Saturday, May 21, 2011

Veganism and Leashes

In response to my questions my favorite commentator defends the keeping of pets and the riding of horses with the idea that dogs/horses and humans share a symbiotic relationship.  It is certainly the case that some humans need their dogs and enjoy their horses, while the same dogs and horses need, or at least seem to have better lives when in, the care of these humans.  Still, I have some problems with this.  Humans may have brought about this state of affairs, in which case the moral question may be how to undo the symbiosis rather than to perpetuate it.  To take an extreme example, a slave may be dependent on his master, but our reaction is to emancipate the slave even knowing that there will be a transition period that might be painful for ex-slaves.

Moreover, when vegans avoid exploiting animals animals they too make some animals, born and unborn, worse off.  Chickens in a commercial coop are also dependent on humans.  Of course, most of these chickens would never have been born if not for non-vegan humans.

I do not "own" a dog, and that might make me a better --  or much worse -- observer of human-dog relations.  I have some trouble watching dogs on leashes.  I understand that this can be defended as advancing the safety of the dog, which might otherwise run into the street or conflict with another dog or human.  I would have thought that people who do not wear leather would also not pull dogs by their necks.

I hope my readers know that I do not mean these comments in a judgmental way.  First, I hardly expect people and especially myself to be consistent.  I admire people who try to do good and to live cooperatively  on our planet; if they do 5/7 of the non-exploitative things, that is pretty good and more than I usually do (especially when I was more the curious carnivore than the curious vegan).  Second, I am simply the curious temporary vegan.  I am trying to understand why keeping pets is not abhorrent to people who do not eat meat or even animal products.


  1. Nathaniel challenges my argument about a symbiotic relationship between human beings and dogs by mentioning the example of slavery. I really enjoyed thinking about this challenge, because it is perfectly true, of course, that exploitation can make allies out of the oppressed: that is what feminists and others say all the time about the way in which women have o often been encouraged to be flirtatious and submissive. As my favorite philosopher, J. S. Mill, says, "Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. They have therefore pub everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear...The masters of women wanter more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose" -- making women think that dependency was sexy and attractive, independent will unattractive, etc. So, just as in that case we would not take that longstanding symbiosis as good evidence of how things ought to be, so [I understand Nathaniel's argument] we should not take the symbiosis between humans and dogs and horses as evidence of how things ought to be.

    To answer this great challenge I want to take four cases, and I want to ask in each case, are the two beings of the same species? And what evidence do we have about the good for each?

    First, the teenage human person. Now this person, in the U. S. middle class, is symbiotic with one or more authority figures who are pretty domineering and who make choices for this person. We think it is a good thing that this person eventually grows up and moves out, going to college or a gap year (!). But: first of all, everyone involves knows this from the beginning, and they typically want the freedom of the teenage person and develop educational strategies to this end. And the whole idea of dependency followed by freedom is built into the human life cycle: the parents tell stories about when they were children, etc., pointing out how much wiser and better they now are of course. And nobody doubts that the teenage person is of the same species. So,the symbiosis is temporary; functional while it lasts, but bad if prolonged too far.

    Second, the slave. Here the symbiosis is effected by force, and though a rhetoric of the slave as dependent animal often accompanies it, this is rarely if ever really believed by either party, as evidenced by the fact that slave owners have sexual relationships with their slaves. Sometimes slaveholders are genuinely surprised when slaves prefer independence (that was a fascinating part of that George Washington biography). But they should not have been. And though it is sometimes a painful transition, the fact that the slaves are of the same species suggests that it is right, and morally required.

    Third, women. Well, there the symbiotic dependency often goes deeper, as Mill says, affecting women's desires and sentiments in such a way that they collaborate in their own subordination. But still, once a time of consciousness raising finally arrives, there is no looking back, and women now reject subordination just as the eighteenth century rejected feudalism. Here again, the fact that the male and female are of the same species is important, although some would still insist that submissiveness is part of women's evolutionary makeup. I think, however, that Mill is correct: women's sentiments have been artificially formed by culture. As he notes, whenever women are not brought up that way, they want equality.

  2. So we get to dogs and horses. These species have evolved in symbiosis with humans, not just in one culture-shaped lifetime, but for millenia of evolutionary prehistory. The species as they currently exist are made for symbiosis. They survived because they were good at it, and the ones that weren't good at it perished. The dog as we know it branched off from wolves and hyenas and became a distinct kind with a distinct form of life. Skills that are important for symbiosis were selected for: a variety of herding and hunting skills in the case of dogs, athletic strength and jumping power in the case of horses, plus a lot of responsiveness to signals from humans in both cases.

    Now let me talk about two animals I know. First, the only dog I've ever had, Laird, a scottie who was with my family when I was between 12 and 17. Laird loved our fenced-in yard, because he was king in there. He terrorized smaller animals with his bark, and he pranced around proudly. He was also quite pleased that predators could not get in, and not even larger dogs. He was well nourished and greatly loved. Now suppose I had taken up the project of freeing Laird. It is possible that after thousands of years of pain and suffering for thousands of small scotties, a reverse evolution might have taken place, and scotties would become like small wolves, able to forage on their own. But little Laird would have been torn apart in a terrible way, and many more like him. It just isn't part of the scottie form of life to develop to independent adulthood.

    Now let's take Doc, a fine hunter-jumper horse ridden in many championships by Ellyn Ruddick-Sunstein, a vegan. Ellyn did at times get the idea that Doc would be better off "free" in "the wild." But when he whinnied with delight when he smelled her coming and frisked about in anticipation of the ride ahead, she knew that things were more complicated. Doc really loved to be an athlete, and it gave him so much pleasure to jump well over hurdles -- of course when ridden by a loving and non-cruel rider, but he could not have done that athletic event without a rider, any more than a running back could achieve without a quarterback. It was teamwork. Now suppose she had let Doc "free." He probably would have died very quickly, being run over by a car or something, because horses really can't learn survival skills that would enable them to forage in "the wild." That's not part of the skill set of the horse as it has evolved. Wild horses were a totally different species. What's more, he would have missed the joy of the athletic competition.

    I keep putting "free" and "the wild" in quotes because I think we need to be reminded that nature, even without human intervention, is not a nice place and does not give creatures happy lives much of the time. Mill wrote a beautiful essay, "Nature," in which he objected to the way people used the word "natural" as a term of praise, as if nature is nice and moral. He remarked, "Killing, the most disgraceful of crimes known to human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives." And he points out that the ways things get killed in nature are horrible, and full of torment. So I think we should be promoting happy lives for creatures, not necessarily lives in nature. That depends upon the characteristic life form of the species.

    In short, if exploitation means using a creature as a mere means and not an end, I don't think that keeping domestic animals under human guardianship has to be exploitation, and indeed in very many cases it is not. What we need to look for is whether the human guardian is treating the creature as a mere extension of his or her own narcissistic ego, or, instead, loving and caring for the creature for its own sake. But that is something we need to watch out for in human relationships too, and that is what all my four examples have in common.

  3. Now this post is getting at a core value split that's been going on in the previous posts: between anti-suffering and anti-domestication (or anti-enslavement, but "enslavement" is a term that begs the question on the issue, i.e., whether or not keeping an animal is reducing its dignity by blocking its freedom, whether an animal is really "free" in the sense that a slave is not, and so on).

    I hope you keep narrowing in on it. It's key. I'd just add one thing to consider, which is that independence is not necessarily inconsistent with relationship. On the contrary, being able to have healthy relationships is a sign of independence. I say this, because at times, I fear we equate independence with separateness, with being apart. But that's not right on. Independence for beings who relate is not being apart, but being together in a way that preserves the relational aspect of the relationship, the give and take, the play and connection, and so on.

    I think it would be interesting to approach the emerging question about animal freedom (or should we say, " 'freedom' "? (For where is its dominion? --the concept implying a political capacity, a regulation of sovereignty that all the animals we are discussing do not have, are incapable of.) ) in this light.