٠ The dogness of the dog ٠


This came about because of the hype around Bodhi, a 4 year old shiba inu that is the star of Menswear Dog. Yes, at first it looks innocente, the dog is cute in his humanoid outfits and human-like features, posing like a model, almost flirting with the camera. But then, as you look closer and as the american marketing machine comes into play, something uncanny is revealed. Might it be that as they are trading the dog’s value as a model for men’s clothes, they are giving away the dogness of the dog?


Saussure advocates a synchronic approach to language as a system. Instead of etymology as the conveyor of the word’s meaning, he asserts that meaning is produced by a word’s relationship to other words occurring at a particular time, within a particular system of relationships, which are spatially determined. For instance, the contemporary word “dog” means something not because of its historical derivation from the Middle English dogge, which is in turn derived from the Old English ‘docga’, but rather because of the relationship of “dog” to other words like “puppy” and “cat.” In Saussure’s analysis, all of these terms are part of a differential system, and their meanings and significance derive synchronically from relationships with other signs within that system.


One of Saussure’s crucial insights, then, is that the meaning of the sign is fundamentally relational. On one level, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. That is, there is no ‘a priori’ relationship between a signifier and a signified. The fact that dog signifies a four-legged domestic animal in English, while ‘chien’ and ‘inu’ point to this same animal in French and Japanese respectively, is evidence that there is no necessary, predetermined relationship between the letters ‘d-o-g’ and a common pet. The word ‘dog’ is an arbitrary, culturally agreed-upon designation. We could call dogs by some other term as long as we agree culturally on that usage. There is no particular dog designated by the word, nor is some inherent quality (“dogness”) contained in or conveyed by the acoustic image ‘dog’.

excerpt of “Theory for Classics”, by Louise A. Hitchcock


The Bill of Rights protects those aspects of a human essential to their humanity: not wanting to be tortured, holding on to one’s property, believing as one chooses, and so on. Animal nature (or ‘telos’, as I have called it, following Aristotle) is clearer and easier to identify than human nature – the “pigness” of the pig, the “dogness” of the dog. Being with others of its own kind or free to forage is as important to some animals as speech or religion is to humans. So it seemed clear to me that if society wished to assure that animals used by humans lived decent lives, it would mandate legal protections for key aspects of animals’ natures.

Barnard E. Rollin, in Science and Ethics


(…)intuitive reasoning lies behind Bernard Rollin’s claim that an animal’s well-being involves “both control of pain and suffering and allowing the animals to live their lives in a way that suits their biological natures”.6 That there is such a biological nature is a fact that Rollin thinks can hardly be denied. Rather, the belief that each organism has a nature that defines what it is and what it does, is held to be common sense:

“As ordinary people know well, animals too have natures, genetically based, physically and psychologically expressed which determine how they live in their environments. Following Aristotle, I call this the telos of an animal, the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog – ‘fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly’. (…) Social animals need to be with others of their kind; animals built to run need to run; these interests are species specific. Others are ubiquitous in all species with brains and nervous systems – the interest in avoiding pain, in food and water, and so forth.”

Curiously, this passage already indicates that Rollin, after having thrown the old Aristotelian notion of telos into the debate, is not really willing to let anything depend on it. Instead, he immediately draws back from his original claim that an animal’s well-being involves something besides the control of suffering and pain, and translates telos back into the usual talk of “needs” and “interests”. If the notion of telos – the pigness of the pig, the dogness of the dog – really were the basic ethical concept as which it is introduced by Rollin, then it would have been better, at any rate more to the point, if he had written that “animals built to run are meant to run,” regardless of whether they actually need to run or have an interest in running. Instead, for Rollin, the notion of telos is clearly rather a heuristic device than a genuine ethical principle. This becomes fairly obvious when, for instance, he remarks that common sense identifies sources of suffering by “comparing the life we allow the animal to live with the sort of life it was evolved (or selected) to lead. When we know that an animal is social in nature and roams over large territories, we consider keeping it alone and in a small cage as inflicting suffering upon it, albeit not necessarily physical pain. On the positive side, common sense sees an animal that is ‘doing its thing’ – fulfilling its nature –as a ‘happy’ animal”.8 Taking an animal’s telos into account thus helps us to identify possible “sources of suffering”. Apart from that, its only other ethical function, for Rollin, is to serve as a convenient hook on which to hang the claim that we actually have some moral obligations to other living beings. To say that each animal has a telos is to recognize “that animals are ‘ends in themselves’, as Kant said of humans, not just means to our ends. What we do to animals matters to them, not just to us. In this fundamental moral respect, animals are like human persons, not like tools”.9 From this Rollin draws the debatable ethical conclusion that, for instance, “research animals are entitled to a living environment that suits their natures”10 (my italics.) This, however, apparently does not mean anything more than that their environment ought to agree with their basic interests. The ‘nature’ of an animal is not conceived as something that transcends the individual animal and which ought to be protected as such. Telos is defined in terms of what needs and interests an animal actually has, rather than in terms of what needs and interests it should have in the first place, in virtue of being a pig or a dog. Hence, Rollin sees no good reason to hold that all genetic engineering is wrong, but only that which violates basic interests. Moreover, he believes that an animal’s telos can well be altered without being violated. Given the telos, one should not violate the interests constitutive thereof, but that does not entail that the telos itself could or should not be changed:11 “Telos is not sacred; what is sacred are the interests that follow from it”.12 So if we, for example, were able to identify the gene sequence that codes the drive to nest in chickens, and remove it, thereby creating a new kind of chicken which “achieves satisfaction by laying an egg in a cage,” there would, in Rollin’s view, be nothing wrong with that. Neither would there be anything wrong with decreasing the sentience and responsiveness of pigs by means of genetic engineering.13 On the contrary, if this was the only realistic way of making them suffer less – the last resort, so to speak – it would rather be our moral duty to use this device. This, of course, is a result that is contrary to that of the Banner Committee.

One thought on “٠ The dogness of the dog ٠

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s