20 January 2007

Animal Companions

Here are three paragraphs from a recent essay by Roger Scruton:
As I suggested, science provides authority for this weird morality only when clothed in moral doctrine. The sleight of hand that gave us the “selfish” gene gives us the rights of baboons. By disguising anthropomorphic (in other words, pre-scientific) ways of thinking as science, Wise rediscovers the enchanted world of childhood, in which animals live as Beatrix Potter describes them, in an Eden where “every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” By abusing evolutionary biology in this way, we are able to read back the sophisticated conduct of people into the animal behavior that prefigures it.

But this means that the apes appeal to animal-rights activists for precisely the wrong reason—namely, that they look like people and behave like people, while making no moral demands. The apes are re-made as versions of ourselves, purged of the guilt that comes from the attempt to lead the life to which we, as moral beings, are condemned: the life of judgment. Nothing impedes our sympathy for the chimpanzee and the bonobo, since their lives are blameless. It is not that they do no wrong, but that “right” and “wrong” here make no sense.

And that explains, in part, the appeal of the animal-rights movement. It shifts the focus away from moral beings toward creatures in every respect less demanding—creatures like dogs, which return our affection regardless of our merits, or cats, which maintain an amiable pretense of affection while caring for no one at all (a fact always vehemently and fruitlessly denied by their keepers). The world of animals is a world without judgment, where embarrassment, remorse, guilt, and penitence are unknown, and where human beings can escape from the burden of moral emotions. In another way, therefore, those who tell us that we have no special place in the scheme of things create a place for us that is just as special. By focusing our human attitudes on animals, we are playing at God, standing always apart from and above our victims, smiling down on their innocent ways, removed from the possibility of judgment ourselves, and, in our exaltation, imagining that we confer the greatest benefit on those whom we patronize.
Scruton appears to be saying that it’s selfish, or self-indulgent, to live with, love, and provide for dogs, cats, birds, and other animals. They, unlike human beings, “return our affection regardless of our merits.” They’re comparatively undemanding. They put less weight on our “moral emotions,” such as embarrassment, remorse, guilt, and penitence. To live with a human being is hard; to live with a mere animal is easy. The implication is that some of us want to take the easy way out. Scruton has said similar things about masturbation. It is, he says, a way of gaining sexual gratification without having to deal with another human being. Choosing to live with animals rather than humans is a kind of masturbation: all pleasure, no responsibility.

With all due respect to Scruton, whose work in political philosophy I admire, he has it exactly backward. Those of us who live with, love, and provide for animals have no expectation of reciprocity, for we know that none is forthcoming. My canine companions, Sophie and Shelbie, will never provide for me in my old age. They will never jump in the car to pick me up when my automobile won’t start, or when I’m in an accident. They can’t lend me money, heal me when I’m injured or sick, console me with words, cook my meals, or defend me from critics. My children can do all these things and more. So who’s selfish: those who produce children or those who care for animals?

Scruton makes it seem as though living with animals is an indulgence—or worse, a symptom of psychopathy. It’s more accurate to say that it’s an imposition—one that we willingly and happily bear for the sake of our companions. We do it out of love, not because we expect or hope to gain anything tangible from it. I’m not saying that people have children (or befriend others) only for instrumental reasons; but in fact both children and friends are in a position to reciprocate, and we know it. Animals are not. Who, then, is being self-indulgent: those of us who love with no expectation of reciprocity, or those who love with an expectation of reciprocity? One wonders whether Scruton has ever lived with—taken responsibility for—an animal. We know that he hunts and kills them for pleasure and entertainment; but has he lived with one? Perhaps if he did, he wouldn’t say such foolish things.

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