Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

[This post originally appeared on the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics’ blog, for which I am a regular contributor.]

 

As a borderline-obsessive dog lover, the news of the blaze at the Manchester Dogs’ Home this week particularly saddened me. A fire was started – it seems deliberately by a 15-year old boy – and around 60 dogs died, with another 150 alive after being rescued. Yet, alongside this there was some uplifting news. A number of passers-by ran into the burning building to rescue dogs, and as I write this the Just Giving page for people to donate to the home after the fire has now reached £1,416,549 in just a few days, with 140,914 donations. Of particular interest to me were the number of people calling the suspect ‘evil’ – this act really pulled at the heartstrings. More worryingly (but I am ashamed to say, understandable to me) were the visceral reactions to this where people were calling for this child to be burned alive himself.

What is so special about dogs? Do we have any particular moral obligations to dogs? Are there any rational reasons for the enhanced moral status of dogs?

Perhaps dogs are more intelligent? We might think that dogs are intelligent, sentient animals, and this this justifies their enhanced moral status. Dogs are trained for a number of tasks, including guide dogs, police dogs, service warning dogs, and so on. Surely, their intelligence warrants additional concerns. But, on the other hand, we know that other animals – like pigs – have an intelligence that at least parallels that of dogs. Yet pigs are factory farmed in horrendous conditions, at latest matching the pain these dogs suffered. If intelligence is the decisive criterion, it seems we exhibit mass hypocrisy when we raise such concern over occasional dog atrocities while remaining blind to the daily suffering of pigs on a staggeringly large scale.

Perhaps we have special obligations to dogs because they are pets? This perhaps is a more promising argument (even if disagreeable to animal rights activists who believe animals cannot be possessions). Perhaps when taking on dogs we enter an implicit contract whereby we protect and care for them? Yet as a rational explanation, this again seems to fail on at least two immediately obvious counts. First, it is not clear that these animals were under any such contract, for they had no owners, and so didn’t have this enhanced status for being pets. Second, it isn’t clear that this kind of argument would apply to stray dogs. What if all of these dogs were strays? Would it not then be seen as so morally reprehensible? I doubt it. It seems that there is something about dogs as species – as a whole – that is important, regardless of the specific facts of their existence.

Perhaps dogs can feel pain more than other animals? Again, this argument seems a non-starter, for there is no evidence at all that dogs feel more pain than other animals that we routinely keep in horrendous conditions – cows; pigs; sheep, etc.

I am, no doubt, missing some rational arguments in favour of the enhanced status of dogs. But, I am also reasonably confident that this is because such arguments, such as they are, are weak.

Work from moral psychology has highlighted the importance that non-rational considerations play in our moral decision-making (e.g. see Jonathon Haidt’s classic paper here, or his wonderful best-selling book The Righteous Mind; also see Josh Greene’s work here). Is it possible that our increased moral concern for dogs has no rational basis, but is rather driven by our intuitive reactions of greater warmth felt towards dogs? I think so. Evidence suggests that people do have stronger intuitive reactions to family members, and dogs are often described as being part of the family. Perhaps our close proximity to dogs has led to anthropomorphism, where we begin to think of them as quasi-human, and thus deserving of quasi-human moral concern.

That said, highlighting such insights from moral psychology that might apply here does not really help one in exploring whether there is any rational basis for our increased moral concern for dogs – it merely describes why we might think it is so.

A search for a rational explanation may, it seems, be a non-starter (although I would be interested to hear any good arguments to the contrary, if only to justify my own excessive love for dogs). But is this a problem? Perhaps the issue is not our increased moral concern for dogs, but rather our dampened moral concern for other similar animals. Maybe the question could be reframed: why do we think of certain animals as being non-deserving of moral concern? And here, a number of reasons could be suggested, most notably some form of motivated social cognition. For example, some recent and fascinating work has suggested that dissonance reduction is important in the denial of minds to animals used for human consumption (see here for a recent review). But that, sadly, is a topic for another day.

My own special animal, Maggie.
My own special animal, Maggie.