This essay is a continuation of our exploration of the value of canine exercise. In Part One, we discussed the health and welfare benefits of exercise for both you and your dog. Now we turn our attention to pet owners and examine the degree to which, in light of those benefits, they should feel compelled to provide their dogs with adequate daily exercise.
Duties: Why We Should Do Anything
Duties are obligations. They shape our behavior by informing us what we (a) simply must do or (b) (more commonly) should do in order to avoid some specific repercussion.
The concept of social duty is thorny, complex, and often contentious. Duties function as limitations on our personal freedoms — they tell us how to act – and, since we all hate being told what to do, we often view any such limitations with great disdain. So discussions of specific duties are likely to spark heated debate over their desirability and validity. (In other words, roll up your sleeves because this could get ugly.)
Duties take many forms:
A legal duty carries the force of law. If you fail to perform a valid legal duty, the government that made the underlying law is authorized to curtail your freedom (through penalization or forced income re-distribution). So, in most jurisdictions, if a shop-owner breaches her duty to provide reasonable care to her customers (by, say, leaving a banana peel on the ground), and if one of those customers is damaged as a result of the shop-owner’s failure to perform her duty (by slipping on the banana peel and hurting her head), the shop-owner may be legally liable for the injured customer’s monetary damages. In that way, the shop-owner has a legal duty to provide reasonable care to her customers.
An ethical duty is a trickier idea. Ethics is a branch of philosophy involving the systematizing, defending, and recommending of “right” and “wrong” behavior. It aims to answer the question “what should I do?” Somewhat unlike broadly-applicable and concrete legal systems, systems of ethics are personal and are adopted or rejected on an individual-by-individual basis, based upon the information one is exposed to during one’s life. In other words, not everyone agrees on what is ethical (although most everyone thinks that everyone else should agree with their own personal ethics).
Thus, while there can be overlap between legal and ethical duties, there need not necessarily be. While some laws are ethical (in some people’s eyes), others may not be. And while some ethical directives also become laws, many do not.
There are other kinds of duties as well. Religious ones (I must do X because Y will happen if I defy God’s will), physical ones (I must do A because I am powerless to avoid Physical Law B), and occupational ones (I must do N because my boss will do M if I don’t), just to name a few.
But when it comes to thinking about whether pet owners have a duty to exercise their pets, legal and ethical duties are the only ones we’ll consider – the others aren’t relevant or aren’t necessarily applicable to the broad audience to whom this essay is written.
As a Dog “Owner” You Don’t Have a Legal Duty to Exercise Your Dog
Almost every legal system in the United States treats pet dogs as personal property.
If you want a dog to live in your home and be a part of your family, most states and municipalities require that you register the dog with a governmental record-keeping agency. At that point, the animal becomes your property, which you own, just like a blender or a great work of literature.
As with other kinds of personal property, state laws prevent dog owners from using or allowing their dogs to tread on the rights of others. While specific laws vary state-to-state, they all generally impose criminal liability (penalties) and civil liability (forced monetary redistribution) on people (“owners”) whose dogs cause harm to others.
There are many interesting issues about these laws, but none of them have to do with the topic of this essay. It’s a stretch to claim that by failing to exercise my dog I somehow have caused harm to someone other than the dog. So the potential liability to which pet “owners” are exposed in America does not mean that owners have a legal duty to exercise their pets.
But there’s a wrinkle: Our legal system also recognizes that dogs and some of the other animals that we “own” aren’t like other forms of property. Because unlike other types of property, all states generally prevent their citizens from treating their animals “cruelly.” Analogous laws don’t prevent me from smashing my television with a sledgehammer or ritually desecrating my Justin Bieber dolls.
This is a distinction worth appreciating– it’s a little nod to the obvious logical distinction between sentient living beings and other (non-living) crap.
Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, American animal cruelty laws have never been used to prosecute a dog owner for failing to adequately exercise his dog. A creative and highly-skilled prosecutor might be able to convict a dog owner for a wanton and high-profile instance of disregard which resulted in morbid obesity, horrible pain, and an early death (In the U.K., one actually did so — in 2006, a U.K. animal cruelty statute was used to prosecute two brothers [successfully] after they disregarded the advice of a veterinarian and allowed their Labrador Retreiver to become grossly obese). That being said, such a situation is highly unusual. And in any event, those extreme outlier situations are not really what we’re talking about in this essay.
Of course, the “pet owner” model is not the only method of imposing legal duties on people who keep domesticated animals in their homes. Some legal systems reject the “pet owner” concept in favor of a supposedly more animal-friendly paradigm, that of the “pet guardian.”
Guardian-type systems afford significantly greater rights to pets, treating them less like personal property and more like human children. In such models, people who keep animals in their homes are charged with a range of duties tied to the welfare of their pets (such as a duty to provide regular medical care). If the duties aren’t met, legal action can be taken against the guardian.
It’s not hard to imagine how these laws could be used to prosecute dog guardians who fail to provide their dogs with the exercise they need to avoid obesity and other serious health problems. However, while a few U.S. jurisdictions have experimented with the “pet guardian” paradigm, it has not been widely adopted and has been very loosely enforced.
In other words, if you are a dog owner living in the United States, it’s safe to say that you don’t really have a legal duty to exercise your dog (or your Snooki book).
You Have No Ethical Duty to Exercise Your Dog
I loathe broad ethical directives.
It literally makes my skin crawl to hear someone say “it’s immoral to eat meat” or “it’s wrong to fight wars.”
This isn’t because I “lack moral fiber” or because I’m a psychopath. In fact, I tend to think I have a strong empathic sensibility and care deeply about the consequences of my actions. And when it comes to truly narrow ethical directives – such as “it’s wrong to kill an animal by painful means when less painful means can be used without imposing additional external costs” – I both agree with and construct my behavior around them.
But when it comes to the topic of actions with broad, long-term, systemic effects, I view the leveling of ethical directives to be akin to the making of false prophecies. It’s inauthentic, lazy, unintellectual, self-interested, and oftentimes very harmful to society and to the very goals it claims to serve. I despise it.
Why don’t I go around making broad ethical directives and why do I find it so difficult to respect or trust those who do? Because I’m ignorant. And guess what, reader–so are you. In fact, we all are and that makes the leveling of broad ethical directives an exercise in futility.
(I’m sorry if you feel insulted. Please give me a few paragraphs to explain myself.)
Forming valid ethical directives is a two-step process. You can’t tell another person that how they choose to act is “right” or “wrong” unless (1) you have unassailable knowledge about what end-results are worth pursuing and (2) you have unassailable knowledge that some course of action will lead to the more likely occurrence of those end results.
For the moment, just ignore the first step of the process and assume that we know with unassailable certainty that all sentient (conscious) beings want to live lives that are as long, pleasure-packed, and pain-free as possible and that it is “good” for us to try to optimize all of their lives using these crude metrics as guideposts.
If we’re being intellectually honest, we will still run into insurmountable trouble when confronting the second step with respect to broad ethical maxims.
Because we are wholly incapable of predicting the broad and long-term impacts of our actions. For the science and other support for this powerful claim, begin here then follow the intellectual bread crumbs. It’s a fascinating and absurdly widespread problem.
Allow me to illustrate. Let’s use ethical directives concerning the treatment of non-human animals as an example. In our complex global ecosystem, there are millions of species with many million representatives of each bouncing off each-other and competing for the same limited resources at any given moment. Given the finite nature of the resources in our environment, one species will prosper only at the inevitable expense of others. So the effects of any broad action (say, abolishing the ownership of non-humans by humans) will ripple through the entire interconnected ecosystem, causing an incalculable number of changes to the health and happiness of an incalculable number of sentient beings. The notion that each animal is imbued with “free will” greatly amplifies the difficulty of the already-impossible task of predicting which actions will improve or worsen aggregate health and happiness.
In other words, what seems fair, sweet, and kind under a microscope will cause a tremendous number of un-accounted-for long-term effects, often including unintended suffering and death. Don’t kid yourself, “abolitionists,” you may be well-meaning, but you have not the first idea about the aggregate long-term impacts of your recommendations.
Note that this obstacle doesn’t exist in the cases of very narrow, laboratory-type ethical directives. Of course, in a vacuum, it’s “better” to act in a way that minimizes pain and suffering. The problem is we don’t live in a vacuum. So almost all ethical directives will fall victim to the systemic flaw outlined above.
This includes the statement “we have a moral obligation to provide our pets with adequate daily exercise.” The broader effects of such an obligation simply are too difficult to predict. Consider the following: By focusing our attention on our pets in order to provide them with daily exercise, what other opportunities for imparting “goodness” (or “badness”) on others are we foregoing? Or the following: By growing your pet into a fitter, healthier animal, is she more or less likely to bring pleasure or pain to others? Don’t spend too much time searching for answers because you simply can’t know—the broad effects of your actions and (non-actions) are too difficult to predict. And, even if you could predict them, they’d be so highly-individualized as to prevent any such obligation from being universally applicable.
And that’s why you’ll never hear me tell you that you have an ethical duty to provide your dog with vigorous daily exercise. Or to do much else, for that matter.
* * *
Now, at this point, I’d understand if you are completely turned-around. He started this essay telling us that we should be compelled to exercise our pets and now he’s telling us that we don’t have any duty to do so. What a quack.
Well, I’m not a quack. (Although, ironically, I am a duck.) I do think you should be compelled to exercise your dog even though you don’t have any affirmative duty to do so. Why? Because when it comes to thinking about why we do what we do, duties aren’t everything. There’s another powerful motivator lurking in the shadows: self-interest.
The Selfishness of Loving and Caring For Your Dog
One of the defining traits of the human being is that it has the capacity and tendency to empathize with others. We are highly aware of the emotional states of certain other animals (most notably, but not only, humans) because, on some level, we actually experience their emotions ourselves. In a very real and tangible way, we actually feel the pleasure and pain of others.
It’s something we are “hard-wired” to do. There are neurons in your brain that fire not only when you perceive a stimulus that directly triggers one of your emotional responses but also when you perceive stimuli suggesting that another is experiencing that same emotion.
Psychologists generally theorize that empathic mirroring developed in order to promote social order and thereby maximize the evolutionary success of our species. We function better in groups of individuals and empathy makes us better at forming collaborative groups because it helps us understand and predict the behavior of others.
In addition to empathizing, we develop deep emotional attachments to some other living creatures. We feel happy when our relationships with these folks are strong, close, and vibrant. We feel depressed when our relationships with them break down or when one of them dies or moves away. It’s not hard to see how this trait also leads to greater social cohesion and all of its attendant evolutionary benefits.
Certain attributes strengthen these emotional bonds. We feel “closer” to others (i.e., we feel more strongly attached to them and we experience their emotions more powerfully) when we are very familiar with them, when we trust them to be concerned with our own personal interests, when they display infantile characteristics (both behaviorally and in appearance), and when they occupy what we perceive to be a socially-appropriate role (such as a “partner”) in an applicable cultural framework.
In other words, in many ways you are hard-wired by evolution to feel extremely close with your loving canine companion.
These strong emotional experiences lie at the heart of your relationship with your dog. These feelings – experienced personally and individually, by you alone and no one else — are the scientific foundation for why you provide for your dog, why you make sacrifices for her, why you make efforts to improve her welfare, why you drag your ass out of bed to let her out in the morning, why you read expensive books to try to learn more about how she operates, why you worry about her when she’s in uncertain situations, and why you feel so horrible when you think about life without her.
You do all these things because, given the nature of your relationship with your dog, it serves your emotional self-interest. Making her feel good makes you feel good. Making her feel bad makes you feel bad.
And that’s the highly-selfish reason why you should be compelled to provide your dog with lots of enjoyable exercise.
As I described in Part One of this essay, there are myriad ways in which daily physical exercise will improve the health and welfare of your dog. From improved mood and mental health to longevity, these effects are real, demonstrable, and supported by scientific evidence. This is a verifiable fact: Exposing your dog to daily physical exercise will make her happier and healthier.
Now consider how you feel when you think about your dog. Do you feel happy when she’s happy? Do you feel contented when you take steps to make her healthier and prolong her life? Do you feel proud when you feel like you have serviced her needs?
Of course you do.
These deep, satisfying personal emotions are what make life worth living (even though they too often get swept under the rug). And they are within your control. Simply strive to understand how to gauge your dog’s health and welfare and then make efforts to optimize those phenomena (through daily exercise and otherwise).
Be selfish. Pour yourself into caring for your dog. Both of you will be better off as a result.