Monday, 20 April 2015

Euthanasia for Aggression: The Wrong Paradigm

The question of whether dogs that behave aggressively, but are otherwise healthy ought to be euthanized is always divisive.  Every time a video does the rounds on social media, or a story comes out in the press about a dog attack, activists line up to state that no dog ought to be put down for such an act, because dogs are innocent creatures.  But what does this mean?

The argument I am discussing here is that a dog that bites ought not to be euthanized because that would be an injustice:
  1. Euthanasia is the death penalty,
  2. We ought not extend the death penalty to individuals who lack the ability to know right from wrong (are "innocents"),
  3. Dogs lack the ability to know right from wrong,
  4. Therefore we ought not euthanize dogs that bite.
This is an argument about justice.  I'm going to argue that justice isn't the right framework to understand the issue, and the comparison neglects the most important element of consideration: the dog's wellbeing.  I�ll start by examining the key reason given in the argument, which is that dogs are �innocent�.

What does �innocent� mean? 

The first and most obvious definition of innocence is the legal one, which is that the dog did not commit the act it is being charged with. In this article, I�m limiting myself to discussing dogs who have definitely bitten a human.  The conception of  �innocence� at issue has to mean something more substantial about the kind of creature a dog is, rather than about its actions.

Generally, this kind of innocence as a feature of character rather than actions is something we accord to children, animals, and sometimes adults who have some intellectual or developmental disability.  It can refer to the idea that (1) An innocent can't be held responsible for actions because he or she doesn't know what she's doing in a relevant sense; and/or (2) An innocent lacks some type of knowledge about the world as it really is, usually that there are people in it with bad motives.

A dog that bites cannot be classed as (2) since he does know there are "bad" people in the world.  He just bit one of them, or at least he thinks he did.  So, we need to unpack (1) to find out whether there�s any justification for according this definition of innocence to dogs.  Do dogs know what they're doing in a relevant sense?

The relevant sense here is the moral one - whether a dog can know right from wrong.  Dogs only know right and wrong on a practical level, not a moral one.  Moral thinking isn�t something we assume dogs can do - we can train them to perform certain actions and we assume they have certain motivations like getting food, and pleasing people they love, but we don�t imagine that a police dog is weighing up whether she really ought to chase a suspect, or a pet chihuahua is considering whether it's really ethical to steal underwear off the drying rack (were that the case, doggy jail would fill up pretty fast!).

"In my defense, Your Honor, they were delicious"

Although research has suggested that dogs can experience a sense of jealousy and "inequity aversion", which points to them understanding some concept of fairness at an emotional level, unfairness is only a problem for dogs if they�re the victim.  There isn�t evidence that dogs care that other people are getting a raw deal on their behalf, which would be suggestive of a moral understanding of fairness rather than one based in self-interest.  Fairness, of course, is only one element of morality.  As far as we know, it�s safe to say that the realm of moral oughts, of justice and ethics, is only accessible to the humans in the relationship.  That�s one of the reasons why we bear such a weight of responsibility for our companion animals.

In this way, dogs are �innocent�, because they do indeed lack some level of understanding of the world.  The fact that an aggressive dog doesn't don�t know what they are doing in a moral sense, however, is not an overriding reason to avoid euthanizing them.  It�s rank anthropomorphism to base life and death decisions about what we ought to do with our dogs on whether they can understand human concepts.  We have to decide whether aggressive dogs ought to be euthanized based on considerations of this dog relative to other dogs, not relative to humans.  Is this dog more dangerous, less happy, less able to be rehabilitated than other dogs?

Justice and responsibility

What about the claim, often made by defenders of the argument I�m discussing, that dogs are only provoked to bite because humans have done something to that dog - either through abuse, breeding, or poor training?  If a dog has been bred to have minimal impulse control and maximum aggression, or if he's been subjected to training for dog fighting - aren't his actions really caused by these things?  Doesn�t that mean it�s unjust to euthanize the dog, since he can�t help what�s happened to him?

In human law, opinion has been divided on whether direct evidence of biological compulsion counts in a defendant�s favor.  Brain scans and genetic tests have discovered certain biological features of individuals that puts them at much greater risk of committing crimes, but some judges have taken this as a reason to be more lenient, whereas others have concluded that such individuals are a higher risk of re-offending and should be punished more severely.

There is not a clear legal precedent that could be extended to dogs who might have similar risk factors, but there doesn't need to be, since dogs are already not seen as morally or legally responsible.  A biological or psychological risk factor, however, might lower his chances of being successfully rehabilitated.  If anything, the claim that dogs that have bitten have been caused to become aggressive by factors outside their control tips the scales in favor of euthanasia, not against.

At this point, it should be clear that justice is an insufficient concept for determining whether a dog ought to be euthanised for aggression.  It simply doesn't matter whether a dog can understand right and wrong, or whether their genes, environment, or past gave them their current set of dispositions.  For a complete account of what the right thing to do is, we need to focus on individual cases, and bring in considerations of welfare.

Welfare considerations

Euthanasia for a biting dog shouldn't be seen as the death penalty, it should be seen as the last in a line of options that maximize welfare without sacrificing safety.  Whether euthanasia is the right thing to do should depend on what kind of environment an individual dog would need to live in if other animals (humans included) are to be kept safe.

In turn, this depends on the available resources; is it practically possible to create an enriched, happy, safe life for this dog without taking the same away from other dogs that might be in the rescue organization or the owner's home.  There are undoubtedly times where owners choose euthanasia when they should not, but equally I believe there are times when it is the kindest thing.

If we wanted to carry on the judicial metaphor, we could call "crate and rotate", poor-quality sanctuaries, or a life of never interacting with others or leaving the owner's yard "life imprisonment" for aggressive dogs.  If being the sort of creature who cannot understand right from wrong entitles a dog to not be punished by death for biting, then surely punishment by life imprisonment is equally unjust.

Justice is simply not a profitable way to capture a complete picture of the morality of the situation here. We should look to measures of expected quality of life to determine the best way to proceed with dogs that bite, and avoid the emotional baggage that comes with the word "innocence".