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Canine Emotion

Can we Have an Interest Theory of Rights for Animals, and a Will Theory for Humans?

By Luke Davies

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A recent article in the New York Times has advocated extending the notion of personhood, and the rights associated with that status, to dogs. Gregory Burns, the author of the article, argued for this position on the basis of the structural and functional similarity between the caudate nucleus of dogs and humans. The caudate nucleus, Burns tells us, is that part of the brain responsible for our feeling of anticipation of things we enjoy. More than this, the activity of the caudate nucleus is so consistent in MRI scans that he claims we may be able to use our monitoring of its activity to predict our tastes for certain things (he lists music, food and beauty). Importantly for Burns, activity in the caudate increased in dogs in response to positive stimulus: a gesture signaling food, or the appearance of the owner. The tentative conclusion to these findings is that the MRI images signal the possibility of canine emotion. Burns makes clear that without the capacity to communicate with us, which dogs certainly do not possess, the findings are still quite limited.  However, he views the existence of emotion as sufficient for personhood, and personhood as sufficient for being a possessor of rights. This leads him to conclude that dogs should be recognized as having the rights persons have.


Though there is good reason to doubt the argumentative moves Burns makes in his short article, that’s not what I’d like to do here. (A Letter to the Editor sent to the NTY regarding the article warns, for example, against assuming that complex emotional states–such as love, which Burns mentions–can be reduced to physical states. This alone should give us pause before asserting any larger similarities between human and canine consciousness.)  Rather, I would pose a question that came to me after reading the article: Is it possible that the rights animals possess have a different function the rights humans possess? Read More »Can we Have an Interest Theory of Rights for Animals, and a Will Theory for Humans?