Dogs and the Concept of Fairness: Yet More Evidence of Morality of Animal Rights Position
Anyone who has ever lived with a dog, cat, or rat should be able to recognize that non-human animals are sentient beings capable of complex thought, emotions, and dreams, just like you or I. Yet for some reason, I have known people who continued to deny the sentience of their animal companions, even as they claimed to care about them. The reason, I think, is one of startling self absorption. Whatever the reason, though, this position of anthrocentrism makes it very convenient for those who want to be allowed to use others for their own ends. They can cut up animals in experiments, they can eat them, they can exploit them any way they want, because "they're just animals." Science, however, is beginning to disagree with that position.
The study of emotion, behavior, and intelligence in non-human animals is beginning to reveal, bit by bit, to even the most skeptical speciesist among us that the non-human animals who share the world with us are not so different from ourselves after all. No matter how tenaciously some of us want to cling, illogically, to the belief that animals are here for us to "use," it seems they have their own purposes after all. Where scientists once irrationally held that anyone who attributed "human" thoughts or feelings to non-human animals was guilty of the sin of "anthropomorphism," science itself is now beginning to reveal the self-centered blind spot at the root of that philosophy. Non-human animals share with us the capacity to think and reason, and to feel, and this is becoming inescapably obvious through the lens of empirical science.
The latest news comes from researchers at the University of Vienna, who have identified the concept of fairness and equity in dogs. According to Friederike Range, who took part in the study, dogs are the first non-primates to demonstrate an aversion to inequity. However, researchers agree that it is only that we haven't looked for this in other species, and not that it is not there. They expect to find the capacity to recognize, and react to inequity in many other species, and they note that "an aversion to inequity is a critical factor for cooperative behavior," since it "keeps slackers from overwhelming the system."
In a simple, non-invasive experiment, researchers observed and documented dogs' reactions to an everyday experience. They asked dogs to "shake," and then either rewarded the dog with a treat, or else did not reward the dog. They found that if they continued to reward each dog, then each dog continued to shake. And if they failed to reward each dog, the dogs continued to shake. However, if they consistently rewarded some dogs but not others, the dogs who were not getting rewarded "got increasingly fidgety and finally stopped shaking hands." In other words, according to Susan Millius of Science News, the dogs began to "strike over unfair treatment."
Now, again, anyone who lives with dogs should already be aware of the tendency of their dog friends to recognize inequity but the fact is, scientists would have denied those observations until very recently. Scientists would have accused anyone who observed the concept of fairness in their dog friends of "anthropomorphizing," and would have dismissed their observations. This study, however, reveals the irrationality of such dismissals, since the finding that dogs understand fairness was just published in a peer reviewed journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (See the December 8 online report.)
Now let me tell you a story about the two dogs who live with me. One is an 8 year old great dane, pit bull mix. The other is a 2 year old pit bull. Both are sweet and friendly, but the younger one is more assertive and, well... well he follows me everywhere, and I guess I kind of favor him. When he first came to live with me, he had been rescued from some very hard circumstances and he was very small and thin, and needed a lot of extra attention which I was only too willing to give. He decided right away that he likes to climb up and sit behind me on the back of whatever chair or couch I might be sitting on. (All right, if I'm honest, he still does that, even though he weighs about 65 lbs now.) I didn't really realize how much all this was affecting my other dog companion, who had been with me for more than 5 years, and who had been my only girl till the puppy came home. Then one day, imagine my surprise when I sat down with a book, and suddenly my 110 lb great dane/pit lurched up onto the couch and climbed up onto the back of the cushion behind me, precariously teetering there like a giant hippopotamus on a tightrope. She'd never done anything like that before. She'd never expressed any interest in sitting up on the back of the couch, and with good reason: She did not fit. But she had watched the other dog getting all of the attention, watched him come up and sit with me while she was expected to sit on her cushion on the floor, and she had just finally had enough. She looked at me with big, startled, luminous brown eyes, imploring me not to laugh at her, not to hurt her feelings, not to make her get back down. "Well, hey," I said. "What's up."
Keeping one eye on me, she gingerly, carefully, tentatively settled her considerable bulk down onto the edge of the cushion as it slowly sank down behind me. "Good to see you," I said. I patted her shoulder and then leaned back against her, and she stayed there for most of the afternoon.
How else to interpret that, other than to state the obvious? She was hurt and jealous over the attention I was paying to the other dog, and she wanted some assurance that I still loved her too. She wanted proof that she is just as special as the new puppy. She wanted to prove to herself that she could climb up and sit in the same place, and get the same attention. She wanted what was fair.
Now, I could plainly see this, and if you had been there, you could have plainly seen it too. The difference is, now we can tell people about it, and when some pompous dumb ass tries to dismissively label our observations "anthropomorphism," we can point out that science no longer considers that a valid label, and that she or he may want to educate her- or himself on the fact that dogs do, in fact, possess a concept of fairness and equity.
All this begs the question: If dogs have a sophisticated concept of fairness and equity, how can we possibly justify treating them with unfairness, as machines rather than beings? How can it be moral to cut them up and poison them in laboratories, as people are doing at OHSU and at HLS? How can it be moral to use them to test toxins or to beat them for not complying with our orders? The obvious answer is, it cannot be. The only moral response to this knowledge is to fight against those who would oppress dogs, or any other sentient beings. If they can think and feel, then it is wrong to treat them as if they can't.
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