Dogs–We Sure Love ‘Em
Take a dog lover to an animal shelter and you will almost certainly hear some variation of, “What did the dog to do deserve being here?” And unless it is particularly vicious, the answer is: nothing. We don’t blame dogs for being strays, and we are sad to know that so many of them live out their days in small cages in noisy, dirty pounds, often destined to be euthanized.
Our love of dogs is understandable. By and large, they are loving companions. They bring us joy and friendship. They guard us and guide us and support us. And in exchange, we Americans spend just under $56 billion on them!
Now, this isn’t going to be one of those “instead of spending that money on dogs we should be spending it on social issues” posts. I love dogs, and will soon be spending money on one too. I do, however, want to point out that in 2013 Americans donated a little over $41 billion to human service organizations–considerably less than spending on pets**. But most importantly, I want to talk about personal responsibility by asking a simple question: Why do we feel more compassion for dogs than we do for humans, or even for other animals (for we mustn’t forget that–thanks to our eating habits–there is a massive industry whose profits depend on the confinement, mistreatment and slaughter of animals)?
I ask because of how frequently I hear people blame the poor for being poor. I hear the non-poor say of the poor that they are lazy, make bad decisions, have too many kids, mismanage their money, get into bad relationships. These accusations, which frustrate me to no end, certainly make it much easier to feel that poverty is the fault of the poor, as opposed to the society in which they live. In contrast, it is much harder to malign a dog; how can one resist their pleading eyes and wagging tails? And finally, it is all too easy to ignore the ways in which our meat comes from animals that, when alive, were effectively tortured until their death.
Human beings are complex, as are the societies we create. It is impossible to make broad statements about any group of people without falling into stereotype or, worse, bigotry. We all find ourselves in situations that, to varying degrees, are due to a combination of personal decisions and outside forces.
Whereas we can say that dogs are blameless, and even “bad” dogs can, with love and training, become “good” dogs, the same cannot be said of humans. We find it hard to change our behavior even when we are inclined to do so. It seems to me, therefore, that there are two ways to deal with this matter of personal responsibility: compassion or dismissal.
Dismissal and Compassion
The dismissal route has a number of advantages, of course: it allows us to feel that we are where we are because we deserve it and have earned it; to vote for policies that are anti-poor (such as reductions in public benefits); and to ignore the structural reasons for massive income, racial and social inequality in this country.
The compassion route is far harder. It forces us to question our standing in society relative to others. It asks that we be as outraged about the existence of food pantries, homeless shelters and slums as we are about dog pounds–if not more. And it raises a number of uncomfortable questions. If our wealth is not due entirely to our own initiative, for instance, what are the implications for our lives? Does that obligate us to donate a greater percentage of our income to charity? Should we spend less on luxury items? Peter Singer, the brilliant ethicist, ponders this very question in his provocative book The Life You Can Save. His argument, in short, is that the well-off should give until they reach a point where their material and emotional comfort would be compromised, and no farther. Why? If X amount of money can save a life, and we don’t need that money to maintain our own lives, then we should spend it to save that life. To give but one example: rather than buying a coffee–without which we can easily live–it is our moral responsibility to spend the money on, say, malaria treatment.
Next time you see a person sleeping on the street, think about the old saying that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I am no better than the homeless, the incarcerated, the institutionalized. To the extent that I have control over my life, I do my best to make decisions that make me happy and healthy; but I do not assume the same for others. No matter how hard it is, I must choose to love others, not in spite of their flaws, but rather knowing that they exist and understanding them. Yes, people need to take personal responsibility. And yes, there are those who don’t want to be helped (I run a nonprofit–I see that all the time). But only through compassion can we begin to fix the fabric of society and give people the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed; for isn’t that a fundamental tenet of an entrepreneurial society?
** Americans gave a total of $335 billion in 2013, broken down into a variety of categories, including religion, the arts, health, environment, education and international affairs