Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Life of an Animal

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the case of Brown v. Battle Creek Police Department, in which the Sixth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment for the defendants in a suit brought under federal civil rights law.  The plaintiffs in the case sued individual police, the city, and the police department after police killed the plaintiffs' two dogs while carrying out a search of the plaintiffs' home pursuant to a warrant.  The main claim was that the police violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures by shooting the two family dogs to death.  In the column, I suggest that the plaintiffs should have prevailed and that the Sixth Circuit was wrong to affirm the grant of summary judgment to the defendants.  The life of a dog, even according to the Court of Appeals, is worth more than a piece of furniture, yet the court did not demand very much of the police as a precondition to their decision to kill the dogs.

In the course of discussing Brown, I note that many of the same people who would share my outrage at the police officers' decisions that led up to their killing the two dogs routinely participate in the torture and slaughter of sentient animals--animals who have as much capacity to feel pain, to enjoy life, and to experience emotions as a dog--by consuming products like meat, dairy, and eggs.  Let me emphasize here that the two positions held by people in this (very large) camp are completely inconsistent.  On the one hand, they fault police for killing dogs when there are other alternatives that could equally serve the objective at issue, here to protect the safety of the police officers.  On the other hand, they permit themselves to consume the products of animal harm and killing--typically more than once a day--when there are other alternatives that could equally serve the objective at issue, namely, to nourish oneself with delicious, nutritious, and filling food.  Because judging others (here, the police) is involved, this inconsistency amounts to hypocrisy.  (Though I am not sure of the derivation of the word "hypocrite," I would guess that it has something to do with being less than adequately--hypo--critical, by being critical of others while sparing oneself the same critique).

Would I prefer that such people be fine with police shooting of household dogs during searches because then their positions would be consistent?  No, of course not.  The expression "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue" applies here.  If someone couldn't care less when a nonhuman animal is unnecessarily killed, whether by police officers or in response to demand by animal-product consumers, then there is little potential there, little to work with.  Being critical of the police means that the person's moral intuition tells her that it is wrong to kill an animal if there is a less restrictive alternative method for meeting the same need (assuming that it truly is a need, which--in the case of police protecting their own safety and in the case of consumers feeding themselves--it is).  Once a person acknowledges the moral intuition that unnecessarily killing an animal (that is, failing to employ an available less restrictive alternative means of meeting a need) is wrong, then that person is in a position to interrogate her own behavior and examine whether it is in keeping with her own values.  This is not an easy thing to do, of course, because people prefer to do things the way they're used to doing them, but it is a worthwhile endeavor, and a news story--like the story of police shooting two family dogs during a search--can usefully trigger the raw materials for that endeavor.  It was experiences like this that helped lead me to become vegan.  I deplored cruelty to animals, and when it was pointed out to me that I was paying people to be cruel to animals, I came to realize that my behavior did not match up with my own sense of right and wrong.

What makes cruelty to dogs an important "teachable moment" is that close to half of the households in the U.S. have a dog, so people are familiar enough with dogs to understand that dogs have feelings and thoughts and can suffer in many of the same ways that human beings can suffer.  People have direct access to dog sentience in a way that they lack such access to the sentience of cows, chickens, pigs, and fishes, along with the other animals whose flesh and bodily secretions make their way to most Americans' plates.  This could be why people sign petitions condemning the consumption of dogs in other countries while happily consuming other animals (and their secretions, obtained with the same or worse cruelty as flesh) themselves.  It could also explain people's outrage at dog-fighting. It is also true that people are not invested in viewing dogs as food or as "fair game" for the infliction of pain and slaughter in the way that they are invested in viewing cows, chickens, pigs, and fishes in this way.  Take the "otherness" of farmed animals coupled with the investment in seeing them as "suitable for slaughter," and you have the ingredients for resistance to the notion that it could be wrong to eat the muscle tissue or hormonal output of a hen or a calf.

Resistance is a powerful thing.  Resistance motivates people to come up with all sorts of ways of distinguishing between the behavior that they condemn and the behavior in which they regularly engage. Such arguments as "dogs were not bred for slaughter but pigs were" are weak and unimpressive but feel very convincing to someone who wants to believe that what they are doing and what they believe are not in fact in conflict (even when they actually are).  The fact that someone was brought into existence for an immoral purpose (taking their lives away while they are young and hurting them terribly before that point) does not do anything to magically make that purpose moral. Imagine if someone told you that he was selling his son into the sex trade but that it was okay to do that because the only reason he and his wife decided to conceive their son in the first place was for the purpose of creating a sex slave for them to sell.  That hardly redeems their behavior.  (For more arguments people make to defend the consumption of animal products, along with responses to the arguments, check out Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans).

So I am glad that there are people who find police killings of dogs morally troubling, both because I share their view on this subject and because they thereby reveal their commitment to a moral principle that ultimately commits them to ethical veganism (even if they do not realize it or believe it just yet).  My hope is that more and more people who care about dogs will come to realize this truth if people point it out often enough.


Matt Lashof-Sullivan said...

Professor Colb,

I appreciate your perspective on this issue. However, I think you may overlook other, non-animal rights reasons why someone might oppose or be outraged by the killing of the dogs. It's perfectly consistent to be outraged by the killing of the dogs, not because of the effect it would have on the dogs, but the effect it has on the humans who legally own and probably feel themselves to be friends and/or family with the dogs. This would not necessarily imply any particular treatment towards pigs, chickens, or cows, which wouldn't have the same emotional effect on humans. I think this may be what people are getting at when they say that pigs, chickens, and cows are "bred for slaughter", and while you may disagree with it, it isn't as hypocritical or as logically incoherent as you suggest.

Alternatively, someone might merely be outraged at the deprivation of property without due process (although I don't think this is what people are mad about).

Joe said...

The first comment appears to reflect the special relationships humans have with companion animals without taking the next step in understanding what this should logically mean for non-human sentient animals in general.

This is true in other cases as well, such as those who might care about the needs of let's say gay people in their family or black friends who aren't consistent when people without a special connection to them are involved. But, this compartmentalization is somewhat difficult to uphold.

Joseph Simmons said...

Years ago I heard Dennis Prager speak, on his radio show, on the meaning of the word "hypocrite" and it's stuck with me. To be a hypocrite is actually quite difficult he observed, as it requires one to advocate a position one doesn't actually believe or abide. It is an act of deceit of others (not merely oneself). In the sense the word is typically misused it is to fall short of one's sincere ideals: which is generally all of us. The incorrect common usage renders the word rather pointless. When I think of a true hypocrite I think of the mayor in the City of Ember (as portrayed by Bill Murray in the movie at least). In some cases it may be difficult to tell the difference between a person who fails to live up to his ideals and one who doesn't hold them and I think this is the source of the confusion. But it is actually a major distinction.

I (carnvivore) feel something is missing in this analysis. Matt is right in part that the feeling of camaraderie, wrong or right, plays a part. It is also the ethics of the thing. Had the police similarly shot a cow or a chicken I would also be upset. Killing animals for food is seen by many, wrong or right, as a necessity. And those people would like the killing done humanely as possible (though we are quite ignorant of farm practices, another sin). Even those of us who love animals (as pets) will sadly admit when an officer acted reasonably in shooting a dog. When faced with the horrendous facts of a particular case (in the case at issue the shooting officer declared that he interpreted a dog moving a few inches as a "lunge") we can get appropriately outraged. Just as us who appreciate animals as food can get outraged when abuse of animals on farms is presented to us.

As for the argument that virtually all animal raising and slaughter practices constitute abuse/murder, there is a great burden of persuasion, clearly. And in this regard there is a similarity with police shooting animals as we do give police a strong benefit of the doubt. The argument concerning self-defense may be differentiated from the need/desire to eat animals but people are not irrational nor hypocritical (though wrong, perhaps) for seeing value in these two different areas.

I always appreciate your arguments as they are generally carefully considered but I think you ignore some major distinctions here with the wrongful usage of "hypocrite" doing too much of the work. Doubting the existence of fulfilling alternatives I'm reluctantly prepared to be convinced on the morality of eating animals. This article missed the mark.

Joe said...
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Joe said...

"Had the police similarly shot a cow or a chicken I would also be upset."

I'm not sure if the average person would be AS upset things basically equal, noting that they might somehow be "upset" if a police killed let's say a cow that allegedly (on weak evidence) put them at risk (let's say blocking their way when time was of the essence). Police overreaching etc. might cause concern, but there is something about certain animals that cause more concern for the average person. This includes even a stray dog, who the average person sees like enough to a pet to be the same.

The line drawing is argued to be wrong but not sure if "hypocritical" is the right word to use there. If people said harm to animals, full stop, is wrong etc. ... but that isn't quite what people do think.

I am not really for some strict usage of words, noting people like Kory Stamper and other editors at Merriam Webster confirm [in answer to "people use THAT WORD wrong" such as "ironic" etc.] meaning is something that is in large part what is common usage. "Hypocrite" to me is not that hard. It is saying you have a basic sentiment but not acting that way -- since being truly consistent in action as compared to word (or when it specifically affects you personally) is a tad difficult, it is easy to be a hypocrite.

MW btw notes "hypocrite" comes from the Greek for "actor."

Joseph Simmons said...

Joe, regarding "hypocrite," it is less about being a stickler for words than about using words in a meaningful way. As I observed and you observe, it's easy to be a hypocrite in the sense typically intended. People who use the word "hypocrite" in that (incorrect) way should probably be labeled "hypocrites" for using the word because they too are "hypocrites" on any number of issues (oh, the "irony"!). I don't think the professor meant to use the word simply as an epithet as it is usually intended but rather to make a more intellectual point. And for that purpose the usage is sorely lacking. As you say, it's not the right word. In truth, it's almost never the right word even if people consistently misuse it. I think it important for people to realize they are "hypocrites" in the usual sense.

I agree people generally will not be as upset by an officer killing Bessy the Cow compared to Bingo the Dog. There is undoubtedly a tension (understatement to be sure) between our views on dogs/cats and livestock.