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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Dogs Are Great--But Not Persons



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The New York Times will, it seems to me, publish anything that denigrates human exceptionalism. For example, a bit ago it ran a piece by a university professor (of course!) advocating for pea personhood.

Today, it is dogs that–it should not be who–are being promoted to moral equivalence with humans–an example which will be much nearer and dearer to most people’s hearts. “Man’s best friend” often is exactly that. Which makes advocacy for dog personhood all the more subversive.

Gregory Berns, a university professor (of course!) argues that dogs’ brains can be seen to love in an MRI. You don’t need an MRI to know that! Moreover, he thinks they should be treated as if they were children.

First, he treated the dogs in his experiments as if they were capable of reasoned choice. From, “Dogs are People Too:”

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

Hmm. Not exactly an unbiased approach, was it?

Berns found that his dog’s brain reacted positively to food. He didn’t need an MRI to know that, either!

Then he enters dangerous territory:

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

No. Our understanding of how animals experience the world impacts our duties toward them and should have a bearing on animal welfare laws. But because dogs are intelligent and “experience positive emotions,” that does not make them morally equivalent to a human child. Human exceptionalism is about far more than that! 

Berns yearns for dogs to have legal personhood:

Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property…If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

Dogs don’t have the capacity or rationality for self determination. It is not in their natures.

If advocates like Berns get their way, we will no longer be able to make beneficial use of dogs that we do now–from pets, to guards, to research subjects, to cancer detectors, to assistance dogs that help people with disabilities live more independently.

If dogs were legal persons, their “guardians” would have to treat them as fiduciaries–each individual dog’s perceived interests would come before anything else. Indeed, keeping dogs as pets would be considered slavery. I use that term intentionally: A federal judge already ruled that the reason why Sea World’s orcas aren’t slaves–as claimed by PETA–is that they are not persons.

Dogs are some of the best things on planet earth. We owe them tremendous care. Abusing dogs is a terrible wrong, a violation of human duty. We designed them through selective breeding to reactive to us as positively as they do.

Dogs become what we make of them, with their own personalities the added bonus. That is the joy. And love? Lots of it! But they are “not people too.”



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