I don’t think I’ve written about Lucky in my Blog yet. About two years ago, Sophie became aware that I was concerned about the subject of people eating dogs. I was worried about whether I had to worry about being served Fido at a restaurant or about my own dog being the subject of some stranger’s gastronomic fantasies. Sophie reassured me that I had nothing to fear. She told me that although Chinese people do eat dogs occasionally, they only eat a certain kind of dog and then only at a certain time of year (the fall). She told me she would get me a picture of the type of dog people eat. I also received some reassurance by my observations of many people obviously doting on their pet dogs.
Several months later, Sophie brought me a picture of a black dog, which she said is the type of dog people eat. This dog’s name, Sophie informed me, was Lucky.
The picture of Lucky showed a nondescript, black mutt, about 25 Lbs, with short hair, a stocky frame, a long tail, and a big head with wrinkled skin. Maybe a combination of a bulldog type stockiness, shar-pei type face, and general mutt size. His ears mostly stuck up straight, but they bent down at the tips. Suffice it to say, Lucky was a pretty darned ugly mutt! But he looked like he must have had a sweet disposition. The photo was taken from above, looking down at the dog. Lucky stood in a kitchen, on a linoleum floor, and one could see a refrigerator in the background. Lucky was looking attentively somewhere in front of him, smiling with his pink tongue hanging out of his mouth, with his tail wagging. He had a look of anticipation, as if perhaps he were waiting for his supper. He looks like a gentle, attentive family pet.
The story of Lucky was that his owner originally purchased the pup with the intention of fattening him up to eat. Kind of like what the wicked witch tried to do in the story of Hansel and Gretel. But the owner grew fond of the dog, then attached to him. The owner finally got so attached to the dog that he decided to keep it as a pet. This was how the dog’s acquired his name, "Lucky." When they decided to take Fido off the menu and make him into a pet, it seemed appropriate to name him lucky on account of his extraordinary stroke of luck. I still have Lucky’s photo in my house, and I think of him and his family from time to time.
Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. Sophie filled me in as soon as she arrived at my house on Wednesday.
The part of the story I didn’t know was that it was illegal for Lucky’s owner to keep him. In their area of the city, Haizhu Hu Nan (meaning Haizhu district south of the pearl river), it is illegal to have a dog of any size or type. Completely, 100%, illegal. And police pay peoples’ neighbors to turn them in. If caught, the dog is clubbed to death on the spot. Theoretically, this is because of the threat of rabies. (Word on the street is that "nobody" vaccinates their dogs against rabies.) But even if you have a vaccination certificate, this doesn’t matter. The ban is across the board. So, when Lucky was being harbored inside the house, this means he wasn’t being taken outside at all; he had to be kept a secret.
Unfortunately, the secret got out. One day, his owner was stopped by the police while he was exercising the dog, but he talked his way out of it. Then, the final blow fell. The owner’s daughter ran out of their apartment one day and left the door open. Lucky loved the little girl so much that he followed her all the way to the bus station. The police caught the dog. They wanted to club him to death right then, but they instead agreed to allow the family to take care of the problem. But once word was out, the family could run but they couldn’t hide. The tragic end was inevitable. The Chinese are a practical people. Lucky’s family couldn’t bear to eat him. But, they knew he would be executed, no matter what. So, the Dad of the family made arrangements to give Lucky to a work colleague who did eat Lucky. Word is, the family is heartsick.
I speculate that it strikes most westerners as extremely odd that Chinese make these across the board, no exceptions, kinds of rules. Rules like killing all dogs without regard to whether any particular, individual dog poses any threat or without regard to whether perhaps, instead, a campaign to vaccinate pets might be in order.
I speculate that this type of decision reflects a difference of perspective inherent in the culture: the needs of the many always trump the need of the individual. No matter how painful or harmful for the individual who gets adversely affected. For instance, Chinese also have the rule that a person accused of crime is guilty until proven innocent. There’s no doubt that thousands of innocent individuals are wrongly convicted, but that’s assumed to be better than having one guilty person go free. Or what about the routine booting of people off of their ancestral homelands in order to build a new city or a new power plant. Even if monetary compensation paid the full value of the land, which it does not, there is no way the loss of one’s ancestral home could be adequately compensated in this land and ancestor-bound culture. A land where peasant families have farmed the same land for 23 generations, or for more than they can remember.
In ethical theory, boiled down to its most simplistic terms, the idea of "the most good for the most people" is called utilitarianism. Yet, different equations can be devised to decide how "the most good" is defined. For in Western culture, even if some state of affairs enabled almost all the population to live in ecstacy, this solution would not be considered acceptable if the cost would be for even a few people to live under torturous conditions or extreme agony. It is a matter of cultural relativity, where one culture draws the line. In the USA, we preserve large tracts of virgin forest to save the spotted owl; whereas in China, the owl would have become extinct long ago. The anguish of Lucky’s owner may be nothing compared to the "choices" parents are forced to make as a result of the one child policy. Compared with this, it seems a minor inconvenience that someone from China will not be able to get a link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism or to http://www.yahoo.com/ to work, on account of the idea that allowing individuals access to "irresponsible" sources of information could damage society.
And now to really move to a different subject: current ethical theory has no way of making value judgments among these varying decisions as they are lived by different cultures. For instance, does it make you squeamish that I pluck and gut a chicken before I kill it? That’s your problem. Do you disagree with my decision not to be forthright and tell a person his illness is terminal? Well, your culture is brutally blunt and causes pain to the dying person, who ought to be kept happily in the dark about his prognosis. There is a popular current of moral relativity which asserts that no value judgments can be made regarding which culture has a superior solution. I disagree with this blanket, "there is neither right nor wrong," approach. At the very least, citizens living in a culture can utilize methods of ethical analysis to reveal flaws and strengths which otherwise could be taken for granted. Some cultural ethical practices will ring true after having the light of analysis shined on them, other practices and decisions would not possibly stand the test of vigorous inquiry.
If I ever write a MA Thesis in philosophy (which seems unlikely at this point since the big philosophy companies don’t seem to be hiring at the moment), it will most likely be in this area, which is called moral epistemology. The term "epistemology" meaning the inquiry into how do we know what is "true." Ten years ago, in a class on Contemporary Ethical Theory, I was hard pressed to have new ideas for a paper on this subject. My professor commented that my paper, although nice, didn’t seem to state anything "new." Exactly. The ideas were interesting, but I had no creative insight of my own. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it and mull things over, maybe I’m beginning to have some ideas to add.
I think my thesis, if it ever gets written, will be focusing on the concept of Other, as learned through cultural experience, as the basis for altruism and ultimately as laying the foundation for moral discourse and judgment. For unless one views the "other" as having value, then one will feel no obligation to that "other," no matter who or what form that "other" takes. Unfortunately, this might not go over well in the philosophical community. For, my paper would delve into the social sciences, since a child’s concept of "other" is based on attachments and experiences of relationship early in life. But cross disciplinary aspects aside, what significance is it, that we value an "other?"
A predator abusing a child, in my mind, is an extreme example of instrumentalism, or of using another person merely as an instrument of self-gratification. Hedonism at its worst. A recent article I read, noting the extremely materialistic culture of India, stated that in India, 70 women per day are killed for the offense of not bringing a large enough dowry to their wedding. These are extreme examples of humans not being valued for who they are, but rather for what they are. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas classifies moral awareness in a pyramid similar to Maslow’s triangle, with moral development of the lowest level regulated only by rules and fear of getting "caught," various other stages, and at the top of the pyramid a stage of moral development that includes true altruism. Entire systems of social constraint are built around the need for constructing rules to guide behavior for people who are not guided in their behavior by any altruistic bent toward others. If the knowledge that speeding on the highway may endanger the lives of others isn’t enough to deter you from speeding, perhaps the flashing blue light will help.
A discussion of what value should be placed on an "other" is only the beginning of the discussion, however, for there is also the question of how far one’s concept of "other" extends. For, in my mind, a farmer abusing a horse is also exhibiting a failure to value an "other." Indeed, Martin Buber, in his classic treatise "Ich und Du" (or I and Thou), describes the sharing of a peaceful moment with the family horse as a watershed event in his thought process on the concept of the value of an "other." To carry this concept even further, our response to the genocide that is happening right now, as I write this, in Darfur is another challenge to our concept of how to respond to an "other." How far does my responsibility extend? And, within my area of responsibility, what is my obligation?
If we think of the social universe as having a series of concentric circles, with ourselves in the bull’s eye center, most people place at least their immediate family in the "inner circle" as it were. Then one’s larger family would be somewhere outside the innermost circle, and various groups would be somewhere further and further away from the circle of obligation. In my world, not only beggars and other humans, but dogs and chickens and fish, and even "mother earth" herself, have some place within my sphere of moral obligation, if even only to refrain from causing them intentional harm. Thus, I "reduce, reuse, and recycle" if only because it is good for the earth. But the obligations inside the various levels of circles vary according to culture, as well. Americans have a large "circle of obligation," but it surprises oriental people that we tend to do less for people inside our innermost circle than oriental people would do for those inside their innermost circle.
For instance, many oriental people have a view that Americans care for strangers but don’t even care for their immediate family. This is because we might display largesse to a charitable cause but might not even buy a house for our child who is trying to establish a household. In contrast, one of my Chinese friends recently gave their son $10,000 U.S. towards the purchase of a home, a huge portion of this friend’s life savings, and also bear in mind that my friend is retired and this is a culture where there is no social security. I also once knew a Chinese student who whose entire extended family was contributing in order for her to study at a Canadian university. She was inside the inner circle not only of her mom and dad, but also of all her aunts and uncles and grandparents, with each member of her father’s extended family contributing over $5,000 per year for her expenses. In oriental culture, one is obligated to do anything it takes to help a member of one’s inner circle. By their standards of financial ability, each uncle and aunt was contributing an astronomical amount for their niece to attend college. She, in turn, would be expected to contribute when her time came. On the other hand, an oriental person’s circle of obligation might not extend as far outward in the social world as a westerner’s feeling of obligation would extend. For instance, they might feel pity but no obligation to help a person they saw injured in a car accident, even if without help that person might die, since that person was a total stranger.
One of most awful things for a westerner to witness in China is a car accident scene. I dread the day when or if I see one. One of my friends told me of a situation in which she witnessed a young boy on a bicycle being run over by a bus, and then no one helped the boy. No one wanted to take on the obligation that could be entailed. Another western woman told me of seeing an injured man lying beside the road, bleeding. Her driver physically held her arm and restrained her to stop her initial impulse to run over to help the man. Then he explained to her that if she helped the man, she would be expected to pay for the cost of his care and it might even be decided that by assuming any responsibility for him at all she became responsible for him in the future. So, in this culture, she was not able to follow through with her western orientation of helping the stranger.
In my mind, Jesus laid the radical foundation for our Judeo-Christian orientation to help a stranger, with his parable of the Good Samaritan. We are all confronted with the issue, "Who is my neighbor?" In my world, even the dog is my neighbor. The owner of the dog is my neighbor. I will try and avoid causing pain to that person or to that dog, even if it means some inconvenience to me. I’m very sorry for Lucky and for Lucky’s owners. I feel concern for them, because in a larger sense they are my neighbors. I think Lucky’s death, and their sadness, was tragic and avoidable. But, that’s the way things are done in China. I am only an observer.
As an observer, I find it helpful to take my focus off of the specific act, which makes me so uncomfortable, and instead use that as a means of focusing on the very different circumstances in which people find themselves, as well as the thought processes and cultural assumptions that lead to those circumstances. There are many, many opportunities for values to be displayed through culture: land reform, one child policy, decisions to build dams, decisions to execute dogs. In the USA, there are equally serious and pressing issues. Every decision is an ethical decision, reflecting the values and assumptions of culture. How fast shall I drive my car today, and do I purchase a gas guzzler or an electric car? Is there any unique reason why that halfway house should not be located in my particular neighborhood? Should FEMA really be issuing flood insurance in flood prone areas and encouraging the development of fragile coastal zones? No decision is exempt. Should I deliberately seek out produce that supports small family farms, or should I buy something cheaper at Wal Mart?
Shining the light of analysis, and daring to ask the hard questions, results in better decisions; no matter what the issue is, and no matter from what cultural context the end result is viewed. Even if the answer remains the same even after full discussion of the issues, the fact that the issue has been discussed fairly and squarely will make the ultimate result a stronger decision in the end.
All this means nothing to Lucky. I don’t expect any miracle by which Lucky’s death could stir the idea that there might come a time when public discourse and debate could be deemed acceptable. But if, after such debate, it were to be determined that Lucky must still be illegal and must still be eliminated, at least there would be an understanding, if even a sad one, that his death was not in vain. The world would seem to have some rhyme or reason to it, rather than merely a strange universe with sad, random rules that result in great suffering with no corresponding benefit.