Tonight is the finale of the Westminster Dog Show. The show is always entertaining if you are dog lover and educational whether you are or not—what the heck is a Plott?–but it is also a strange epitome of what human beings will accept as fair and reasonable because of tradition alone. The pretense that the judging at this stage of the show, after the best of the individual breeds have been selected, is anything but deluded arbitrariness presented as scientific expertise is astounding, because so many intelligent people not only accept it, but accept it with good humor and certitude.
The American Kennel Club has exacting standards for each breed, and its judges are well-trained and knowledgeable to be sure. The Group competitions and climactic Best of Show determination, however, are blatant exercises in the suspension of disbelief. It is a true apples vs. oranges extravaganza that the owners, crowd and commentators treat with the solemnity of a major Supreme Court ruling, yet has no more real meaning than a series of coin flips. Last night, for example, a Scottish deerhound, one of my favorite breeds, won the Hound Group. This meant that the Group’s judge determined, in a matter of minutes, that the winning deerhound was a better deerhound than the best long-haired dachshund was a long-haired dachshund. How? What does that even mean? If someone was to dispute the decision, how would they go about it? Nobody ever does, of course. All the dogs are wonderful representatives of their breeds, and the fact that the cross-breed comparisons are logically impossible has the ironic effect of making disputes impossible as well.
Not that the results of the arbitrary determination of “best” doesn’t have consequences for the winners; they certainly do. The titles increase breeding fees, inflate the value of puppies, and if the dogs are offered for sale, they can translate into thousands of dollars. But challenging the judging criteria would serve nobody’s interest, loser or winner. Dog shows promote the AKC, the breeds themselves and dog-owning generally. The Westminster is a massive public relations bonanza for the entire industry, and whichever breed wins the arbitrary prize gets a photo on front pages across the country and an immediate bump in popularity.
The price for all this is the perpetration of a lie: that the competition has integrity, that the judges really have the magic ability to compare completely dissimilar dogs with fairness and precision. Without the lie, and everyone’s voluntary embrace of it, there would probably be no dog shows at all. The industry would suffer, many breeds might vanish, and casual TV viewers would miss a chance to see Neapolitan Mastiffs, Redbone Coonhounds and Leonbergers. Is this an example of a beneficent lie, and one more proof of Marshall’s Ethics Incompleteness Theory: “No ethical principle works in every situation”?
It might be. Similar acceptance of institutionalized myths are not so harmless, such as the belief that the Pope is literally “The Vicar of Christ”—despite an election process as political as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process—and that whatever he decrees is an edict from God. In the world of award competitions, even the Academy Awards and Tonys don’t approach the Westminster in pretense of legitimacy, for they are determined by votes, not exalted “acting judges” who can really discern in scientific fashion that Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right” wasn’t quite up to Natalie Portman’s performance in “The Black Swan.” Nobody believes there is any integrity in the process, and nobody cares. The Oscars exist to sell movie tickets.
Perhaps the essential dishonesty of the Westminster and other dog shows, representing arbitrary comparisons of superiority and legitimate, is tolerable because the objects of the lie, the dogs themselves, don’t believe the lie or care. To them, it’s just a big party, with lots of attention and love. And they are exactly right; it’s only the human who are fooled, or perhaps willing to fool themselves.
For a discussion of a different ethics controversy relating to the A.K.C. and its dog shows, go here.
UPDATE: Hickory, the Scottish Deerhound, won Best of Show, the first of her breed to do so. It may have been arbitrary, but it made me happy anyway. Great dog.