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Monday, August 06, 2007

Petting that dog, eating that cow - Crispin Sartwell

I was sent this article in an email... interesting...

>>Editorial "Defend Dogs, but Eat Cows"

Great guest opinion/editorial from the Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted in the Santa Barbara News Press today Aug 5. Links the Vick dogfighting scandal to factory farming and unprosecuted cruelty to food animals. Finally somebody mainstream is thinking clearly.


The opinion is written by Crispin Sartwell, who teaches philosophy at Dickinson College.

Petting that dog, eating that cow

The Michael Vick dogfighting case, and all of the attention on dogfighting and its attendant practices, show one thing very clearly: As a society, we have no idea what we think about animals. We don't know how much we ought to take them into account, morally. We don't even know how to figure it out.

I watched cable news recently, and almost every anchor interviewed an official of the Humane Society, and all expressed horror, especially that Vick's indictment had accused him and acquaintances of executing dogs in ways apparently designed to be as cruel as possible: drowning, strangling, electrocution. One official compared the practice to child pornography.

Then I went into town for some lunch, driving past all of the franchises peddling ground cow for human consumption - the same ones you'll find on every American highway exit.

If killing dogs is the equivalent of child pornography, while eating cows is simply a way to put off mowing the lawn, we seem to be conflicted - or reeking with hypocrisy and confusion.

We have a set of intuitions, driven partly by our interactions with pets, that many animals can experience pain in a morally significant way, that they can suffer, or be used and degraded. Perhaps they have somewhat less of a claim on us than human beings do, but they make a claim.

But another set of intuitions is driven by our dietary habits or our experience of thumping squirrels and armadillos on the road: that an animal is little more than an inanimate object, and can be used in whatever way a human being sees fit.

Our moral evaluation of animals seems to vary with their proximity to ourselves - both their everyday interactions with us and their perceived similarity to us - so that by the time you're done attributing love, loyalty and inferential reasoning to your dog, you have recognized her as a de facto human being, a member of the family. It works both ways, and your dog recognizes you as leader of the pack.

Cows have big, sad eyes, but less personality of the sort that arouses our recognition. And these days, unless you're directly involved in the farming and food industry, your interaction with cows is limited to, let's say, the drive-through lane.

In practice, the moral claims of animals vary by species and track our sense of the animal's proximity - cognitive, emotional, physical - to ourselves. We become truly sentimental: We write memoirs with our dogs, talk baby-talk to them, let them lick our faces. But about other species we are as hard-nosed as possible. Essentially, we do whatever we feel like to them whenever we want.

But there is no rational justification for this distinction. Pigs aren't more stupid, or less emotionally complex or less capable of experiencing pain than dogs, but they seem to lack that certain something (well, all except Charlotte's Wilbur).

One might simply rest the problem with dogfighting on its effects on human beings - as in, "Dogfighting is debasing not to the pit bull but to the quarterback who participates."

But if we really believed cruelty to animals debased humans who participate, we'd have to accept that our massive, industrial-scale systems of cruelty to cows deeply debase all humanity.

If there were an argument for dogfighting, I suspect it would go like this: The dog is bred to fight; we admire its violence and participate in it; it is a primal and even noble enactment of our life here on Earth. Perhaps the dog would rather die than lose, like the world's greatest athletes or businessmen.

This resembles the animal-rights argument: It reads a dog's motivations as though they were human. But it has a different sense of what it means to be human.

We need to decide: (a) Do animals count? and (b) How, exactly, not as dwarfish, or four-legged, or stupid people, but as real things whose existence is, though connected to ours, profoundly external and different?

Until we grapple with these questions, our condemnation of Vick and our tender treatment of Beau the miniature dachshund are equally irrational.

Crispin Sartwell's Web site is http://www.crispinsartwell.com.<<


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