The importance of philosophical research on love and dogs

Examining the relationship between love and science about dogs brings me joy, and it provides tools for deciphering how social values influence a wide range of scientific projects.

Before I started thinking about dogs all the time, my philosophical research focused on sexism and racism in science and engineering. I love working on canine science, but occasionally I get a guilty tickle in the back of my mind suggesting that I’m shirking my responsibilities, that I should be fighting for justice instead of fooling around with love.

I stamp those twinges down though, because love is important.

Earlier this year I spoke on a science ethics panel along with two men—one presenting research on the dangers artificial intelligence and the other talking about flaws in medical research. When I stood up and started talking about love and dogs and science, I noticed a few sideways glances from some of the very serious folks in the audience.

I didn’t have to work hard to imagine them sighing and shaking their heads, ‘those ladies, always going on about feelings.’ Or, ‘Just what I was looking forward to, an academic chick flick.’

Undaunted, I smiled and kept talking. I held the ground between those very serious people and the door, and they had nothing to do except listen.

After the AI man, the medical research man, and I, the loves dogs woman, finished our talks we fielded questions from the audience. It became apparent during the question period that both of these guys’ research could benefit from the ethical model (Nancy Tuana’s Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research) I was using to understand the impact of love on canine behavior research.

I study how love influences the interactions among (1) social values, (2) research ethics, and (3) the kinds of scientific questions, methods, and analyses that researchers use. It turns out that understanding the relationships among these three things is just as important for conducting effective medical research and creating ethical AI as it is for understanding how dogs think. And it was just these sorts of interactions that the other members of the panel needed to consider in order to move their research projects forward.

Loves Dogs Woman to the rescue! 😛

Love

Dog so loved the world…

The fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to meditate on love, which I could not bring myself to do. Why is it so hard to write a post about Love Sunday?

Because love is so important, and big, and complicated that it’s a little bit scary. Add on the fear of looking like a silly sap, and it is difficult to write a single word.

Love is important. It is one of the things that makes life good. Lots of people focus their energies on projects like fighting for freedom, justice, and equality. But, the goal of these projects is to fix things that are broken, to remove barriers to living well. They are in the service of living well. So, we better think about what living well means. For me, a life lived well includes, focuses on, love. No pressure, when it comes to getting this right…

Love is big. How do we even start thinking about it? What should be the first word we put down on the page when we write about it? The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent usually comes from the Book of John—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” That’s a big deal. Thinking about something that big can be paralyzing.

Love is complicated. Even if a person (say, for example, me) gathers her courage to write about this big and important thing, she still has to pick something to latch onto. What kind of thing is love? An emotion? An attitude? A relationship? A union? A responsibility? It is hard to know what kind of thing it is, let alone what it is. It seems both personal and universal. It appears to include amorphic warm fuzzies, and fierce protectivity, and deep respect. Even this incomplete list includes very different kinds of things.

A first step toward understanding this important, big, and complicated thing is to look for something close at hand, something concrete, and something that I know with certainty.

Here is a 100 percent clear and certain thing that I know about love: I love this dog, and he loves me.

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his face

The gift of attention, love, and trimming Milo the AwesomeDog’s nails

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his faceThe gift of your undivided attention is one of the simplest, although not one of the easiest, ways to show that someone you care about them. We’ve all had those conversations, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, during which we’re 100% engaged with another person. These conversations build relationships. Two people become one. Time stops. Or flies. Attention can be an expression of respect and an expression of love.

Marilyn Frye is one of my favorite philosophers. In her book, The Politics of Reality, she cautions us to take responsibility for what we pay attention to and what we ignore. She reminds us that “attend,” and its opposite, “ignore,” are verbs. They’re action words. We are responsible for our actions.

I’m grateful to Frye for reminding me that I need to be responsible for what I pay attention to because it is easy to switch over to automatic pilot, let myself get distracted, and only attend to things that get right up in my face.

Milo the AwesomeDog does not like manicures. I used to deal with this by grabbing his paw, telling him not to be a baby, and trimming his nails as quickly as I could. This is less than ideal, and so I’m working on a counter-conditioning regime where I break the nail trim process down into baby steps and use rewards to help Milo build a positive association with each step.

He has to be OK with one step before I move onto the next, and this forced me to pay attention to him in a new way. Instead of zeroing in on his paw, I had to back up and look at all of his body language to gauge how he was feeling.

I learned something that made my heart swell. I thought I had maximal love for him, and it turned out I was wrong. You see, Milo doesn’t dislike manicures. He hates them. He presents a classic picture of a stressed dog—probably the same level of stress that I feel looking forward to and enduring a long and painful dental procedure. But even so, he submitted to those nail trims because I asked him to. It was something very difficult that he did for me, every week. And it never even occurred to me to be grateful.

I would not have noticed this if I didn’t back up and give his whole self my undivided attention.

Milo is the epitome of a fine hound.

Animals in our lives: Teaching the Philosophy of Companion Animals

This semester I’m teaching a university class on the Philosophy of Companion Animals called “Animals in our Lives.” Wow. I feel so lucky to do this! My students are hardworking, engaged, and good-natured, and together we are doing great work. Thanks gang!

Developing and teaching a new course takes up every spare moment. After getting my work done, going to the gym, and training and exercising Milo, I’m usually finished for the day. So, I’ve been posting here less frequently than usual.

Thank heavens I have my students’ permission to post about our class.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the syllabus that explains a little bit about what we are up to.

Animals in our Lives, Philosophy 271

Course Description
This class explores the science and ethics of human relationships with companion animals.

Course Outcomes
In this class you will:
1. Explore the social influences on, and impacts of, scientific research
2. Develop an understanding of the relationships between humans and companion animals from scientific, philosophical, and practical perspectives
3. Acquire the skills and confidence to learn, assess, and use scientific information

Discussion Topics
Unit 1: The science of emotion and the role of emotion in science
• The neurobiology of canine love
• The impact of human emotion on animal research
• The movement of scientific knowledge from the lab to the public

Unit 2: Anthropomorphism or anthropodenial
• The sense of smell and what it’s like to be a dog
• Consciousness and animal minds
• Folk psychology across species

Unit 3: Do good animal handlers and trainers need science?
• Is clicker training scientific?
• The media and celebrity dog trainers
• Different kinds of expertise and the public understanding of science
In each unit, we will explore readings from scientific, philosophical, and popular sources.

So far we’re just getting going on the unit on love.

I’ll update you as we move through the class.

What do we owe our dogs?

Understanding our moral obligations to another person is tough. Contemplating our obligations to a dog, a member of another species, can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, only occasionally these days, I give Milo a pretty harsh correction. He is big and strong, and we need rules. Bikes are NOT prey. I know some people think these corrections are wrong.

Sometimes I’ve seen people who I like and respect treat their companion animals in ways that strike me as just plain wrong too.

It can be useful to flip our focus from sorting out what might be wrong, to thinking more clearly about what is right.

Philosopher Jean Harvey’s view of our moral obligations to our companion animals resonates with me. Here is the gist of her position:

It is part of the nature of most dogs and cats (yes, cats) to give love and loyalty to the human companion. As with anyone who loves, it makes them vulnerable—to the hurt of not being loved at all, to being manipulated, exploited, or traumatically abused or abandoned. The nature of this relationship is central to the ethics of companion animals, or at least dogs and cats: the deep and abiding affection the animals give and seek, the profound emotional and physical vulnerability they face because of it, and the blunt fact that humans in general control the relationship and have the power either to treasure or betray their animal companions. … The primary moral obligation we have with respect to companion animals is to develop, nurture, respect, and protect this relationship.

Jean Harvey, “Companion and Assistance Animals: Benefits, Welfare Safeguards, and Relationships” 2017

This helps me think more clearly about my obligations, my moral obligations, to Milo. Am I protecting our relationship? Am I being responsible in the face of the power imbalance between us? Am I treating his love and vulnerability with respect?

More and more it seems to me that the project of developing a philosophy of dogs and people boils down to love.


Go forth good people, “develop, nurture, respect, and protect” the relationship between you and your dog!