My dog, Woody, as a puppy.

Are pooches people?

In his New York Times op-ed on Oct. 5, Professor Gregory Berns asserts that “Dogs Are People, Too” because of the canine brain’s capacity for emotion. He never defends, however, why this kind of sentience should be the criterion for ascribing moral value to life. Not only is this standard arbitrary and unsubstantiated, but it is dogged by disturbing conclusions about the value of human life.

My dog, Woody, as a puppy.
My dog, Woody, as a puppy.

Setting brain function as a standard for personhood implies that individuals with higher capacity for cognition have greater moral value. If this is so, why should creatures with higher intellect or with more numerous and noble aims not be considered more persons than those with fewer long-term aims or less brain capacity?

By this criterion, individuals suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease or under general anesthesia, whose caudate nuclei are incapacitated or greatly impaired, could no longer be considered moral persons. We know, however, that the patient under general anesthesia retains his identity despite his temporary lack of sentience, so his personhood must cohere in some other underlying nature.

If the degree of activity within the caudate nuclei were the standard for legal and moral personhood, it would be impossible to claim that “all men are created equal.” Living human beings must be persons because of what they are, not because of some arbitrary attribute that comes in varying degrees and which may be gained or lost during their lifetimes. Humans possess an essential nature that is intrinsically valuable.

Whether dogs possess a comparable nature is debatable, but one thing is sure: measuring chemicals which, in humans, correlate to emotional responses cannot determine whether dogs are moral persons. Dr. Berns’s neuroscientific approach is barking up the wrong tree. He enters dangerous territory when he compares a dog’s sentience to that of a human child, suggesting a kind of moral equivalence between them. However beloved the family pet may be, any father or mother would, without hesitation, save his or her small child if forced to choose between the child and a pet. Intuitively, we know this response is the moral one. Fido may be man’s best friend, but let’s be wary of declaring him a person.

  • animal lover

    my only comment would be for individuals who have no human children, their pet is, without any doubt, in every sense of the word…their child.

  • carriepoppy

    So what you’re saying is, you find emotional capacity too “arbitrary,” so you’re going to rely on the COMPLETELY arbitrary barrier of species?

  • David Diskin

    This is interesting if you replace “pet” with “fetus”. For example:

    “However beloved the fetus may be, any mother would, without hesitation, save her small child if forced to choose between the child and a fetus. Intuitively, we know this response is the moral one.”

    Therefore, a mother’s choice to abort a fetus is a moral decision, if she is forced to make that choice based on the survival of her existing family, or, perhaps, herself in extreme situations.

  • Jean-Marc

    Yes I think that professor Gregory Berns is very interesting. Christian must not to be afraid that animals like dogs are “persons” if this mean better treatment for animals, but also be cautious : some like Peter Singers can use it to reduce the humanity of the human being. Not “treat the dog with compassion” but “treat the human like dogs”.

    “animals too have souls”

    http://www.dreamshore.net/rococo/pope.html

    Christians must think about it because love is important for them and animals can sometime to love more than humans, there are many testimonies.

    http://aejt.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0012/395679/AEJT_2.15_Wade_Animal_Theology.pdf

    http://www.albertschweitzer.info/discovery.html

    Albert Schweitzer was Peace Nobel Prize and also a philosopher, physician and pastor.

    • Jean-Marc

      When I say “yes”, I agree with carriepoppy (the first answer) but I cannot agree with David Diskin, I think it is very dangerous to say that fetus is like a lower human being, and also there is no choice to do between the younger child and the fetus.

      • David Diskin

        I didn’t suggest that a fetus is like a lower human being, though I would argue that a fetus is not yet a human being.
        And while you might not recognize that there isn’t a hypothetical situation in which one must choose between a fetus and an existing child, you might think out of the literal sense. For example, a family that is already economically disadvantaged, struggling to provide food and education and quality parental time with just one child might have a very dire reason not to want a second child in the family.

        Additionally, we have to consider that pregnancy is a serious risk for many woman and that there are situations that would put the mother-to-be at a fatal risk should she not terminate the pregnancy.

        And this is why it should always remain a choice.

        • Calvin Freiburger

          “I would argue that a fetus is not yet a human being.”

          And you would be objectively wrong.

          “a family that is already economically disadvantaged, struggling to provide food and education and quality parental time with just one child might have a very dire reason not to want a second child in the family.”

          That might be an argument not to bring a second child into existence, but because your premise that the fetus isn’t “an existing child” is false, your scenario carries no more weight than suggesting it’s okay to kill your one-year-old for the benefit of your three-year-old.

          “there are situations that would put the mother-to-be at a fatal risk [...] this is why it should always remain a choice.”

          No, at most that would be an argument for remaining a choice *in those situations*. It gives absolutely no reason to permit abortion in elective situations — which are the vast majority. And for the record, the annual pregnancy-related deaths in the United States (650) are less than a thousandth of 1% of the annual number of live births (3,953,590).

  • Ricky Trimnal

    What in the hell does it even matter. If you love your’e dog like family and it makes you happy, what is the damage? None, because it has been proven that dog’s or pet’s help a person’s overall health. How can that be wrong.

  • MamaBear

    Dogs are most certainly NOT people! My cat told me so!

  • Ingrid Heimark

    Pets are valuable, but not humans, that’s why I joined an animal WELFARE group, and not an animal RIGHTS group

  • Josh Craddock

    There are many reasons to say why it’s the most appropriate standard, but just one that is important to note is that it’s the only standard that provides any justification for the concept of human rights, which I happen to think is rather valuable.