Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Get a Dog From a Breeder, Not a Shelter?”
I got my wonderful, loving dog from a reputable breeder about eight years ago, but sometimes I feel guilty that I didn’t adopt a shelter dog instead. When I consider that her life span is already more than half over, I suspect that I will eventually get another dog. When I do, I’m sure I will go to a breeder again. (I won’t get into the reasons for this, although there are many.) Is this ethical? Is it relevant that I have taken in strays in the past and given them a loving home for the rest of their lives? Is it relevant that I have never abandoned or failed to neuter or spay a pet? Is it relevant that, given a choice between a shelter dog and no dog, I would choose no dog at all? What if I give money to shelters for neutering stray dogs? What if I give money for education to prevent people from adopting puppies without properly training or socializing them, thus preventing those dogs from ending up in shelters? How much money must I give to justify getting a dog from a breeder? Or should breeders donate a certain amount for each puppy sold either to shelters or to education programs? Is such a trade-off ethical? Name Withheld
My response: I count nine question marks in your message. You seem to vaguely understand that some issues may be relevant and to believe some things are better or worse. But you don’t sound like you want to take responsibility for your actions or their results on other people and dogs. You sound like you want someone else to tell you what you can and can’t do, or what is okay or not. Since you sound like you believe what you want to do is wrong, you seem to want to horse-trade to enable behavior you don’t believe in.
There is no absolute measure of ethical, non-ethical, right, wrong, good, and bad. If there was, you would have used it and not written your barrage of questions. Professors and columnists have no special access to any book or white-bearded man in the sky. You can ask others’ opinions, but they can only give opinions.
Ultimately you act and choose based on your motivations, based in your values and beliefs. You can keep your values and beliefs vague, which allows you to do what you want without caring how you affect others. I call that strategy juvenile. For all I know, it’s more fun. It seems to me that the phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living” has stood the test of time for a reason. Caring about how I affect others is what I call empathy and compassion, or pretty close to them, which I find answering such questions forces me to develop and act on. I find empathy and compassion guide my behavior more effectively than asking others abstract philosophical question about abstract philosophical concepts like “Is this ethical?”.
I recommend you answer your questions for yourself. As best I can tell, no one can answer them for you any better. You may find yourself unable to get the dog you want, but you’ll gain self-awareness. In my experience, taking more responsibility for actions I care about has improved my life. Passing off responsibility to others on things I care about has done the opposite.
The New York Times response:
Many dog lovers worry about bringing puppies into a world that seems to have too many. Each year in this country, something like four million dogs enter shelters, and 1.2 million of them are euthanized. “Breeders kill shelter dogs’ chances” is a message you see on signs and T-shirts.
There is much to be said for adopting a shelter dog; if every canine companion that died or ran away were replaced with one, the shelters would be pretty much empty. But given that you are morally free not to have a dog, you are morally free not to have a shelter dog. Though we should all support laws and policies that reduce animal suffering, taking on a pet you don’t want isn’t the way to do it. Nor are you specifically responsible for the practices that lead to so many animals’ being abandoned.
Are you killing a shelter dog when you buy a pet from a breeder? Not in your case: The alternative for you would be to not get a dog at all. Among the 50 or 60 million dog-owning American households, there are other people who share your preferences. And so a role remains for a responsible breeder. But as a dog lover who worries about abandoned animals, you probably should contribute to organizations that may reduce their numbers. Don’t think of this as the canine equivalent of a carbon-offset program. The reason to contribute is not that doing business with a breeder automatically makes you culpable but that it’s a way to support a cause about which you care deeply.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that many of the dogs in shelters are purebreds — some, no doubt, originally from responsible breeders (even though one sign of such a breeder is a willingness to take back a dog from a buyer who wants to return it). So your opposition to shelter dogs may be a prejudice that would yield to a more careful exploration of the facts. Settling that question requires more than ethical expertise. But there is one ethical point here worth noting: Having a preference for one kind of dog (or person) is not morally equivalent to being hostile to all others.
Having lived in Cameroon for two years and in Ghana for one year, I know that you bargain for most purchases in those countries. I learned that most items have no “real price” and that bargaining is, at its heart, at least as much a social interaction as an economic interaction. Soon I became quite good at getting a low price, although not as good as the locals. When American friends visited, they were appalled at my driving a hard bargain, thinking I was unethical because of my being (relatively) quite wealthy and not willing to share my wealth with someone who was obviously quite poor. Was I being unethical? Edwin Kay
My response: Your friends have a problem with adults consenting to a deal?
Actually, at first I was going to say that if they think people with more money should give money away in a sale, then they should make up the difference. Something tells me the American friends you described would recall the incidents different than you presented. It sounds too one-sided: I’ve been here, they haven’t, they don’t know, I do, it’s social, they just don’t understand. You say they were “thinking I was unethical.” Odd that you would say what they were thinking, not what they said or how they behaved. I conclude you’re overstating them, intentionally or not, making you sound more right and them more ignorant.
The New York Times response:
Unlike you, I’ve never lived in Cameroon. But I spent much of my childhood and early adulthood in Ghana, and everyone I know there would have been puzzled by the attitude of your American friends. Bargaining is how prices are set, and no sane seller starts with the price she wants to get. Indeed, trade is enlivened, in part, by the fact that each sale is a negotiation. Life would be as dull as a supermarket checkout line otherwise. It’s also a little condescending to think that people will take a price that they think exploitative. As Adam Smith pointed out long ago, when two people come together in the market and agree on a price, without coercion, deception or the pressure of necessity, both end up better off. The seller gets the money she wanted and hands over the goods she was trying to unload; the buyer acquires the goods she desired for a price she was willing to pay. Against the right background, market exchanges improve things for everybody. Bargain away!
I have a 9-year-old son. His biological father was my boyfriend, who, toward the end of my pregnancy, cut off contact with me and expressed little or no interest in the child. He signed away his rights, at my request, when my son was 6 months old. We had sporadic contact over the next year. He saw my son once at his first birthday. When my son was 2, I met my future husband. Our family fit together from the start, and he and my son bonded without any coaxing. I married this man in March 2010, and my son attended the wedding. We finalized a stepparent adoption in 2011, which included a name change and a new birth certificate listing my husband as my son’s father. My husband and I then had two children together. My son holds no memory of my husband not being in his life; he is his father, and that’s that. The fear I have is that his biological father may try to contact him in the future. He randomly sends Facebook messages to me or family members asking about my son and expressing frustration that he isn’t allowed to see him. I don’t want my son to hear the facts from anyone but me, but I also have no desire to tell him about his biological father. Legally, there’s no reason he would have to be told. The records are sealed, and as I stated, he has a new birth certificate. What should I do? Name Withheld
My response: This column is leading me to see “What should I do?” as the quintessential juvenile question. It makes sense for a child to ask their parents. A child has limited experience and hasn’t yet seen how their actions affect others. Adults have.
The situation may be complex, but you still have to choose all your actions. Asking others what you should do skirts your responsibility and undermines your motivation and ability to consider and think through your actions and their results on others, which stops you from caring about them and your effects on them. To say “he is his father, and that’s that” is, to me, saying “he is the father, that’s what I believe and everyone should agree with me.” What if your son feels a connection to the man you conceived him with and resents you for it?
Maybe you can go your whole life without your son finding out. Maybe your son will find out and care. Maybe he won’t. Maybe your husband will tell. Your son may see you as loving him more for your actions, or as lying to him for his whole life. I guarantee the biological father isn’t “randomly” messaging you, like he’s rolling dice. He’s doing it when his emotions motivate him to, and those emotions come from the same emotional system you and I have. How would you feel if you were him, even if you think his feelings shouldn’t matter. Maybe he has no right to see his son. Maybe he does and the contract he signed isn’t valid or can be worked around. For example, if you fell on hard times, received welfare, and the government tried to garnish the biological father’s wages, would the contract protect his income? I suspect not, meaning he still has legal responsibilities.
There is no right or wrong that everyone will agree to because no two people’s values overlap perfectly. You still have to make choices and act. Not rocking the boat is as much a choice as any other, so you are doing something now. Personally, I would take more responsibility and own my actions. It’s hard for me not to wonder what you think is best for your son, given that you can’t control other people and the chances of the information reaching him.
Instead of looking for “should”s and lowering your personal responsibility, I recommend considering your possible actions and taking active responsibility for pursuing what you consider best, considering other people and their feelings as best you can, then handling things as others react. What else can we do in life?
The New York Times response:
The difficult task here, of course, is to explain why his biological father isn’t in his life. It involves admitting that he let you and your son down. Still, you know your son. You’ll have a sense of what information he can handle now. And if you want advice, there are child psychologists and therapists who can help you figure out exactly how to tell him. My ethical advice, though, is that he’s entitled to know these things just as soon as he can absorb them. Which might be today.
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