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Point of View - Does my dog have a soul?


Does my dog have a soul? – Point of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn.

At an Animal Welfare conference in September, New Zealand author Richard Webster declared his dog Bruce had a soul.

Bruce, said Webster, experienced joy, sadness and jealousy and had a reasoning ability. Webster’s comments sounded quaint and a little dippy and you could just see him looking deep into Bruce’s eyes when he made the discovery. But however Webster came to his conclusion he is, perhaps unwittingly, echoing the ‘personhood’ debate currently firing philosophers round the world.

Quietly behind the scenes across the United Sates and Britain lawyers and philosophers are debating the upgrading of animals to human status. Forefront of this new ‘personhood’ trend is Peter Singer the Australian philosopher who is committed to breaking the automatic nexus between species membership and moral status.

According to Singer it’s not enough to accord animals the full rights of humans - some humans might not even qualify as ‘persons’ at all. Especially if they are brain damaged or just not wanted. Singer, who makes it clear he does not particularly like animals, has taken the naive discussion of animal lovers like Webster and developed it exponentially.

We are, he says, simply being speciesist when we drip detergent on to a rabbit’s eye rather than carrying out the same experiment on a human patient in a persistent-vegetative state. He likens it to racism – giving preference to one group over another because of race membership.

According to Singer the only moral boundary is the capacity to suffer; while being rational or cognitive is irrelevant.

Frightening and improbable?

Well take a look at how we’re all sliding gradually towards Singers views.

Recently the SPCA in Vancouver, Canada urged that a dog owner be charged with psychological abuse and His Holiness the Pope said not only are animals as ensouled as we are but they are far superior to human beings in their loyalty and trust and lack of artifice. Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Wolkoff recently described the relationship between a human and their pet as far less complicated and far more satisfying than the relationship between two humans. While New York animal physic Joanna Seere helps animals find balance, wholeness and themselves through meditation and the payment of US$90. She’s so busy it takes weeks to get an appointment. In the UK Morgan Stanley Dean Witter& Co recently ranked pet health insurance above pensions in importance while a US hotel chain has introduced a Privileged Paws frequent-stay programme featuring fluoride enriched water bowls and free in-room meals. Then of course there are pet products galore – everything from jewellery to organic food to pyjamas and perfume.

So whether Richard Webster intended it or not his declaration of Bruce’s human-like attributes of cognition, autonomy and self-awareness puts us all in a difficult situation.

Does an animal sharing these human-like traits reveal a soul and if so does that confer personhood? If you do think your dog has a soul then you have to consider your moral obligations to all equally ensoled creatures. While the need to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation is a no-brainer it won’t be enough - you’ll be morally required to extend to them all the legal protections of personhood that being ‘ensoled’ guarantees. Not only would that mean freedom from their use as subjects of medical research or even meat but also their role as own-able property. You’ll certainly have to reconsider your belief paradigm that all human beings are persons and given that you’ll have to take on Peter Singers argument that the lives of healthy animals ought to be weighed equally with human beings begins to make sense.

Or, of course you could stop the rot and tell Richard Webster and his animal welfare buddies that ensuring the proper, ethical treatment of animals is not the same thing as conferring souls on them. Animals are not little persons. Some of them have intellectual abilities that are shadows of our own but that does not give them equal rights with humans. They’re incapable of conveying abstractions like "third-person" messages, they can’t store knowledge or species history and so lack a culture.

Stressing the similarity between humans and non-human animals is dangerous. Next time Webster and his friends are ruminating on the souls of their dogs they would do well to realize they’re part of a much bigger debate that if people like Singer have their way, will change for ever the divide between being and non-human. Personally I think the idea of a dog with a soul is plain silly. For one thing dogs don’t have a sense of humour. But then show me a dog that can tell a good blonde joke and I might change my mind.

Send your comments to: Barbara Sumner Burstyn.
© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, 2002.

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