Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Can dogs be citizens?

Today's New York Times has a wonderful article (Nicholas Wade, "Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!," N.Y. Times, Jan. 18, 2011, at D1) about a border collie named Chaser who has learned over 1000 words. Thanks to training for 4-5 hours every day, during which she learned one or two new words a day, she has now acquired what appears to be the largest vocabulary any dog has ever been shown to possess. What's most interesting is that her vocabulary includes verbs as well as nouns, and she can, apparently, tell the difference, as she can show by following commands that link one verb to one noun, another verb to another.

John W. Pilley, the psychologist who trained her, says that "[w]e are interested in teaching Chaser a receptive, rudimentary language." In this language, it seems quite conceivable that the verb "help" could be taught, along with nouns such as "man" or "woman" or "dog." So then it would be possible, presumably, for Chaser to understand the sentence, "Help the dog." And then it seems possible she could understand, or conceive, "Help the dog -- me."

She couldn't say those words, of course. But babies can't say words either, yet they evidently can be taught to communicate by sign language some months before they begin to be able to articulate words. Perhaps Chaser too could be taught a simple language of barks, or barks and signs -- the kinds of tools with which dogs already, and obviously, communicate with us all the time.

All of which leads to this: What is our response when a dog says to us, "Help me"?

Such a dog would not qualify as a citizen in the terms Bruce Ackerman defined some time ago in Social Justice in the Liberal State (1980). Ackerman argued that a citizen must be able to make a claim of right. (73) "Help me" is quite a ways from a claim of right. Ackerman entertains the possibility that dogs (his example is lions) might actually be asking us, "Why don't I get what I want instead of you?" (71), and there's some experimental evidence suggesting that monkeys have a sense of justice (or at least of being the victims of injustice) -- but still Chaser has quite a ways to go before she meets this standard of citizenship.

That standard, however, may not be the right one. To ask for our help, in words (or code substituting for words), is to enter human dialogue. It isn't so easy to see how we can refuse to answer just because the dialogue is at a very simple level. Certainly we don't refuse with our own children. Of course, they are human, dogs aren't. But if we think that what defines our fellow beings is not their species but their capacities, then we may be hard-pressed to deny that a dog with the capacity to talk is, in fact, a person. And as a purely emotional matter, lots of people will be very strongly inclined to heed an appeal from a dog. A person with claims that we believe we should heed might be ... some sort of citizen.

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