On warm summer evenings in the past, we used to see families out for a stroll or playing in the front yard. These days, though, we see fewer kids — and lots more people walking their dogs. If there’s a confab at the street corner, it’s likely to be not mothers with strollers, but dog owners admiring each others’ pooches.
Today, we seem to be treating dogs more like people. A recent Star Tribune article exemplified this trend. The article — entitled “Dog Dates of Summer” — featured photos with captions like “Magda, an 8-month-old Viszla Lab mix, takes in an art exhibit … with her parents” and “Ava, the two-year-old cocker spaniel, waits patiently for her mom to finish up brunch.”
There were no quote marks to signal tongue-in-cheek use of words equating dogs with human children, like “parents” and “mom.” The article recommended dog-friendly venues like a cafe that offers “homemade dog treats from the bakery,” and a dog yoga class (“Doga”) where owners can “connect with your pup and stretch.”
The trend toward treating dogs like people confirms the increasingly central role that pets play in our lives. But does it also point to a subtle shift in the way we view our fellow human beings?
Consider a recent study by Richard Topolski of Georgia Regents University and his colleagues, which appeared in the journal Anthrozoos. Researchers asked respondents which they would save from a runaway bus: a dog (their own pet or someone else’s) or a human being. The conclusions were remarkable: Forty percent of respondents, including 46 percent of women, said they would save their dog over a foreign tourist.
Nearly all respondents reported they would save a sibling or best friend instead of a strange dog. But when asked to choose between their own dog and people less familiar to them — a distant cousin or hometown stranger — an astounding number chose the dog.
Would Americans have answered this question differently in the past? Most likely, yes. Why?
The answer lies embedded in words that used to be our nation’s common creed. Our founders held it self-evidently true that “all men” — unlike other animals — “are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The founders believed that human beings have a unique dignity and an elevated status over all other animals, because they are made in the image of God and are capable of choosing between good and evil. Our nation’s political system is founded on this view of human beings’ unique moral status.
Our society still pays lip service to the Declaration of Independence and its vision of human rights and equality. But we increasingly reject the Judeo-Christian framework that undergirds it in favor of scientific materialism, which views the universe as a mindless swirl of matter and energy and reserves no special place for human beings.
In the social realm, the corollary of scientific materialism is moral relativism. Relativism teaches that since there is no universal truth or higher good, every individual must choose what’s “true” for him or her. The goal of life is simply to be “happy,” however we define it. In deciding how to live, we must be guided by our personal preferences and tastes.
Is it any wonder that, in a society increasingly shaped by ideas like these, many people say they value the life of a dog they care for over the life of a human being they don’t know?
Over time, our accelerating embrace of scientific materialism and moral relativism is likely to produce other troubling consequences. For example, though we now take our civil rights — guaranteed by the Constitution — for granted, we may eventually find they too are based on shifting sand. The Progressive movement that currently dominates our politics rejects the notion that these rights are inherent in man’s God-given nature and so are “unalienable.” It holds instead that the government bestows our rights, and thus can presumably take them away.
As our belief in universal truth and a higher good wanes, “diversity” has become the central criterion by which we measure the quality of our social institutions, from workplaces to universities. For years, Americans in all walks of life have been exhorted to “celebrate” diversity, and to value mere differences above all else.
But the Topolski survey on dogs vs. people suggests how superficial this standard is, and how ineffective the campaign to instill it has been. The survey found that, in our brave new relativistic world, the foreigner — the one who differs most from us — falls to last place in the hierarchy of value, beneath our dogs.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.