Dogs & Justice

Fred Clark points to interesting research that shows that a dog has a basic sense of fairness, at least when they are the ones being treated unfairly. If you have two dogs who know how to “shake” and you put them side by side, then ask them to shake, but reward only one with a treat, the one who doesn’t get rewarded will fairly quickly lose interest in cooperating with you. Clark also points out that the press reports of the research make a common error, confusing justice with envy, then makes an analogy to human justice:

The researchers might have conducted a parallel study while carrying out this research. They could have hired two graduate assistants, telling each of them that they would be paid $100 at the end of each day’s research. And then, at the end of each day, they could have paid the first assistant, but not the second — not the underdog. My theory is that the underdog would quickly become “less and less inclined” to continue showing up for work.

In the case of these hypothetical assistants, of course, no one would mischaracterize the unpaid underdog’s response as “envious.” She might be angry, but she’d be refusing to cooperate not because she’s jealous of the other assistant, but because she is the victim of an injustice — because the situation is clearly unfair. Her response is not motivated by envy but by a sense of justice.

The Times and National Geographic reports on the actual study do not allow for the possibility that a similar motive is at work in the dog’s response. They don’t seem to recognize the significant and crucial distinction between “angry at unfair treatment” and “envious.” National Geographic stumbles toward a clarification, conceding that “this kind of envy” is “really an aversion to unequal reward,” but then their article goes right back to using the word envy as though these two things were reliably interchangeable.

This particular confusion is, sadly, quite popular. We hear exactly this same bit of madness almost constantly from apologists for irresponsible wealth. Express any concern about inequality or about the plight of those who have less than the minimum amount they need to get by and they will say you are guilty of “the politics of envy.” Try to explain the distinction and they will, in turn, explain that they understand what you’re saying, they simply reject it. “Justice,” they will insist, is simply a polite euphemism for disguised envy. The virtue is just a mask for the vice.

It’s not surprising that they would argue such a thing. Of course they don’t believe there’s any such thing as justice in this life or any other. That’s what they’re banking on. Envy they accept as real. Justice they regard as mere superstition.

Animal Cruelty

In a comment to the previous post, Chris Robinson makes reference to a poem from my book Magical Thinking. We bear a special responsibility, greater perhaps than the responsibility we bear toward each other, to care for animals. Whichever philosopher said that we reveal our character through our treatment of those weaker than ourselves was right, I think. Here is the poem.

Abandoned Bluetick Bitch

Numbed with self-loathing,
we abandon the emissaries
of grace. Chained to a tree

beside the empty rental
she hollowed out a den
for herself & her young.

By the time we found her
the water they’d left her
was a couple of days gone.

When the water was gone
she would have slept, not dreaming,
letting the pups nurse

her sparse milk & when
the smallest died she ate it to keep
her strength & cleanse the den,

depriving coy dogs & foxes
an expedient scent.
It’s likely there were two more

before we found her.
Ribs covered by a tissue of dry skin,
she was nothing-a shadow

on the dirt & was just able
to raise her head & take
a little water from my hand

before turning to nose
her three live pups awake.
Reader, it is true, there is

horror everywhere worse
than this & cruelty that beggars
imagination, but this

is local & particular; these were
my neighbors did this,
who, without even the excuse

of psychosis, committed this wrong.
Who live in this same light
& shadow I live in.

Let us kill one another
with heedless abandon-we deserve it-
but not these poor relations

whose lives are without malice
& whose motives are transparent.
Let us kill one another.

Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

I’m not going to link to the photos / video of artist Habacuc’s work. If you want to see a dog starving to death as an art installation, you can search on the name.

Proposal for funding: An art installation: Guillermo Vargas Habacuc comes to my house & we tie him to a tree out back without food or water. My dogs & I watch from the deck as he starves to death. They bark at him & I jeer, but soon we grow bored & he dies in loneliness & terror. Certainly the authorities would have no objections since this would be an art installation.

Note: Looking around a bit more, I see that the artist has issued a series of statements defending his work. It’s hard to know what to make of them, but even the most recent in which he says he is trying to call attention to the plight of stray dogs makes no logical, aesthetic, or moral sense. Why not a street urchin with AIDS? Why not a torture victim? You want to call attention to the plight of stray dogs in Costa Rica? Go rescue one, provide veterinary care, and if it is “going to die anyway,” comfort it as you have it put down. Photograph & videotape tape the process & show that work in the gallery. Any real art — even the ugliest & most painful — must spring from some source of compassion; otherwise, it is merely egotism, voyeurism, exploitation, sensationalism, stupidity in various mixtures & combinations. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Travel & Ambition

Carole left for ten days in Budapest today, driving through a snowstorm for three hours to get to the Montreal airport for her Swiss Air flight. We kept in touch by cell phone, with me acting as her navigator a couple of times by pulling up Google Maps & making sure she was on the right track. She’s doing a book-binding workshop with a colleague & scouting the scene for interesting art. One of the perks of her job as a gallery administrator is travel. She’s also been to Berlin this year, gets down to NYC regularly & has been to Nunavut — twice, I think. I used to travel a lot more, but haven’t been much of anywhere the last few years. I used to run off to conferences a couple of times a year, but got tired of the hassle around the beginning of this decade. I made several trips to Vietnam in the late 1990s, culminating in Fulbright year in 2000, have stuck close to hearth & home since then. I’m making plans to do a bit more travel in the coming year, a development that coincides with a bit of renewed ambition to promote myself & my work. In fact, during the last several years I have turned away from my earlier desire to go to conferences, give readings, & make influential friends in the service of my art. My only conference the last few years was in Portland, Maine! It turned out, I came to see, that I was driven by the wrong sort of ambition, which is something I think I learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese poets & scholars have often led public lives, served the government, advanced themselves socially, etc. But there is also a tradition of withdrawal in which the poet returns to his native village to write, meditate, perhaps teach the young folk a bit about literature, & grow a garden. That is what I have been doing the last few years. I even stopped — for the most part — trying to publish my poems. Over the last few months, though, I have begun assembling manuscripts, sending work to editors, reading literary journals & generally working to face outward again. Tonight, however, I’m home alone with the dogs. One of the odd things about my life with Carole (yesterday was our 20th wedding anniversary) is that we almost never travel together. When we were young we spent several months in Europe together, but that was before we had dogs & jobs with different schedules. Since then, we’ve only had a few brief trips together. Our friends marvel sometimes at the extent to which we lead our own separate lives, but it is something we have done consciously. We like being at home together & we like our separate travels. Carole is listening to the roar of jet engines right now & I am listening to dogs snore. So, I’m looking forward to some trips — perhaps back to Vietnam — during the next year, but tonight I am content.