Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

As a borderline-obsessive dog lover, the news of the blaze at the Manchester Dogs’ Home this week particularly saddened me. A fire was started – it seems deliberately by a 15-year old boy – and around 60 dogs died, with another 150 alive after being rescued. Yet, alongside this there was some uplifting news. A number of passers-by ran into the burning building to rescue dogs, and as I write this the Just Giving page for people to donate to the home after the fire has now reached £1,416,549 in just a few days, with 140,914 donations. Of particular interest to me were the number of people calling the suspect ‘evil’ – this act really pulled at the heartstrings. More worryingly (but I am ashamed to say, understandable to me) were the visceral reactions to this where people were calling for this child to be burned alive himself.

What is so special about dogs? Do we have any particular moral obligations to dogs? Are there any rational reasons for the enhanced moral status of dogs?

Perhaps dogs are more intelligent? We might think that dogs are intelligent, sentient animals, and this this justifies their enhanced moral status. Dogs are trained for a number of tasks, including guide dogs, police dogs, service warning dogs, and so on. Surely, their intelligence warrants additional concerns. But, on the other hand, we know that other animals – like pigs – have an intelligence that at least parallels that of dogs. Yet pigs are factory farmed in horrendous conditions, at latest matching the pain these dogs suffered. If intelligence is the decisive criterion, it seems we exhibit mass hypocrisy when we raise such concern over occasional dog atrocities while remaining blind to the daily suffering of pigs on a staggeringly large scale.

Perhaps we have special obligations to dogs because they are pets? This perhaps is a more promising argument (even if disagreeable to animal rights activists who believe animals cannot be possessions). Perhaps when taking on dogs we enter an implicit contract whereby we protect and care for them? Yet as a rational explanation, this again seems to fail on at least two immediately obvious counts. First, it is not clear that these animals were under any such contract, for they had no owners, and so didn’t have this enhanced status for being pets. Second, it isn’t clear that this kind of argument would apply to stray dogs. What if all of these dogs were strays? Would it not then be seen as so morally reprehensible? I doubt it. It seems that there is something about dogs as species – as a whole – that is important, regardless of the specific facts of their existence.

Perhaps dogs can feel pain more than other animals? Again, this argument seems a non-starter, for there is no evidence at all that dogs feel more pain than other animals that we routinely keep in horrendous conditions – cows; pigs; sheep, etc.

I am, no doubt, missing some rational arguments in favour of the enhanced status of dogs. But, I am also reasonably confident that this is because such arguments, such as they are, are weak.

Work from moral psychology has highlighted the importance that non-rational considerations play in our moral decision-making (e.g. see Jonathon Haidt’s classic paper here, or his wonderful best-selling book The Righteous Mind; also see Josh Greene’s work here). Is it possible that our increased moral concern for dogs has no rational basis, but is rather driven by our intuitive reactions of greater warmth felt towards dogs? I think so. Evidence suggests that people do have stronger intuitive reactions to family members, and dogs are often described as being part of the family. Perhaps our close proximity to dogs has led to anthropomorphism, where we begin to think of them as quasi-human, and thus deserving of quasi-human moral concern.

That said, highlighting such insights from moral psychology that might apply here does not really help one in exploring whether there is any rational basis for our increased moral concern for dogs – it merely describes why we might think it is so.

A search for a rational explanation may, it seems, be a non-starter (although I would be interested to hear any good arguments to the contrary, if only to justify my own excessive love for dogs). But is this a problem? Perhaps the issue is not our increased moral concern for dogs, but rather our dampened moral concern for other similar animals. Maybe the question could be reframed: why do we think of certain animals as being non-deserving of moral concern? And here, a number of reasons could be suggested, most notably some form of motivated social cognition. For example, some recent and fascinating work has suggested that dissonance reduction is important in the denial of minds to animals used for human consumption (see here for a recent review). But that, sadly, is a topic for another day.

My own special animal, Maggie.

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7 Responses to Is there anything (morally) special about dogs?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    What about this argument: dogs have been bred for being companion animals that participate in our social structures. Yes, cats and guinea pigs have been bred for companionship too, but dogs are unique in that they are social pack animals whose sociality have been turned to include humans. They are part of the human social world in a way I doubt cats are. This makes the betrayal of the social link extra wrenching.

    I am not myself ethically convinced by this argument: being in a social structure might imply certain rights and obligations, but it does not necessarily boost moral considerability much. But given an emotional view of the situation, it can certainly explain why we are extra outraged.

  • William Harrison says:

    Perhaps our close proximity to dogs has led to anthropomorphism, where we begin to think of them as quasi-human, and thus deserving of quasi-human moral concern.

    I think this may be closest to the truth. However, far from being afforded only quasi-human moral status, the way that people (in Europe, North America and Australasia) typically react to cruelty to dogs suggests that they sometimes grant dogs a greater than human moral status. For example, the recent discovery of widespread child abuse in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 did not elicit a comparable surge of donations to charities dedicated to preventing cruelty to children.

    I suspect that the notion of innocence plays a very important role. People view children as more innocent than adults and so regard cruelty to children as more evil than cruelty to adults. I think people view dogs as more innocent than humans, perhaps even more innocent than children. I realise this doesn’t really explain why dogs get special treatment; they not plausibly more innocent than other non-human animals.

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    If we look at it from an ethics of care perspective, there is value in pets, precisely because of the relationship that we have with them. Its the relationship, not the features of the animal itself, that is morally valuable.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Personally I don’t care for dogs. And I find it strange that people are attached to them. In high income countries they are among the leading animal threats to human health. In the USA, dogs are responsible for a few dozen deaths every year*, frequently of family members. Snakes, by comparison, kill on average a couple of people per year and we regard them as fairly dodgy. [Wasps and bees kill more – dogs are second, I think.] Anyhow, I agree with you that there are few sensible defences of canine superiority; people who want to accord their mutt special status sound a bit like animal versions of ardent nationalists to me.

    *See – as a human-lover I find these stories truly harrowing. My experience of dog-lovers is that they will instinctively try to explain these away by putting all the relevant issues of agency/responsibility onto people. This move lets dog-lovers read into dog behaviour all the good (usually anthromorphic) properties they want to celebrate (loyalty, intelligence, etc) while ignoring the qualities of dogs that are less attractive (savaging small children, family members, etc).

    • susan-jillian smith says:

      Humans kill far more humans than any animal ever has. We do it by extraordinary invention. Such as atomic bombs, flying planes into buildings, germ warfare, etc etc. Probably more than wasps for that matter. I am not so much of “human-lover” given the rate at which we exterminate our own kind. So if your argument is due to the numbers of human deaths… I think you are on the wrong side.
      As someone who has a world class service dog, who gave me a life, I’ll take dogs any day.

  • Regina Rini says:

    This question seems to me to be a good place to resist the idea that any rational justification is required. Why not just say: for contingent historical/biological reasons, we humans are disposed to value dogs (and cats and a few other species) more than other creatures? It is just a part of our nature to do so. Our system of values is constituted (in part) by this valuation. Why is rational justification required?

    I think the philosopher’s obsession with rational justification is sometimes a form of neurosis rather than anything of ethical significance. We are not a-temporal or a-causal beings. We are the product of many contingent forces and our values are correspondingly contingent. The idea that we must — in general — be able to justify ourselves in some way appreciable by an entity lacking our contingent values seems to me unfounded. It only makes sense if one aspires to live a life guided by something other than human values, and I don’t see any reason why someone who does not already aspire to such a life *ought* to aspire to one. (The situation is different perhaps if one accepts some theistic metaphysics, the sort entailing a non-contingent god who does demand justification from humans. But I take it that most philosophers in the rational justification business do not accept those metaphysics.)

    There is an immediate and obvious worry about what I’ve said. It might be pointed out that racism, and a number of other evils, are among our natural, contingent human tendencies. The quest for rational justification, per this objection, is an effort to overturn such prejudices. The full answer to this objection is too big to get into here, but as a summary I think we can say this: rational justification has its place when we are dealing with other rational agents. Though we do not need to justify ourselves to anything beyond humanity, we do need to justify ourselves to other humans – especially how we treat them. (Filling in the rest of this story involves some fairly typical Kantian claims about respect for equal moral agency, etc.). So there are *some* times where the demand for rational justification is fully appropriate. But this does not mean that *all* of our values must be given rational justification.

  • Olivia Zhang says:

    this part–“For example, the recent discovery of widespread child abuse in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013 did not elicit a comparable surge of donations to charities dedicated to preventing cruelty to children.” from William Harrison is not quite a sufficient argument actually, since the situation is different. if those children were seriously hurt or even killed in a burning buliding, and people still have no comparable anger, then maybe we can say people sometimes grant dogs a greater than human moral status.

    and I do agree that the reason are complicated. maybe combining the fact that dogs are considered as human’s companion, not for some specific pet dogs, but for the whole species,that’s why people have strong emotional relations to dogs, and that dogs have cute appearance, and maybe seems to be more innocent like children. The non-rational considerations also plays some roles on this.


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