Dogs Are People, Too

So sayeth an interesting NYT article about MRI scans of dogs’ brains. Of course, I suspect anyone who loves dogs could have told you dogs have emotions. I witnessed a display of unbridled canine joy just yesterday morning, when my husband returned from a week in Japan. It’s hard to doubt it once you’ve seen our whippet bounding around, running in circles, and frantically snuggling up to him the moment he sits down.

What’s more interesting to me in this article is the argument that emotions comprise personhood. In our household, we do believe Una is a person, but we would claim it’s because she has a “personality”. Emotional reactions are part of her personality, but not all of it by any means. The article, however, implies that emotion should make the difference between our treating animals as “things” and our treating them as “people”.

But should it? Are emotions the most important measure of personhood? I don’t mean to imply that I have the answer. This is something I think about a lot, however, and play with in my writing. I’ve created a species of dragon who do not experience emotions in their natural form, but are subject to emotions in human form, and find them profoundly disconcerting.

Are dragons in dragon form not “people”? I think they are. Is having emotions somehow superior? Some of my characters believe that, but I don’t. On the flip side, dragons sometimes don’t consider humans “people” – they’re too irrational!

The challenge and the goal, I think, is to accord respect – and a recognition of personhood – to minds that are different than our own. Even just among humans, there’s a lot of variation. Recognizing animal personhood may not be feasible until we can genuinely value all the different flavours of our own.


6 Comments on “Dogs Are People, Too”

  1. This is the “sentience” argument for ethical agency. Anything that can feel (emotions, or even sensations) is due stronger ethical consideration. The “sapience” argument, where an ethical agent must actually be self-aware and capable of making their own ethical choices, is generally stronger, but does have a non-overlapping bit when you consider unfeeling but thinking entities.

    And, of course, you also have to consider treatment versus expectations of behavior. You don’t expect a dog to behave ethically, but you do expect people to behave ethically towards a dog.

    Extending these positions, you could argue that dragons are only to be treated in accordance with the level of sentience they do have (i.e. they still feel pain), but expected to act in accordance with their level of sapience. Or, as Mr. Spock put it, you cannot hurt a Vulcan’s feelings, as they have none to hurt. It would be unethical to kick a dragon (and probably unwise), but insulting one may not be considered unethical. A dragon insulting a human, however, would be unethical if the dragon was educated-enough to be aware that it was giving insult.

  2. Arwen says:

    Dave’s comment seems spot on to me. I’m not convinced we have a good handle on what emotions are – I mean, it seems to me you can cause suffering with any biological system that has a reactive nervous system that transmits pain/discomfort. Plus you can torture anything that is subject to aversive learning, right? So are those emotions? My ethical default for dragons and humans alike would be : don’t torture living stuff, because you have no ability to empathize outside your species. ( And I wonder if perhaps the dragon who doesn’t feel the insult might be still suffer some aversive conditioning, if it’s a creature that relates with other creatures.)

    But the second part – “Is having emotions somehow superior?” – seems to me a different argument. Because in what sphere are we measuring superiority? My cat is a friend in need but not someone I do taxes with; whereas a dragon might be a friend I do taxes with but probably not invite to major emotional life experiences.

    There is some question triggered in me that makes me wonder if this is circular, too. What are emotions for? I think tribalism is part of it. I come from a pacifist tradition and know it can be a counter-instinctual challenge.

    Placental mammals have oxytocin so we bond with the kiddos, but oxytocin has some other effects – it makes you more xenophobic & more protective, even if very mildly. Economically, it’s clear there’s some correlation to resource allocation. The moment my children are more important to me than the children down the street I’m creating levels of personhood: they get an RESP, and I don’t have one for the kids down the street. Greater tribal xenophobia can be really helpful to the people inside that tribe, if it’s a wall that allows for protective and hoarding behaviours between other groups but altruistic behaviours between the individuals in the group. Most of us have rings of in-grouping (family>friends>colleagues>other humans who are neutral>other humans perceived as threat). Pacifist traditions theoretically make all those > signs into = signs. So do liberal traditions, to an extent, although not so far out as “other humans perceived as a threat”.

    But perceived threat can be a huge number of people – all those different minds and mindsets. I can think of lots of people (me on a bad day included) for whom animal personhood is a lot easier to accept than cruel human personhood, for example.

  3. The boundaries of emotions are definitely grayer than they sometimes appear from inside our heads. That’s something that is a bit of a struggle in writing about dragons: they have a fight-or-flight reaction, and that reads as fear and anger. My thinking is that dragons don’t experience those reactions as “emotions”, so when they have human emotions those “feel” very different. Obviously, dragons don’t exist so I don’t really know, but it also makes me wonder whether we “feel” dully what some other being feels even more keenly. Dogs are highly attuned to humans, and can sense an epileptic seizure coming on — what if they are just as emotionally fine-tuned? They might not be, but then again they might. We’re still a long way from being able to understand what being a dog would really mean.

    • If fear and anger count as emotions, I’m hard pressed to think of any vertebrate that doesn’t have them. The more complex the intelligence of the animal, the more complex the emotion. Dogs can feel joy, attachment, even a form of altruism (as, like humans, they are instinctively social animals evolved to live in groups or die). Cats can absolutely feel embarrassment (ever seen one miss a jump and frantically start grooming itself?). But I would say that what makes one a “person” is what Dave calls “sapience.” Dragons would count as “people” to me, but not cats or dogs, because cats or dogs cannot contemplate the nature of their own (or others’) existence, or strive for something outside their biological programming. There is no animal other than a human (or your fictional dragons) that strives to “better itself” or exceed the bounds of its own consciousness. An untrained dog doesn’t seek training; a cat doesn’t sit around and wonder what it’s like to be a dog.

      That said, animals don’t have to be people to be worthy of care and respect. Cruelty is never okay, and anything that can feel pain — either physical or emotional — is a potential subject of cruelty. Sometimes causing pain is unavoidable (or at least, so long as we continue to eat animals, which I’ve personally no plans of giving up on anytime soon), but as sapient beings it is our responsibility to minimize the pain we cause to others, because unlike the non-sapient beings, we have the capability to imagine what other beings are feeling (and care about it), and with added power comes added responsibility. There isn’t much point in being human if we’re going to behave like sharks.

  4. […] Hartman had some interesting commentary on the “dogs are people, too” article that came out this […]

  5. You make an interesting point – it’s difficult to figure out how to assign “personhood” to different creatures. We certainly grant it to humans, but what about animals? Perhaps the intellegent ones, like dolphins or greater apes. But if we decide to do that, where do we draw the line? What about cats? Rats? Invertebrates? And that still gives us no way of knowing how to deal with other life forms – what if we discovered aliens tomorrow? How would we determine whether or not they were “people”?

    I think we have a tendency to just go with our instincts, which generally guide us to assigning “personhood” to creatures that are similar to us – other humans, that is. If a creature is too different from us – say, an octopus – it’s harder for us to attribute to them things like emotions.

    When I read Seraphina, this is what came to mind. The humans can’t attribute personhood to the dragons because they’re too different from themselves. And it’s the same for the dragons. Seraphina, meanwhile, can attribute personhood to both humans and dragons because she has lived with both – in fact, she is both. I think this is one of the things that makes that story such an interesting read.


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