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Philosophers At The Dog Auction

How Kim Kavin found herself considering the philosophies of Kant, Mill and Singer at America’s biggest legal dog auction.

The philosophers entered my consciousness sometime after the sales of the last few Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and Dogues de Bordeaux. It was several hours into the day-long dog auction in southwest Missouri, but before the auctioneer had even made it to the French Bulldogs, German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers in the alphabetical program of about three hundred dogs.

I was sitting in the bleachers with the rest of the crowd, looking down at the center-stage folding table, where bidding on a purebred English Bulldog had stalled at $185. I had the cash, but I didn’t reach for it. Instead, to my surprise, I found myself haggling morality with Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and finally, Peter Singer.

puppies in cages
‘Puppy mill’ cages

The commercial-scale dog breeders – some would call them ‘puppy mill’ owners – sitting all around me would have thought I was crazy to consider morality. For them, auctioning dogs is the stuff of everyday commerce, no different than auctioning farm equipment or anything else they might need to keep their businesses going. Dogs to them were no different than cows or pigs or chickens – yet another animal that can be bred to produce offspring the public wants to buy, in one form or another. These breeders, who have long helped to fill the insatiable demand for pet dogs by the millions each year, were hoping to score good deals on new canine stock for their own kennels across America’s heartland, no apologies required.

The rescuers – some would call them ‘animal rights activists’ – were there bidding in the bleachers too. They drop tens of thousands of dollars at these auctions, because, as they argue, it’s important to buy the dogs’ freedom from the breeding industry. The money, of course, ultimately passes through the auctioneer’s hands and then lands, sans his commission, in the pockets of breeders, including the types of breeders the rescuers loathe; but the rescuers offered no apologies, either. They tell adopters all across America that the dogs have been ‘saved from puppy mills’, collecting adoption fees, and putting the money right back into the system as they see fit.

It was the very participation of the rescuers at the dog auction that had summoned the ghosts of Kant and Mill to me in the first place. The English Bulldog, standing on the folding table down in front, of course knew nothing of their theories, known as moral law (or deontology) and utilitarianism respectively. She had no idea her life’s value was being determined by a few minutes of bidding. But that was her reality: If none of us upped the $185 offer, then she’d turn out to be the lowest-priced female among fifteen English Bulldogs that day. The younger ones had gone for $500, $600, even $740, some of them not yet a year old with plenty of good breeding years left, or able to be quickly, profitably flipped in an online adoption ad or pet-store window. But this English Bulldog, already age five, left bidders unenthusiastic. In trying to figure out why as I sat quietly in the bleachers, I found myself puzzling through the possible economic, practical, and philosophical explanations.

For the breeders, holding out at $185 was an easy business decision. After all, that five-year-old Bulldog’s best puppy-production years were used up, and unlike many dogs at the auction that day, she didn’t even come with registration papers from the American Kennel Club, American Canine Association, or any other entity whose seal of approval would all but guarantee a high retail-sale price with puppy-buying families nationwide. Even if she went on to produce another litter or two of sellable pups, they wouldn’t bring top dollar from the purebred-shopping public. Maybe they’d bring $75 or $100 apiece from a pet-store broker, barely enough to cover the cost of feeding the Bulldog and handling her veterinary expenses for the next two to three years’ worth of possible breeding cycles.

For the rescuers, raising the bid above $185 was a financial gamble, too. Bulldogs, especially five-year-olds with no basic training or socialization skills, aren’t nearly as in-demand among adopters as the cute, fluffy Havanese, Lhasa Apso and Yorkshire Terrier puppies that were yet to be auctioned that day. The Bulldog could languish in foster care for years, shuttling from home to home, costing the rescue group that same ton of expenses in food and veterinary bills that the breeders feared. And for the rescuers too, the ultimate outcome would be financially minimal. An adopter might pay, maybe, $400 to adopt the Bulldog at a ‘senior rescue’ event.

Or, maybe, the rescuers just didn’t like the breeder offering the Bulldog for sale, after seeing his name in the auction program: maybe he had federal inspection violations on the public record – the kind that hinted at a filthy kennel packed with dogs crammed in cages. To support a breeder like that financially, was maybe a thought that in itself made $185 too high a price to pay, no matter what might happen to the Bulldog in the long run.

And therein lies the philosophical rub that, for me, had summoned the spirits of Kant and Mill here to ‘America’s Puppy Mill Capital’.

What Would The Philosophers Do?

Kant, I thought, would tell the rescuers to hold on to their dollar bills. He believed that we are duty-bound to act in certain ways, regardless of our desires; and moreover, that we must base our moral actions on generalizable reasons and not on specific situations or sets of facts. To him, it’s wrong to consider any action’s morality merely in the context of a situation. Hypothetical imperatives, where you do act on specific situations or sets of facts, although making practical sense, make no moral sense to Kant. Kant would say that to think, ‘If I want to save dogs from living in puppy mills, then I must buy the dogs at the auction’ would be to formulate your morality in terms of a hypothetical imperative. The action in question – bidding on the dogs to save them from the mills – is not a universalizable rule; it’s not about saving dogs from suffering generally. Instead, it only applies to a person trying to achieve the situation-specific goal of saving dogs from living in ‘puppy mills’. This situation-specificness is to Kant a bad way of formulating your moral imperatives.

Kant thought a categorical imperative, on the other hand, as the correct way of formulating a moral imperative. This universal sort of imperative requires us to act in a way where it would be appropriate that everyone did the same, all the time: to act if our actions were to become universally copied. As Kant put it, we are to act as if the principle of our action were to become a universal law. Kant might instead say for instance that moral law requires withholding money from anyone we believe is using it to do harm (that’s the universal law); and this would include withholding it from the owners of ‘puppy mills’. He wouldn’t even need to have heard the rumors that have circulated for years, that the breeders know the rescuers are coming and breed even more dogs to jack up their auction-day income, using the rescuers’ situation-conditional ethics on auction day to enhance the breeding industry’s finances. Leave the English Bulldog to her fate, Kant would say, even if it would mean a shotgun to the head by a breeder who no longer considered her useful. Don’t give the auctioneer or breeder a dime. Instead, do as moral law dictates that everyone should do, at all times.

Mill, on the other hand, argued for the greatest good for the greatest number: he believed that utilitarianism was the way to go, which says that we must act in a way that creates the greatest amount of overall benefit or happiness.

One of Mill’s contributions to the theory of utilitarianism was to argue that certain kinds of happiness are higher than other kinds: that people doing noble works for society have a type of happiness that outrank, say, the happiness of somebody sipping a beer on his front porch at sunset. Following this doctrine, then, might mean buying the freedom of every dog brought to the folding table. Helping dogs is considered a noble work in modern society. Buying the English Bulldog here at the auction, and helping her to become part of a family instead of leaving her to the whims of a ‘puppy mill’ owner, is arguably as good as doing the job of any shelter director or nonprofit organization, as it’s an act of rescuing a sentient creature in need.

The ghost of the modern-day Australian philosopher Peter Singer (still alive!) stepped in. Singer argues that the utilitarianism Mill favored should be applied not only to human beings, but to all animals capable of suffering or feeling pleasure; so much so that he urges followers to adopt vegetarian or even vegan diets. He doesn’t want sentient animals of any kind treated as livestock. And a dog auction, to Singer, would be no different than a cattle auction or a hog auction. Commonplace, perhaps, and even legal in American society, as this auction was; but certainly immoral, in that the alleged suffering of the dogs in the breeding kennels that the auction supported greatly outweigh whatever human society was gaining in the auction.

The English Bulldog seemed curious about all the people staring down at her from the bleachers. She waited quietly, looking around. The auctioneer standing behind her looked out over her round head and stocky shoulders, hoping for at least one more paddle to be raised. He tried to persuade someone else, anyone else, that this Bulldog had more value, but perhaps it wasn’t a question of the cash. “One-eighty-five… One-eighty-five… Going once… Going twice at one-eighty-five…”

If you’d been sitting next to me in the bleachers that day, would you have bid $186?

© Kim Kavin 2018

Kim Kavin is the author of The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers (Pegasus, 2017).

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