Friday, 1 May 2015

Why Do Different People See Dogs Differently?

A thread was recently created, and closed almost as quickly, in one of my favorite groups. The topic seemed, to me, to be fairly innocuous: �why is it that different people have such varying beliefs about the right way to treat dogs?�.  Unfortunately, the question was immediately interpreted as a kind of assertion of the superiority of the poster�s own beliefs, and - here�s where it gets really strange - as an example of cultural imperialism.  

Whether dogs should be kept indoors, how long they should be left alone, and even how they should be trained have all been argued as "cultural differences".  Since all cultures deserve equal respect, the argument goes, all the beliefs that are part of a culture also deserve equal respect.  But answers like, "it's their different culture" only accomplish three things:

  1. It moves the question up a level without answering it, from why an individual treats their dog that way, to why their culture believes that about dogs.
  2. It assumes that individuals are their culture, which ignores the intersectional identities that we all have.  We�re not just members of an ethnic culture, we also identify with political, gender-based, sexual, subcultural elements too.
  3. It makes the question much more difficult to answer without straying into disrespectful generalizations, or being accused of imperialism.
It�s pretty clear, then, that moving straight to culture as a way to account for the beliefs and actions of individuals is not useful.  Instead, I�ll propose a way to answer the question without dismissing culture or focusing too narrowly on it, using tools from practical ethics. 

When we ask why people do the things they do, we�re indirectly asking about morality.  Most people do things that they believe to be right, or at least, that they don�t believe are explicitly immoral or damaging to their character.  So, one way to get at the question, �why do people treat their dogs differently?� is to ask, �why do people believe doing what they do to their dogs is right?�

Asking this question takes in much more than culture, because our decisions about right and wrong are based on beliefs about facts as well as values.  We can imagine an individual decision to be comprised of different statements about relevant points, which are like the reels of a fruit machine:  

Reel 1: What is a dog, factually?  What does he think, feel, and know?  How does he perceive the world, and what sorts of things does he need to thrive?

Reel 2: What is a good life? What does welfare mean?  What kinds of things should be considered core to every dog's wellbeing, what is necessary but not sufficient, and what is supererogatory?

Reel 3: How much should we care about non-humans?  How much should we sacrifice for them? Does it make a difference whether they belong to me, or you, or nobody?  How bad should we feel when we fail to live up to our responsibility as dog owners? 

Each reel works in concert.  If you believe, like Rene Descartes did, that dogs cannot physically feel pain, it stands to reason that you won't class avoidance of painful things as good for dogs.  Descartes saw dogs like we see robots, and treated them accordingly - for him, they had no moral standing at all.  If Descartes had been born thirty years ago, however, his beliefs would almost certainly be different.

The Reels also allow us to see that moral relativism in dog training doesn't amount to much, because it's a blanket statement "what is morally right for me, might not be morally right for you and there are no objective standards to judge either of us against".  An individual's set of purported facts about what a dog is (Reel 1) can be proven to be more or less in accord with the real facts as best we know them.  So can data about what kinds of things lead to increased wellbeing (Reel 2).  This means there are ways to make judgements about our moral beliefs; if they depend on falsehoods, they need to be changed. 

If an entire group of people have their facts wrong, their beliefs will be mistaken too.  If an entire group of people believed what Descartes believed about dogs, we wouldn't say that they had an equal right to have this mistake respected, we'd say they needed to change their beliefs. 

Changing the basic facts can have a huge impact on an individual's beliefs about how dogs out to be treated.  For example, my partner became vegetarian overnight after reading about how smart pigs are.  But the issue works both ways. Sometimes people are so sure that their beliefs are right (and they are therefore a good person for treating animals the way they do) that they distort the facts to fit:

Thanks to @ScienceOfDogs for creating this graphic

This means we really can't say that our beliefs are ever completely infallible, but we can say that this is equally true whether they're attributed to cultures or to individuals.  Cognitive distortions happen at both levels - a culture can have conflicts when two values clash, just as an individual can. 

So what of culture?  As ethicists we have to acknowledge that culture plays a role in transmitting people's moral beliefs wholesale (or prereflectively), and of transmitting the facts on which those beliefs are built, but we can't accept culture as a justification or a sufficient explanation for why different people treat dogs differently.  

People are not their cultures, nor are cultures simplistic monoliths that spew out edicts; both are sensitive to context, time, place, micro-scale factors. When we ask why people do things to dogs, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be mired in culturally relativist argument.  
We can't hide behind cultural sensitivity as an excuse not to challenge beliefs about dogs, because there are ways to address the issue without sliding into "my culture is better than yours".