Sunday, January 12, 2014

Animal Ethics

Revised: Jan 13, 2014; 16:24 GMT
Revised: Jan 15, 2014; 17:26 GMT
Revised: Jan 16, 2014; 16:16 GMT
Revised: Apr 09, 2014; 04:54 GMT
Revised: May 31, 2014; 15:54 GMT
Revised: Nov 18, 2014; 17:07 GMT

The two-sentence excerpt below constitutes the opening paragraph of a paper presented to the American Bar Association symposium on breed-specific laws (BSL) held at NYU Law school in December 2007:
   By way of orientation: This paper is not intended to assault the reader with a barrage of facts showing breed-specific legislation is ill-conceived, though it would not be hard to adduce such facts: For example, there are five times more people killed by lightning per year (100) or by falling coconuts (150) or by hot tap water (150 in Japan alone) than by dog bites (18 per year). Death by bug bite (54 per year) is three times more likely than dog bite; death in virtue of being struck by a cow also three times more likely (65 per year).

   Since I am a philosopher, the paper is conceptual . . . .

Animal Ethics and Breed-Specific Legislation
Bernard E. Rollin, Ph.D. (HomeWikipedia)
5 J Animal L. 1 (2009)
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Anyone who has seen the 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove1 will remember Clara Allen, the fictional character played by Anjelica Huston. Clara is married to a comatose husband who lingers interminably. He has been injured in a farm accident (in this case by a horse), leaving the future of the farm in doubt.

Dr Rollin promises not to assault the reader with facts, then does just that. The facts he regales us with minimize the number of deaths attributed to dogs by noting that cows killed three times as many people as did dogs. Bugs and falling coconuts killed even more humans than did cows. These figures roll around like dice in a shaker: 18, 65; such small numbers are meaningless, are they not? Dr Rollin makes these deaths sound ridiculous.

Clara Allen was a fictional character but farm-related injuries often have a devastating impact on real-life families.2, 3 A philosopher may speak conceptually about these deaths but they are life-altering disasters for the families involved. Fortunately our institutions recognize the impact of these individual tragedies. Significant financial and human resources have been committed, by state and federal agencies and by agricultural universities, to studying the causes of farm accidents and learning how to avoid them.

Dr Rollin's goal in this paper is to establish a moral-conceptual flaw underlying breed-specific legislation, because, if such a flaw can be found to exist there is no need to assemble supporting facts in the fight against BSL. This is a sound strategy for Dr Rollin, because the supporting data does in fact show that BSL works.

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Dr Rollin's paper includes one of the loveliest paeans to dogs we've come across; it bears reading again and again. But then he undercuts the beauty of it by making an appeal to emotion, based on the passage:
Are we as a society going to accept, even endorse, laws that cavalierly can rip an object of love and attention — sometimes the only such object for an old person or a street person — from a person’s bosom without their having done anything wrong, merely because they belong to a certain arbitrarily determined class?5
But this is not a compelling argument against BSL, which need not deny anyone the succor of a canine companion. Even with BSL anyone can have a lovely dog. There are over 175 breeds from which to chose, and an infinite number of mutts -- surely there is a dog in the world to please anyone of reasonable disposition.

Dr Rollin writes passionately of the
tendency of urban life to erode community, to create what the Germans called "Gesellshaft" rather than "Gemeinschaft," mixtures rather than compounds, as it were, further established solitude and loneliness as widespread modes of being.
Our lives may be fragmented, Dr Rollin continues, but our canine companions return a sense of wholeness and community to each of us.

* * * * *

Despite his hope to discover a moral-conceptual flaw Dr Rollin doesn't hesitate to fall back on the received wisdom against BSL, harvested from pit bull advocacy pages on the web. He inevitably refers to the ATTS, which purportedly proves that dachshunds are more aggressive than pit bulls; this is an outrage to reason. The ATTS was designed to test Schutzhund dogs and was intended as a breed suitability test for the German Shepherd. As the ATTS website states, the test simulates a casual walk through a park or neighborhood where everyday life situations are encountered.

There were 29 fatal pit bull attacks on humans in calendar year 2013; there were 407 pit bull attacks which left humans maimed or permanently disfigured. Do Dr Rollin and other advocates consider these figures acceptable to a moral community? These attacks did not occur on a casual walk in the park. About half of the 2013 fatal pit bull attacks occurred in the homes of those who have unwittingly adopted a pit bull, and the victim is often a family member who has loved the dog until the moment of the attack. The ATTS is not an accurate predictor of unprovoked pit bull attacks. Advocates have long been aware of this but stubbornly insist that dachshunds or chihuahuas are more aggressive than pit bulls, which experience clearly tells us isn't the case. It's simply bizarre to say so. SRUV appeals to honorable people to debate BSL honestly, with integrity, and to not make outrageous claims that credulous people will repeat.

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There are other lapses. When introducing the concept of "canine racism," for example, he states
And if one is of the post-modernist mind to deconstruct the concept of race as meaningless, the issue is mooted, since there are then no breeds to ban! We shall shortly see that “pit-bull” is far more amorphous than a breed.
We have all graduated beyond the point where we believe pit bulls constitute a "breed." Yet we require a common language with which to discuss these ideas and so are stuck with the inherited terms pit bull and Breed-specific legislation.6 It's easy to see where Dr Rollin is headed with this quibble on the term pit bull. Dr Rollin returns to the matter of breed for his conclusion, which is the weakest part of the paper. In the process he falls for the ubiquitous "Find the Pit Bull Test."7

Dr Rollin suggests that any dog which falls into a targeted group could be
singled out, extirpated from family, and euthanized simply by virtue of membership in that group.
This is shameful fear-mongering, unworthy of a dignified argument. Perhaps we have difficulty instituting public safety measures simply because our legal philosophers are not clear how such measures can be gracefully implemented. Most new BSL legislation does not even include a total ban on pit bulls; it imposes other, lesser measures such as neutering and requirements for insurance. BSL that does include banning nearly always grandfathers in existing pit bulls and allows the numbers of pit bulls to gradually decline over time, as the existing family dogs age and die natural deaths within the bosom of their families. Dr Rollin makes no allowance for these distinctions.

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The core of Dr Rollin's argument appears to be that as society has moved increasingly toward judging beings as individuals, the individual animals in our moral circle will also be judged as individuals:
In sum, then, the creation of breed-specific legislation aimed at certain types of animals is incompatible with the thrust of social ethics towards including individual animals in the moral circle, as well as with the dominant 20th century moral theory of judging beings in the scope of moral concern as individuals.
This is an elegant construction, and a point worthy of consideration. But after stripping away the conventional pit bull advocacy memes in Dr Rollin's paper there isn't enough left to support this finding.

The takeaway? It appears to be the anecdotal first paragraph minimizing the fewness of human deaths caused by pit bulls. Professor Rollin's data now appears on pit bull advocacy sites and in the comment sections under news accounts of pit bull attacks, where it is used to diminish the gravity of the attack. It shows up as a canker in Brian Hare's book The Genius of Dogs. It has gone viral.

Dr Rollin bases his argument against BSL on our increasing concern for the individual, both human and canine, over the good of the community.8 Unaccountably, Dr Rollin contributes to the fracturing of society that he descries. He makes an oblique, dismissive reference in his opening paragraph to the numbers killed by pit bulls, but then renders those numbers meaningless. Dr Rollin makes his own argument absurd, because the "fewness" of deaths is not sufficient justification for a moral community, one that values the individual, to ignore them.

Dr Rollin's arguments against BSL are also wrong from a humane standpoint. Our collective social will has to protect our members from senseless deaths, regardless of how few they are. We do not allow advocates of potentially dangerous behaviors to decide the arbitrary hypothetical number of deaths that would justify a regulatory response. We as the endangered members of a moral community must define what that number is.

It has always been that way, every time there has been social reform. We could not let meat packing companies in Chicago define what social costs were allowable in getting meat to the table. It was the collective will of society that had to decide which abuses were not allowable. Dr Rollin has not demonstrated that BSL would impose undue hardship on the moral community, and he has not demonstrated that 25 fatal pit bull attacks a year is a number we should tolerate.

With thanks to Renranguangyin      

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1 Based on the 1985 Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry.
2 Review of Farm Accident Data Sources, National Agriculture Safety Database
3 Livestock Handling Related Injuries and Deaths
4 Dairy Farmer Dies from Crushing Injuries Sustained while Loading Cows (Case Report: 03NY040)
5 We will not discuss the use of the word arbitrary in this context, other than to say Dr Rollin's use of manipulative language throughout the paper is unusual for a philosopher. While blogs can get away with such usage, law journals should refrain.
6 The term pit bull has withstood court challenges up to the Supreme Court of the US. Pit bull does not signify only three breeds of dogs, as Dr Rollin claims. View or download the legal definition of a pit bull as defined in Omaha, NE
7 The reason it's so difficult to find the one true pit bull on these posters is because it's a fool's game. Many of the dogs represented on these posters are pit bull type dogs, and these have been cross- and inter-bred to arrive at today's pit bull. Try the alternate and honest Find the Pit Bull test.
8 Dr Rollin chronicles the drift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellshaft, beginning with our change from an agricultural society to an urban/automobile-based society. This drift became a torrent after WWII, and "with egocentricity and self-actualization encouraged as positive values beginning in the highly individualistic 1960s, even the nuclear family concept was eroded." Many would argue that the children of the 60s were already alienated and were seeking community. It could also be argued that that the final blows to our cohesiveness as a society were struck in the 80s and later, when successive conservative governments sanctioned and encouraged individual rights and interests over the commonweal.

SRUV uses the definition of "pit bull" as found in the Omaha Municipal Code Section 6-163. As pit bulls are increasingly crossed with exotic mastiffs, Catahoula Leopard Dogs and other breeds, the vernacular definition of "pit bull" should be made even more inclusive.

Sources cited by news media sometimes refer to "Animal Advocates" or sometimes "Experts." In many cases these words are used to refer to single-purpose pit bull advocates who have never advocated for any other breeds or species of animals. Media would be more accurate to refer to these pit bull advocates as advocates of fighting breeds.

Similarly, in many cases pit bull advocates refer to themselves as "dog lovers" or "canine advocates" and media often accepts this usage. The majority of these pit bull advocates are single-purpose advocates of fighting breeds.

Statistics quoted on SRUV are from the nation's authoritative source for current dog attack statistics, the 30+ year, continuously updated Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada.
View or download the current PDF

2014 Year-end report of dog attacks
   Animals 24-7; January 3, 2015
32 years of logging fatal & disfiguring dog attacks
   Animals 24-7; September 27, 2014
How many other animals did pit bulls kill in 2014?
   Animals 24-7; January 27, 2015

This page may also include information from Dogsbite &Fatal Pit Bull Attacks.

Google News: Today's pit bull attacks

2014 Dog Bite Related Fatalities on Daxton's Friends
Index of canine fatalities on Daxton's Friends

Scientists calculate odd ways to die
   Daily Mirror, May 30, 2008