Ann Althouse Meets Spuds: On Althouse Saturday, Two Canine Ethics Questions From The Blogger I’ve Been Meaning To Answer

Our rescue dog Spuds is gradually coming into his own now: after being starved by his previous owner, he finally is secure enough to leave some food in his dish and finish it later. He’s also finding his inner puppy at 2 and a half, which is both challenging for us as he gets stronger, and fun. I honestly don’t know how we went so long without a dog in our home after Rugby left us.

Ann Althouse, whose opinions have been unusually visible on Ethics Alarms today,  raised two dog-related ethics issues since we adopted Spuds last month, and since the dog left me panting by running me over hill and dale this morning as I allowed him to run off leash for the first time, addressing them now seems like a timely task.

(As I type this, Spuds is trying to climb onto my desk…)

1. On August 23, Althouse wrote,

Why don’t the people who think you should get a “rescue” dog when you want a dog also think you should get a “rescue” child when you want a child? In fact, isn’t the argument for adopting an older child with special needs even stronger than the argument for adopting an older dog that hasn’t had the advantages of a loving home and careful training? After all, many dogs are euthanized, but we strive to keep all our children alive even when they have terrible behavioral problems. And dogs are kept under the control of owners all their lives, while children become adults and are allowed to move about freely in the world even when they are quite dangerous. It’s therefore especially important to take great care of all of the children who have been born into this world.

People will say that they want their own biological offspring, but what makes you think what you have to give genetically is so wonderful? Dog breeders have much higher standards selecting which dogs to use for breeding. People just decide to use themselves. When you have your own biological children, you’re picking yourself because you are yourself. I’m not saying that’s wrong. In fact, I think it’s quite beautiful, making something out of your own body and the body of a person you love. So I’m beginning to see the answer to my question. When you have your own child, you’re not being a eugenicist, looking for the ideal baby. You’re accepting the randomness of who you happen to be and who you’ve found to love. The baby grows out of that is more like a rescue dog than a breeder’s dog.

I do think Althouse answered her own question., at least the human part. Having a child (or many) with someone you love is part of the human experience, helps bind couples and society together, and is a spiritual as well as a natural biological act. Of course, that description assumes a lot: that the child was planned, that the parents love each other, that they are married, and that there are no known toxic hereditary traits to avoid.

Once the process of having a child becomes a matter of applied science, extreme expense and such things as surrogates, implanted fetuses, egg and sperm donors  and in vitro fertilization, the ethics equation changes. My wife and I adopted, and in so doing probably saved our son from a short, miserable life on the streets in one of the poorest regions in Russia. When having a bit of your DNA in a child becomes an obsession, then  resisting the adoption option becomes more difficult to defend ethically.

More difficult but not impossible. Just as the first dog we adopted from another owner turned out to have a rare behavioral glitch that caused the otherwise loving Basset Hound to go into a trance-like state and attack whoever was nearest to him ( I still get upset thinking about this tragic episode), when you adopt a child, you’re even less certain of what you’re getting than with your own offspring. Sometimes, you even get legal headaches, when the birth parents appear with various demands.

That consideration is also a  legitimate factor in the ethics calculation. The reason there are so many dogs to be rescued is that too many people are idiots, and don’t choose animals that have characteristics that fit their own needs and lifestyle. When they realize what they have accepted responsibility for, they abandon the dog, or as in Spuds’ case, neglect him. (I also get upset when I thin k about that.)

I agree that adopting a rescued dog is an ethical act, but, you know, those pure-bred puppies exist too. If nobody takes them, they’ll end up as rescues soon enough.

2. On August 18, Althouse wrote, in a post about North Korea’s Kim Jong Un ordering that pet dogs to be confiscated in the country’s capital, because keeping them as pets “represents Western decadence,”

It does stoke resentment if the wealthy are keeping pet animals, which must be fed, and the masses of people are hungry. If you are going to ban the pets because of this and confiscate them and kill them, what is the ethical argument for not using the meat?

That’s an easy one. As with the survival cannibalism cases of the “Mignonette” and “The Essex,” which was the inspiration for “Moby-Dick,” it makes no sense to waste a food source if it can save a life, and objections to using it as such because dogs (or people) are special is the Ick Factor at work, not ethics.


8 thoughts on “Ann Althouse Meets Spuds: On Althouse Saturday, Two Canine Ethics Questions From The Blogger I’ve Been Meaning To Answer

  1. 2. What the fuck. Why in this day and age is a country resorting to eating pets to feed its populous? Let’s hear it again for Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman and the wonderfulness of managed economies. Assholes.

    • One wonders how there are pets in a country where half the population is routinely starving. It sort of goes against that “everyone is equal” thing that communism is supposed to embrace if a Party apparatchik can have enough to feed a Cocker Spaniel while a laborer is eating tree bark and stone soup, does it not? I mean, how is it possible in a Worker’s Paradise for there to even be a class of wealthy people? Wouldn’t the wealthy people themselves be a sign of Western decadence? Perhaps, in a reversal of Swift’s modest proposal, they should be eaten, too…

  2. 1. I heard Howard Stern, of all people, have an ethical argument on abortion once, years ago. He said that abortion is better because the alternative was having a bunch of unwanted babies. I actually think that’s a valid point, but I digress … switching thoughts…
    Dogs who are born with a genetic defect or are prone to something that kills them, generally don’t reproduce. This was also true for humans until recent history. I don’t have a concrete number on this but my guess is the 60’s and even more recent for children living with serious genetic illnesses living long enough to have and raise children. I have met a few parents through social media who would have died and never had kids, but now thanks to modern medicine they do have kids and knowingly pass the illness or issue to them, whatever it may be. Humans are becoming sicker as a whole because sicker people are living to have kids. Which is, perhaps, the reason our healthcare costs will forever rise. For example, someone in the 1900’s with severe type 1 diabetes or asthma or peanut allergies would not have had kids. They would’ve died as children themselves. Probably even when I was a kid they would’ve died. Diabetes has a lot of issues, but you can still have a full and wonderful quality of life. What about some of the more serious issues? Ones where the parent had to have 12-15 surgeries simply to survive to adulthood and still has surgeries and meds constantly just to live? Is it just part of humanity? Some of them are on multiple medications and in pain all the time, but still somehow manage to make it to adult stage and potentially have more sick children. As a parent myself I wonder if I wouldn’t have children if I was sick thanks to unlucky genetics and knew they would be too.
    In many ways we’ve managed to push away natural selection. There’s not a lot of “survival of the fittest” going on. Back to that parent, you bet they’d be the first to push for genetic editing. The ethical and societal repercussions of that are going to appear at some point. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s adopted and when.

    • That thinking is what heads people down the road to eugenics.

      Where does the consideration of “couldn’t have kids” extend? Consider blood type mismatch. Otherwise genetically healthy people reproduce. The second or third time this happens, mom dies. We only solved this problem within my lifespan. Take away antibiotics and a simple scratch exposed to the wrong bacteria is dealt with by amputation and you live if you’re lucky. One could argue a better immune system would stop that. All of the above points out how it is a slippery slope with no good place to draw the line.

      I think the bigger factor in changing genetics is we’re subsidizing the poor to have children and penalizing the well of from having children. It is certainly noticeable in the reverse corollary between income and reproductive rate.

    • It is a not infrequent science fiction theme (or exposition). Humans stopped evolving once they had advanced far enough to control their environment. Natural selection works because individuals who are not able to survive in their environment — don’t survive, and thus the genes that led the that unsurvivability do not get passed along to the next generations.

      In humans, let’s say, those who do not have the gene set to enable them to talk and understand language are less well suited to living in a human community, less able to attract a mate, and ultimately it is rare to have humans born without the language ability. The problem is that it takes many generations to work and, in humans, means it likely takes centuries or millennia.

      Here’s a couple of examples: Syphilis, while a (slow) killer today, 500 years ago was a much more virulent disease. It would kill faster, had nastier affects — but we’ve evolved over the centuries and adapted to the disease and it’s not as deadly these days. On the flip side, it is also likely that the syphilis germ has also evolved to not be quite as wasteful of its host.
      Measles used to be a deadly disease — just ask the Indians. But over the centuries, Europeans adapted to it and it’s now seen as a relatively minor, mostly childhood disease.

      Getting back to evolution and natural selection: Using measles again as an example, when we developed a vaccine to prevent the disease, I’d wager we stopped our continuing adaptation to it. Give us a few generations of only vaccine based prevention and, if we stopped the vaccinations for a generation we might find that measles was once again a deadly threat. Measles continued to evolve, we didn’t.

      Once we preserve the gene sets that would once have been fatal, we have stopped or at least redirected the natural selection process that would have marginalized those lethal gene sets. Of course, we may now be evolving in different directions — perhaps we’re starting to select for eyesight better suited to reading computer screens, or the hand eye coordination to play video games. We won’t know — it takes many generations for thing like that to really be effective. The classic sf meme along these lines is the one of future man with a huge cranium (always bald, though, so maybe Jack is a forerunner).

  3. That Spuds is a handsome fellow. If you’re looking for a Halloween costume for him, it looks like you could just circle his left eye with a Sharpie and he’d be a passable “Petey” from The Little Rascals… It could be an excellent cultural literacy test for trick-or-treaters – if they recognize the reference, they get the peanut butter cups and Snickers. If not, they’re stuck with inedible trash candy like candy corn and circus peanuts.

    • Not only does at least one new Spuds friend mention Petey every day (so far), he also met a ten-year-old little girl in the neighborhood who said he looked like the dog in “The Little Rascals,” though she couldn’t remember the name.

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