Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Would You Eat Your Dog?


Over at Slate, we get a piece by Rebecca Onion on the story of Marco Lavoie. It seems Lavoie got stranded in the wilderness with his dog, who Lavoie killed and ate to prevent starvation. Though some people support his actions, many people are very angry with Lavoie. Onion asks, "why does this infuriate us so?"

Onion is a historian, and gives us some interesting history of dog sledding. Apparently, it was seen as a virtue of whiteness by many European settlers that they would not eat their dogs as the Natives occasionally did. Oddly, though, Onion then acknowledges that this has very little to do with contemporary reactions to the case of Lavoie.

Even if there were a connection though, it seems like we're asking the wrong question. This, unfortunately, is emblematic of a larger problem is the media. The questions of why we would get upset about a man eating his dog is, most importantly, a moral question rather than a cultural one. But we don't know how to talk about moral issues, so instead we talk about history.

This happens all the time. A couple years ago This American Life ran a story about working conditions in Chinese factories, that led them to ask the question "Is it alright for us to buy products from these factories?" And to answer the question, they brought on an economist.

Economists are good at many things, but they are not experts on moral philosophy. Now, I don't believe philosophers are the arbiters of moral truth; obviously, there is substantial disagreement among philosophers on nearly every philosophical question. But if you ask a philosopher a moral question, you're much more likely to get a clear discussion of different relevant views about which features of a situation have moral importance. If you ask someone not used to talking about these matters, you'll just get obfuscation.

Back to the dog question. There is a good answer to the question. why are people mad at Lavoie? This answer also explains why there's disagreement on the matter.

As Gary Francione puts it, our society suffers from "moral schizophrenia" regarding animals. We have any number of conflicting beliefs about the value of non-human life. In our relationships with our pets, for instance, we often see animals as members of the family whom we love dearly. The animals on our plates we view as mere resources for our consumption. Even though there is no coherent moral distinction between these types of animals, we nevertheless draw imaginary lines of supposed moral significance. Our moral intuitions about our obligations to animals are thus unpredictable and erratic, because they do not come from any genuinely coherent moral framework.

So some people see this dog as a potential family member, and condemn Lavoie's actions. Others might suppress any sympathy they have towards this position, and condone the act as analogous to our (presumably acceptable) consumption of other animals.

However, the larger point that is missed is this. Even if it is permissible in this instance for Lavoie to kill and eat his dog, this tells us nothing about our general consumption of animal products, which is not forced by necessity. The fact that we think there might be something wrong in the Lavoie case suggests that there is almost certainly something wrong in the typical case. To raise the question of whether or not Lavoie should have eaten his dog assumes there's something at least prima facie wrong with killing and eating an animal; we wouldn't be raising this question if he had eaten some beets.

Some people would say that he shouldn't have eaten his dog because it was his dog. That is, they had a relationship, one of trust and of mutual benefit, that Lavoie unjustly betrayed. However, this argument will not do. We do not seem to acquire these relationships elsewhere--there's nothing I could do for my car or that my car could do for me that could give me any obligation not to tear it apart for scrap metal at the first moment that becomes convenient.

There is something different about a dog, which is that it is sentient being with a life of value. And it's very plausible that I can gain more duties to animal by forming a relationship with her. But for such a relationship to be possible, I cannot first have the option of regarding her as a thing without any value. You cannot build moral obligations on to something which you initially had the right to dispose of at your whim. Such obligations could never get off the ground.

We'll probably have disagreement for a long time about whether someone in Lavoie's situation should have eaten his dog. For my part, I think what he did was wrong. But the most important thing is that, for us to even take the question seriously, we need to break free from the moral schizophrenia that grips our society. We need to realize that if animals matter at all, we cannot use them as our resources. That mean becoming vegan.

These are serious questions, of great importance. And it's necessary that we ask such questions in the right way if we're going to have an hope of clarity at all.

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