Responses to Dominance
Responses to this predicament vary. Understandably, extinctionism does not strike those who are outside of animal rights circles as at all plausible. Even inside such circles it represents a minority viewpoint associated mainly with what is known as “abolitionism.” The latter, in turn, varies from account to account but usually involves a rejection of the mainstream animal rights movement as morally corrupt or “welfarist” and not truly interested in rights at all. On different accounts, abolitionists advocate the abandonment of all campaigns for reform that fall short of a complete abolition of animal use; or active opposition to such campaigns (rather than merely non-involvement); or a conditional support for some campaigns but only where the immediate goal is the abolition of a particular practice of use rather than its modification. Other campaigns then remain entirely opposed or off-limits. Instead, the priority is the dissemination of veganism, which tends to be understood in a specialized sense that involves ideological commitments in addition to dietary practice. Although a minority view even among activists, the emergence of abolitionism within the animal rights movement during the 1990s has helped to popularize support for an extinction- ist approach, although this tends to have little practical significance in a day-today manner. Abolitionists are often, in their own right, pet-owners, although the notion of ownership and animal property jars with their outlook.
It is tempting to say that this absence of practical consequences of embracing extinctionism, beyond the minimal restraint of breeding that many non- extinctionists also practice, is symptomatic of the intractable presence of pet ownership. Whatever the rights and wrongs of its historical antecedents, the
30,000-or-so-year-old connection to companion animals seems to run too far into the fiber of our being, too far into our lives to be overridden by any theory- driven considerations. And by this I do not mean to dismiss the role of writing about animals within an explicitly articulated ethical tradition. Rather, my suggestion is that we are probably entitled to be skeptical about viewpoints entailed by some or other ethical theory when they conflict with deep levels of our emotional responsiveness and hence with our sense of what matters in a deep way.
When theories do this by, for example, announcing that it is wrong for humans to bring other humans into being or that the value of a human, a dog, and a fly are one and the same, the thought is that we are entitled to assume that the theories themselves have gone astray, that the devil in the conclusions indicates one or more flaws somewhere in the initial assumptions or else in the argumentative detail. In more formal terms, arrival at such “fearless thoughts” is often taken to provide a reductio of the arguments in question. And, in the case of favoring extinction over training, this seems to make at least some sense. Extinctionism requires endorsement of a peculiarly strident form of human authority. What greater indication of human dominance could there be than our even deliberating about ending the lineages of other creatures who are absolutely no threat to our own social group ? It presupposes entitlements of an even more wide-reaching sort than those assumed by any common or garden-variety animal guardian or professional animal trainer.
But if our best response to human dominance is not a theory-driven extinction, what then? A continuation of a punitive “I am the master” dominance, of a sort that emerged out of the nineteenth century and continues in narratives of man, the pack-leader ? That hardly seems likely. Here, the analogy with children does seem to carry some weight. Victorian ideas about the need for children to be both seen and heard, but only when being soundly disciplined, hardly carry sway. The notion that physical punishment was a basic requirement in childrearing tends to occur only in the more salacious early-morning television programs or in reruns of Little House on the Prairie. What it has taken with it is any sense of confidence in our entitlement to physically discipline the companion animals in our lives. And this partial renunciation of physical force is part of a more general trend. As part of a broader reaction to the punitive dimensions of early behaviorism, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a softening of the power that owners were to wield by means of behaviorist methods of positive reinforcement, with the emphasis upon the positive. With regard to animal training, punishment was out, although “correction” might remain, and rewarding with treats was definitely in.
The great exemplar of this approach, and one that is still very much in use, is the “click and treat” regime. Desired behaviors are immediately acknowledged by pressing a “clicker,” which is associated with a treat. When the animal hears a click, it knows that it has done well and that something good is on its way. The clicker’s role is rather like that of the theme tune of a favorite TV show. This helps the dog to identify the desired behavior in question. Thanks to successive modification of such softened exercises of power during the later twentieth century, dogs no longer needed to be put on neck chains and yanked into submission in the manner that was ultimately distilled into The Koehler Method of Dog Training (1962). They were to be bribed, albeit bribed under conditions with a loose similarity to drug-dealing, in the sense that dependence upon the good stuff is increased over the course of time. The competition was also eliminated, with alternative sources of comparable satisfactions removed, making the securing of treats (which might have been a biscuit, praise, or anything that pleased) reliant upon conformity to the trainer or owner’s wishes.
What helped to rationalize such approaches in the 1970s and after, during times when the issue of animal rights had begun to make its way into the press for the first time since the early years of the century, was, first, the way in which it genuinely did displace forms of physical punishment that seemed out of keeping with the high priority that all good, liberally minded agents place upon the avoidance of cruelty; and secondly, a tendency to reduce animal wellbeing down to pleasures and pains rather than indexing wellbeing to any notion of true autonomy, a reductionist move that we would be reluctant to make in the case of humans. Our wellbeing and enjoyment of a good life turn out to be surprisingly complex accomplishments involving many things.7 Comparable complexity in the case of dog companions has always tended to be denied. As long as the animals were not suffering anything resembling actual physical pain of less-enlightened days, non-punitive training made a great deal of sense. But what clicker training also encouraged, at least when presented as some sort of comprehensive fix for the inherent inequality of the training situation, was a level of self-deception about the exercise of power.
Susan Garrett’s popular training manual, Ruff Love: A Relationship Building Program for You and Your Dog (2001), represented something of a reaction, with its reinforcement of the idea of the reciprocity of animal and owner (training as, in a sense, being with), combined with a startling commitment to total human supervision, 100 percent of the time. When the trainer or owner was not able to be present, crating the animal was recommended (resulting in some unfavorable but not entirely misleading comparisons to abduction) (Garrett 2011). Donna Haraway refers to this approach as “Positive Bondage” with good reason (2003, 43). Essentially, it represented a qualification of positive reinforcement techniques with a particular emphasis placed upon a certain kind of ruthless honesty about the process itself. For the trainer, sincerity and integrity were key virtues, but they were essentially human virtues. They were the traits that allowed us to be humane but above all consistent (and this in turn was taken as the key requirement for mutual human-animal understanding). On such an approach, the entire ethical burden of the well-formed reciprocal relation could not be carried by human sympathy or compassion for the animal, and some level of diligence on the part of the latter. In a move reminiscent of eighteenth-century model prison theory, actions and outcomes were to be charted and measured, detailed and recorded, on the assumption that animal trainers were inclined to be fundamentally dishonest about several aspects of the process, not the least of which was their rate of success in getting the animal to do what was actually required without physical force.
While aspects of such an approach (quantification, crating, and continuous presence) have been qualified or dropped, the reciprocity at its heart remains key to contemporary training manuals. Good trainers, on the relevant conception, have not simply mastered techniques for getting things done. Rather, they have learned how to listen to and trust the animal, even (in some contexts) more than they trust fellow humans. This is the familiar, philosophically sophisticated approach that we find in Vicki Hearne’s Adams Task: Calling Animals by Name (2007, 13). This picture is, of course, better in many respects than a humanely- informed behaviorism, in which the animal is a sort of black box utterly beyond our comprehension or beyond any need of being understood. And it incorporates a conception of the animal’s potential for growth in capacities, moral and other, that may be brought out through the training process, to the animal’s own great advantage. We like our skills (in music, sport, and languages) and animals too like theirs, but both must be taught. In this understanding of the training relation, the dog is owed something. In fact, it is owed several things, including, in language that echoes Koehler, the consequences of its mistakes.
Following a line of thought that has become dominant within feminism and widespread in post-1970s ethical theory, rights for Hearne emerge in relational contexts rather than being among the brute gifts of nature. But what this means has always been a matter for some debate. On Hearne’s account, it means that animals acquire rights in the training context and during the latter rather than before. It is the training context that sets up relations of obligation, expectation, and trust. Strangers who approach an animal and issue commands as if they were part of this relation when they are not, or who randomly reach out their hand and offer scent without invitation, may rightly be rebuked and disobeyed by the animal without suggesting that the animal’s own training process has in any way gone wrong. The training of the human, on the other hand, may well have gone wrong, and this may help to explain their unreasonable expectations and unwelcome familiarity.
A convenient upshot of such an approach is that it precludes any straightforward critique of the training process itself. If rights emerge only once the interactions of trainer and trainee are up and running, then any notion of preexisting rights that might preclude the latter can be rejected. Here, I will take it that there is a good deal to be said for the relational understanding of rights but perhaps less so for Hearne’s restrictive understanding of what this means. Her rather strident article in Harper’s Magazine, “What’s Wrong with Animal Rights” (1991), attacking conventional animal rights theory, did little to endear her to an activist movement with an emerging abolitionist wing that was increasingly inclined to regard soft power as, in many ways, the main enemy. (The thought here was that if we stopped hiding behind campaigns for “better,” more humane, forms of exploitation, then the nakedness of the process would be exposed.8) But even without such reactions, there is a concern that Hearne’s loyalty to the broad vision of Koehler may well leave us with an under-constrained account of legitimate, ethically-defensible modes of training.
This remains a plausible suspicion, even though there is a case for saying that Hearne, the feminist movement, and others were perhaps correct about the limitations of traditional rights theory: those aspects that insisted that rights were underpinned by the possession of properties (such as sentience or being the subject of a life) that might belong to a being considered in utter isolation from all other beings.9 This older, non-relational idea of rights fails to do justice to the point that the securing of a worthwhile conception of animal rights would need to involve altered ways of relating, on the part of both humans and nonhumans, rather than a cessation of relations between the two. Outside of the bounds of the odder versions of neoliberalism, we would not, of course, think of human freedom as a cessation of certain kinds of interaction with others, as a matter of being unleashed and unimpeded. Thinking of animal freedom in such a way (including conceptions required for some plausible form of “liberation” or “abolition”) seems similarly reductionist. Autonomy of the best sort, the sort that fits any being for a flourishing existence in any society whatsoever, requires skill, competence, and, in the case of social animals, the cultural enhancement of traits. Learning to read and write is a basic requirement in our own societies; without it, the agent is always missing out. Being left alone is not obviously the ideal, liberated condition.