social normality in the Viking community; Faver suggests that “animal abuse reinforces and further contributes to empathy deficits [and] desensitisation to violence” [Faver 2010]. As the young Vikings have been brought up in a world that is focused on killing dragons, this empathy toward the creatures has not developed in them and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to show that Vikings and dragons co-exist harmoniously.
It can be argued that while the dragons in the film do not have the same general intelligence as the human Vikings (although the scene where Toothless draws a crass image of Hiccup in the sand is indicative of the counter-argument), according to Midgley, “what makes creatures our fellow beings, entitled to basic consideration, is surely not intellectual capacity but emotional fellowship” [Midgley 1985]. Considering the film is aimed at children, it also will inevitably instil valuable ideals about the proper attitudes to have regarding the humane treatment of animals [Ascione, F.R. 1992].
Ascione, F.R. (1992). Enhancing children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals: Generalised to human-directed empathy. Anthrozoos, 5 (3), 176-191
Cambridge University Press [Author unknown]. (1992). The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice. Retrieved May 29, 2012, from http://www.philosophy.umd.edu/Faculty/pcarruthers/Blurb-AI.htm
Faver, C.A. (2010). School-based humane education as a strategy to prevent violence. Elsevier, vol. 32, #3, p. 365-370.
Midgley, M. (1985). Persons and Non-Persons. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from http://allenherron.net/Persons%20and%20Non-Persons%20Midgley.pdf
Schweitzer, A. (1923). The Philosophy of Civilisation: Civilisation and Ethics, Part 2. A. & C., Black, ltd.