Ten Lessons from the “Dog Wars” Debate

Wait! Calm down! This is a CARTOON dog.

The “Dog Wars” Android phone app is apparently down for the count, the victim of too many complaints, threats and accusations that it was evil and irresponsible and promotes real, live dog-fighting, even though almost nobody sane makes similar claims about other video games. As with the subject of most posts on Ethics Alarms, however, the ethics issue lingers on, whether or not the specific incident that sparked the commentary has been resolved.

The comments, often passionate, that this post elicited have been fascinating, and had much to teach, even when the comments themselves were dubious. Here are ten lessons from the debate over the game and the Ethics Alarms commentary about it.

1. Ethics alarms aren’t always right. So many comments about “Dog Wars”, here and around the web, consist of various versions of, “That’s just wrong!” Well, why is it “just wrong”? It is good to have a mechanism that warns you there may be ethical problems lurking, but having a gut feeling that something is wrong is not the same thing as really knowing if, how, and why it is wrong. This is where ethical analysis skills are critical. The same is true for the other famous ethics alarms, the so-called “Mom Test” (“Could you tell your mother about it without feeling ashamed?”) and the “New York Times Test” (“Would you want what you did on the front page?”) The alarms are supposed to prompt the next steps, evaluation and analysis. Sometimes your gut, mother and popular opinion are what is wrong, not what set off the ethics alarms.

2. “Ick” gets mistaken for unethical more than we think. The controversy over the dog-fighting phone app tracks exactly with past attacks on violent dime novels, horror comic books, rock music, heavy metal, rap and video games, all new and frightening, often in bad taste, but with no measurable harm attached to them. Personally, I would rather not live in a culture where something like “Dog Wars” fails to upset anyone at all, because animal lovers, even irrational animal lovers, serve as a useful counter-balance to those who think of anything less than human as unfeeling, disposable meat puppets. Like their great grandparents, grandparents and parents, however, those who yield to the “ick” reflex are confusing offensive and disgusting (to them) with unethical.

3. When applying various ethics systems to conduct fails to indicate that the conduct is unethical,  one really should start to suspect that it just isn’t. Let’s see: does “Dog Wars” violate the Golden Rule? You know: do unto pixels as you would have pixels do unto you? No, wait…that isn’t the Rule is it? OK…does it clearly meet any of the requirements of an unethical act under absolutist theories? Is anyone hurt? Is a human being exploited? Is dishonest conduct involved? What if everybody played “Dog Wars”? Well, so what if they did? There is no certain bad result that suggests itself. All right then: can the game be justified under utilitarian principles? Sure it can, especially since playing the game does no harm whatsoever, and for the people who enjoy such things, it conveys that elusive gift, fun.

4. In the absence of facts, logic or data, the welfare of children is often the default justification for pronouncing merely icky conduct as unethical. Again and again, I would ask hostile commenters to specify the damage “Dog Wars” could be expected to do. Without harm of some kind to somebody or something, conduct cannot fairly be called unethical. It’s cruel, they would say. Well, you can’t be cruel to pictures and images. Uhhhh…it’s bad for the children! So don’t let children play it. How many children have android phones? Is this an argument against all adult video games? Does the world have to be child-proofed like a playground, with everything in it measured against its potential harm to a child? That’s obviously absurd.

5. Cognitive dissonance makes people irrational. This is the psychological process where by something that is linked to something you feel strongly about, positively or negatively, gets the benefit (or detriment) of your strong  feelings about what its linked to, even if the link is attenuated, manufactured, or imaginary. Most of us hate cruelty to dogs, and the game simulates a sport that is indeed cruel to dogs, though the game itself has no contact with dogs whatsoever. Never mind: cognitive dissonance powerfully pulls “Dog Wars” down to the same abysmal regard, or close to it, as genuine animal cruelty. What is important to understand is that this process is instinctive and emotional, not rational. Those who play the game probably don’t associate the game with real dogs, any more than my son associates his violent war video games with real soldiers. They associate the game with competition, role-playing, new gaming experiences, all positives.

6. Interfering with someone’s recreation because you don’t consider it acceptable recreation demands meeting a heavy burden of proof.  Why is that recreation objectively bad for society?  I’m not shy about weighing in against many kinds of recreation: prostitution, drugs, state lotteries, universal gambling. I have seen enough tangible and credible data to at least justify my arguments, if not win them. The “Dog Wars” critics, however, have nothing but speculation to offer, and highly dubious speculation at that. “It will encourage people to engage in real dog-fighting.” Why would it? Do other games have that effect? “It’s cruel.” Nothing cruel about it, since there are no dogs involved. What else?

7. In the absence of a good argument, people get passionate about the best argument they have, however threadbare. The game embodies stereotypes of pit bulls, a passionate dog lover insisted, and it will cause more pit bulls to be exterminated. This is total fabrication.  a) Pit bulls are used in dog fights. Showing them, in a game, involved in dog fights is accurate, just like a movie showing a Doberman serving as a guard dog is accurate. “Stereotyping” is not the problem, if there is one. b) People who become irrationally frightened of pit bulls will feel this way because of reports of actual attacks, films of actual dogs, and lies told by ignorant hysterics. Picketing movies because of perceived human stereotypes is almost always unjustified, and these are not only not human stereotypes, but computer images of fictional animals. I don’t recall any dog lovers picketing Pixar’s “Up” because the villainous talking dogs included a stereotyped German Shepherd. Why not? Because sane people do not take the images in cartoons and video games as literal truth, that’s why not. c) Nobody who is inclined in the slightest to be afraid of pitbulls is ever going to get within a mile of a dog-fighting phone app.

8. When all else fails, those on a losing side will often create a conspiracy theory. Today’s Special: Rich and powerful anti-pit bull advocates must be backing the game to build public consensus that the breed needs to be destroyed.

9. A disheartening number of Americans feel it is virtuous to  interfere with another citizen’s freedom to voluntarily engage in conduct that has nothing to do with them or effect on them, and has been shown to cause no tangible harm to anyone or anything, based on the theory that the very existence of the activity is wrong. This warped logic is applied to everything from gay sex to phone apps. One reader wrote, without irony, “Thank God we live in a free democracy and people like me can write letters, send emails and just all around bitch until crap like this gets pulled.” Yes, thank God we live in a Democracy where people bully spineless corporations into stopping the harmless enjoyment of others, because they have decided that it isn’t appropriate enjoyment based on their own tastes and beliefs.

10. There is inadequate appreciation of the crucial difference between criticizing conduct and trying to stop others from engaging in it. By all means, let’s be self-critical. Let’s make the case that people should eschew violent, cruel, misogynistic, and mean-spirited games. But until there is material evidence of actual harm…to others, to the culture, to the family, to society…let others make our own choices, just as we would like to have the freedom to decide what entertains us.

And that’s where the Golden Rule comes in.

8 thoughts on “Ten Lessons from the “Dog Wars” Debate

  1. I think there’s a double standard for video games as opposed to other media. They’re under much more scrutiny for no real reason because they’re interactive. Nobody bats an eye at violence, sexuality, etc. in an R-rated movie, but an M-rated (both are restricted to 17 or older) game automatically comes under fire for depicting these things because it’s new.

    Rock & Roll didn’t corrupt my parents, and I don’t think I’m any the worse for playing video games. Not even Pokemon.

      • I’m going to assume you mean that my comments show how other people misapply ethical principles, not that I misapply those principles. Though I’m sure I do some of the latter on occasion.

          • I’m flattered. I thought I was just a troll.

            I’d also say that it’s easier to find problems with an analysis than to perform an analysis from scratch. There’s a reason I haven’t registered betterethicsalarms.com yet.

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