Thursday, August 23, 2007

Something Vicked this way comes

Jim Henson, drat him, is continuing to insist that his readers think about shit, instead of just reveling in our usual emotional hazes. I'm supposed to be all in favor of this attitude, so I can hardly object.

On the recent Michael Vick uproar, Mr. Henson says this:

So, let me hear it! Arguments based on some set of rights for some set of animals; arguments based on some set of obligations toward some kinds of property; arguments that some kinds of cruelty are wrong but should not be illegal and arguments that some kinds of cruelty should indeed be matters of law; arguments that it’s appropriate for one level of government to legislate against animal cruelty but not another (e.g. state vs. federal). Requirement: explain what’s libertarian about your claims. Prohibition: Explanations of how the animal cruelty question shows how awful or at least pitiable libertarians are. I have my own somewhat gestational ideas, but I’m really interested in other perspectives. Post in comments or in your own blog with a pointer. Feel free to critique others ideas in the spirit of rigor.

So, forced to give it some actual thought, I surprise (and annoy) myself by coming down with this (see his comment threads for original, which is probably too long for anyone over there to finish reading):

I can't make any claims to libertarianism, as every time I come over here and ask for an honest definition of same, I come away empty. I won't say what libertarianism seems to be from my perspective, as however I end up putting it, it comes out disrespectful, which serves no purpose here.

My feelings on the law are, the law should not have anything to do with morality, because morality is almost entirely subjective, and generally comes down to being our own personal definition of behavior that pleases us (which we feel should be mandated for all) and behavior which offends us (which we feel should be forbidden, and punished).

When laws try to either prohibit or require behavior on the basis of some notion of right/pleasing or wrong/offensive, things always end up going badly astray. (As a side note, religion is a fabulous justification for all this, because it allows one to make use of the dialectical tool of God within one's moral discourse. Good behavior is that which pleases God, bad behavior is that which offends God. It makes one's pissy, provincial little certainty that heterosexual monogamy is cool, and faggotry is evil, much more palatable, at least, to those who share one's basic belief systems.)

To my mind, legislation should attempt to define what behavior is actively anti-social, to the point where society itself will prohibit said behavior with various levels of applied sanctions when such behavior is detected and confirmed. (As a sidetrack, I'm not wild about imprisonment for lengthy periods being one of those sanctions, especially under conditions which largely amount to constant degradation and/or torture, as our current prison system seems to. I'd much rather see more minor offenses punished with community service of varying degrees of onerousness, while serious transgressions would be punished with either exile or execution. I used to be all for the Heinleinian notion of public floggings for minor offenses, as seen in STARSHIP TROOPERS and a few of his latter-life novels, but I've come to believe that a society that tolerates the torture of its members for any reason is unconscionable.)

With the above in mind, the question becomes, should gratuitously cruel behavior towards lesser order beings be defined as anti-social to the point where sanctions are prescribed for it by society?

Certainly, Vick's actions are offensive to our sensibilities as moral, civilized, rational people. Yet many moral, civilized, rational people find other things, ranging from tattoos and body piercings up through recreational use of chemicals and non-mainstream sexual behavior, to be offensive. But to offend someone, or a great many someones, meets no particular burden as to being judged anti-social, much less, anti-social to a point where sanctions must be imposed.

This is one of the mistakes that many in mainstream society make near-constantly -- that if something has offended them, it has in so doing also legitimately attacked or harmed them, and not only do they as individuals have a right to respond with an attack that may or will do actual harm, but that society has a positive duty to sanction their violent response (but never the original action that offended them, thus justifying their response) but also to sanction the original offensive action in such a way as to make those it has offended 'whole'.

There is no basis for this in any reasonable civil theory; to be an adult is, in large part, to have reached a level of maturity where we can accept offense without becoming violent, because we expect similar tolerance from others of any behavior of ours that may offend without actually harming them.

Having said all that, we Americans have embraced certain lesser order beings as, effectively, 'junior citizens'. In our society, only dogs and cats universally meet this burden. (Many horse lovers regard horses in this way, but nobody buries a horse in their backyard with a little cross made out of popsicle sticks as a marker, and society as a whole feels no umbrage at horses being turned into dog and cat food. Many kids with pet rabbits would insist that rabbits are people, too, but our society does not share those feelings. We are horrified, as a society, at the thought of dogs and cats being served in Asian restaurants, for example, although in many other parts of the world, including large parts of Asia, dogs and cats have not aspired to the emotional status of honorary human beings, and are therefore regarded as legitimate foodstock.)

If Vick had been enmeshed in a surreptitious cockfighting enterprise, I suspect society's response would have been, at best, indignation and disdain, rather than horror and outrage. And said indignation and disdain would not have been intense enough to finish Vick as a star NFL quarterback. His worth to our society as a skilled professional entertainer respected by millions would have been enough to carry him through. He would have faced minor sanctions, but a public display of contrition and a hefty fine would have ended the matter. He'd still be playing ball this season, and my Bucs would be irretrievably once more condemned to the cellar of their division (and John Gruden would probably be coaching for Miami next season, or some college somewhere).

I, personally, don't want to be part of a society that condones or even tolerates gratuitous cruelty towards any living creature capable of feeling pain and incapable of forming consent to the receipt of said pain. And I do feel that sadism is degrading and spiritually corrosive to all participants, volitional or otherwise, although I will fight to the death to defend my or anyone’s else’s right to voluntarily degrade our spirits if it gets us off – that’s what civil liberties are all about, dammit.

But we will take as granted that those legally defined as adults by society can reach a state of informed consent to pretty much any condition or behavior on an individual basis (while noting my intense objection to the concept that any grouping can vote as a majority to give up all individual civil liberties for that grouping, including the minority who vote against said voluntary suspension of individual freedoms). Accepting this, we are still left with a large group of non-adult society members which cannot consent to be degraded or abused, and which therefore have to be protected from such actions and behaviors. Do we limit that group simply to human children, or should the law extend the lesser rights/privileges of human children to non-human orders like animals?

Obviously, certain entrenched financial interests would not want to see any sort of privileged or entitled status extended to, say, cattle, poultry, or swine. (I’ve already said Vick could have gotten away with cockfighting with far fewer sanctions against him; if he’d trained cows or pigs to battle each other to the death, would he have had similar partial immunity to social blowback?) But nobody makes any money off the slaughter of dogs and cats; in fact, many make a great deal of money out of pampering these ‘junior citizens’. Given that, are legal sanctions that protect these honorary humans objectionable? Probably not; the real hypocrisy most likely lies in the fact that so few are willing to acknowledge that we feel such protections should only be extended to dogs and cats, and that reluctance will keep us from writing our laws to that specific extent... but will also keep our institutions from enforcing said broadly written laws to protect, say, swine being raised in iron incubatory crates.

I don’t know. In the end, Vick’s behavior deeply, deeply offends me, and I suspect it reflects some serious, and potentially dangerous, flaw in the man’s psyche. But I do not believe in criminalizing actions that are not egregiously anti-social, and Vick’s actions in this regard do not seem to do any notable, palpable harm to any human individuals, or to human society as a whole. The question then becomes, should higher order animals be accorded human rights, in part or all? And if we say, as we clearly want to, “well, dogs should, sure!”, then, why just dogs? Or just dogs and cats? Why not cows, pigs, and chickens, too? Why not tuna and cod? Or snakes? Can you imagine any outcry at all if Vick had been training snakes to fight each other, and drowning the losers?

Others have argued that while animals should not be accorded the full range of civil liberties or ‘natural rights’ we accord to ourselves, they should still be accorded a primary, universal right to be left alone, or to not be gratuitously harmed. It’s comforting to think this, and I’m comfortable with it… but, still… does training an animal to kill another animal for the pleasure of human spectators arise to the level of an anti-social act so egregious that the state, or society, should interfere with it and impose sanctions against it? Only if we accept that lesser order living creatures have at least some of the same rights as human beings do. And if we do not accept this, then providing this kind of emotional status to certain animals reduces that status to a privilege, which the owner of those animals need not honor. Clearly our society as a whole does not want to accord any real level of ‘rights’ to lesser order creatures (otherwise, several billion dollar industries will have to shut their doors), and just as clearly, Michael Vick and his fellow dogbaiters do not regard the dogs they purchase for these purposes as ‘junior citizens’ or ‘honorary human beings’. (The scarier alternative is that Michael Vick and his fellow dogbaiters simply don’t care about such things and, if the law would allow it, they would happily purchase and train human children to participate in gladiatorial combats for their own gratification and amusement. But I’m not sure that’s germane to this discussion… although equally, I’m not sure it isn’t. Surely no one wants to live in a world where unwanted toddlers can be bought and raised to kill each other in arenas while depraved audiences root and bet; do we want to be part of a society where people who would do such a thing if they could, but who are forced to settle for using dogs as substitutes, walk freely and without sanction on such activities?)

In the end, I’m left with the profoundly uncomfortable conclusion that the State should damn well let Michael Vick and his fellow sociopaths buy, train, and murder all the animals they want, if that’s what they want to do. I can only console myself that I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of free speech for Illinois Neo-Nazis, too, and I’m sure that’s a civil necessity.

Having said all this, our culture does regard dogs and cats as honorary human beings, and even if there were no actual laws against animal cruelty in our culture (as there probably shouldn’t be, until we are willing to practically extend the rights those laws imply to all animals equally), I would like to think that Vick’s dogbaiting activities, once revealed, would have created such a level of opprobrium against him even among football fans that the Falcons would have been forced to fire him (or pour millions into a campaign to educate people out of their hatred of animal torturers; good luck there, fellas).

In the end, I think I'll stick with this. People, including me, certainly want Vick, and anyone else like him in this regard, to be punished for murdering puppies who won't kill other puppies for their entertainment (or who don't do it well enough). It offends us on a very basic level, and to that extent, I think that makes us better human beings (certainly, better human beings than Vick and his ilk). But I certainly don't want the State to act simply because someone (or even a lot of someones) are offended by something; that road leads to gays being sent to re-education camps, spouses being stoned for adultery, and, ulp, people like me being exposed in stocks for the kind of material we read and/or write (or, ultimately, for the grievous thought crime of reading and writing at all). No, thank you. Vick can do what he wants with his puppies, and I'll continue to do what I want with my brain, and we'll call it even... least, until one of his pit fighting champions gets loose and mauls someone. Then I'll be happy to throw the fucker in jail.


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