I am a Dog Mom
Elevating pets at the expense of human beings is a troubling sign for the future of our civilization.
On a Radio France podcast about the influence of Nietzsche on contemporary thought, a writer named Patrick Declerck offered a misanthropic take on the German philosopher. He sees Nietzsche, and even more his one-time teacher Schopenhauer, as offering invaluable insights on the uselessness of humankind. Declerk says straightforwardly that the human project is a failure. In his view, our history is simply a catalogue of coming up with clever ways of cheating, lying, robbing, and killing.
He ends his diatribe by asserting his disappointment and disgust for all but a few great artists and one other notable exception: “My dog, who is marvelous!”
Declerk’s belief in his dog’s superiority to the entire human race reminded me of a Zoom presentation I attended during the pandemic. The speaker, whose topic was racial inequalities in the United States, prefaced her remarks with thanks for a funding source and certain colleagues who had aided her research. She then showed a slide featuring a photograph of her dog. Referencing the animal several times as her “dog-child,” (the phrase was on the slide as well) she told us of her profound gratitude for the animal’s help in enabling her scholarly work. Nearly all the other university professors in attendance registered their enthusiastic approval by posting applause or heart emojis in response.
Pope Francis has offered some insights on the worldview presented by Declerk and the scholar whose Zoom talk I attended: “We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one—but they have two dogs, two cats.” Some in attendance laughed in response, but the Pope went on: “Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it’s funny, I understand, but it is the reality. And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity. And in this way civilization becomes aged and without humanity, because it loses the richness of fatherhood and motherhood. And our homeland suffers, as it does not have children.”
The media’s response to the Pope’s remarks demonstrated still further how widespread the dog-as-superior-to-humans movement has become. Even the purportedly conservative New York Post ran a shrill column by a woman writer who calls herself a “dog parent” and whom one can safely assume is childless. She strongly denounced the Pope’s pronouncement, stating straightforwardly that she considers “dogs…superior to most people.” “Dog is God spelled backward,” she wrote without a trace of irony.
Dog ownership, and even the sense that a dog is an intimate part of a family, is a very common—and growing—sentiment in the U.S. Nearly half of American households (about 65 million) own a dog, and pet ownership rates in the country have gone up nearly 60 percent since the late 1980s. The majority of dog owners however are certainly distinct from my topic here. Most do not seriously talk about their dogs as their children, and most do not see them as superior alternatives to children.
But among younger cohorts, a troubling phenomenon is emerging. Millenials are the generation most likely to own a dog, and some evidence suggests they are also disproportionately likely to think of their dogs as children. Members of Generation Z too are highly likely to think of their dogs in this bizarre way. And it is among these two generations that we see the least interest among all American generations in having children.
The connection between this extreme attraction to dogs and misanthropy, and ultimately antinatalism, is not accidental. Many dog worshippers show that they despise humanity in precisely the same way Schopenhauer did. At the core of this phenomenon is an emotional-psychological fact about the people involved. Dealing with other people is sometimes difficult, precisely because people are free in ways dogs are not. People—even those close to you—will sometimes disagree with you, and they will sometimes have interests that are different than yours. In such situations, you are faced with the complicated work of figuring out how to negotiate potential conflicts. And in most of those situations, you cannot simply force others to acquiesce to your view. You must either convince them, change your view to theirs, or come to terms with the difference.
But with a dog, it is a different matter. If your dog disagrees with you on, for example, the appropriate place to go to the bathroom, you simply force the dog to adjust to your preference. And this is the way it is supposed to work, because the relationship between a human and a dog is not a relationship of cognitive or social-political equals. You are your dog’s master, never mind the woke rhetoric about using that language.
Not even a parent’s relationship to a child, in which everyone recognizes a certain cognitive and experiential inequality that results in the parent inevitably taking a superior role in at least some matters, approximates this degree of inequality. Dog owners get ecstatic talking about how “Spot understands me.” But of course it is not so, at least not in any way approximating what we mean when we talk about a parent, sibling, or spouse understanding us. Dogs cannot speak, participate in or fathom the representational universe of human language, or engage in any uniquely human mode of interaction and communion.
Why then do humans love dogs so much? We talk about our appreciation for their loyalty. But by that language, we are simply recognizing that the dog is completely dependent on us emotionally. Unlike humans, dogs rarely withhold affection, and a dog’s emotional needs are relatively easily met. A dog is reliably attuned to what you want, as it operates according to its unlearned nature as a pack animal, with inborn sensitivity to showing submission to its superiors. Interacting with a dog is easier than interacting with people precisely because of the difference in kind between the freedom possessed by humans and that of dogs.
When people like Declerk say they prefer dogs to people, they are saying that they prefer interacting with beings who are completely emotionally dependent on them. They are saying it’s too difficult for them to participate in the complicated game of interacting with equals. They are admitting that they prefer interacting with the functional equivalent of slaves to interacting with equals. At its core, this is a scandalously immoral position—it is an open acknowledge of a person’s general hatred of humanity.
There is nothing wrong with a certain amount of emotional investment in a pet; this is especially so for children. But the cultural emergence of a quasi-movement that elevates relationships with pets above relationships with other people, and with the frequently concomitant implication of the negation of the creation of new life, is just as Pope Francis described it: a movement against human life that morally grounded people should oppose.
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