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The Homage Vice Pays to Virtue: Lessons of the Michael Vick Story


Monday, Sep. 10, 2007

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick recently pleaded guilty to a federal dog-fighting charge. In court, he admitted, among other things, to having approved the hanging or drowning of at least six dogs who were poor performers. With the prosecution recommending 12-18 months in prison, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson will determine Vick's official penalty. In addition, the NFL has indefinitely suspended Vick without pay, Nike has terminated his endorsement contract, and Reebok has stopped selling his jersey.

A case such as this leaves me torn between two competing emotions. I am pleased to learn that people are taking animal cruelty seriously enough to want to punish a previously-popular figure and thereby express outrage at the inhumane world of dog-fighting. Yet I am disturbed by the utter failure of most people condemning Michael Vick to consider their own role in perpetrating animal cruelty.

Pets or Meat?

In an astute and compelling column on this subject in the Philadelphia Daily News, Rutgers Professor Gary Francione points out the inconsistency between punishing Michael Vick, on the one hand, and consuming meat and other animal products, on the other. It is peculiar, observes Francione, for Nike or Reebok, who sell leather shoes - the products of the torture of cows - to condemn Michael Vick for torturing dogs. As Francione poignantly puts it, "We are all Michael Vick," because of what we eat and what we wear, and we therefore exhibit symptoms of what Francione calls "moral schizophrenia" when we demand retribution against Michael Vick. Yet dog-lovers who eat meat suggest otherwise.

Some say that dogs are different. A dog is "man's best friend," and even among those of us who try to live our lives without animal products, many hold a special place in our hearts for dogs. To give just one example, dogs can make wonderful companions for human beings.

As a result, many of us choose to live with one or more dogs in our homes as valued members of the family. Typically warm and affectionate to human beings, many dogs would risk their own lives to save ours. In that sense, the argument goes, a dog is "one of us" and accordingly deserves better treatment than other animals such as sheep or pigs.

To provide an analogy, most people treat their own children better than they treat the remainder of humanity. If we had to choose between helping our children and helping someone else's, few would condemn us for selecting our own. It is understood that even though "all men are created equal," people have the right to select their favorites - including family and friends - for preference within a limited sphere. Isn't our elevation of dogs above other non-human animals simply an expression of just such a preference, between species?

This argument may have some force, but it does not seem to apply to torture. Our legitimate preference for our own family members plainly does not authorize us, for example, to enslave other people's families or to torture them (or to eat or wear them). Similarly, our preference for dogs over cows does not provide a persuasive rationale for torturing and killing the latter in order to satisfy a taste for meat.

If a dog and a cow were each in danger of dying without our assistance, we could choose to rescue the dog rather than the cow, just as we could choose to save our own drowning daughter rather than a neighbor's drowning son. It does not follow, however, that we could go out and drown our neighbor's son, and it also does not follow that we can justifiably torment a cow (or pay someone else to do so, by buying meat). If we can agree that torturing an animal is wrong, then neither the thrill of a good dogfight nor the taste of chicken can be justified, no matter how much we love dogs and how little we love chickens.

One Step At A Time?

After identifying the hypocrisy of condemning Michael Vick while biting into a burger, however, one must ask: What is the proper response of a carnivorous society to the brutal treatment of dogs? Under one approach, we would simply permit all manner of animal cruelty, on the theory that there is no principled distinction between what we currently permit and what we currently prohibit. We would then have a consistent system - one in which the proper treatment of animals is left entirely up to the particular human being doing the "treating."

Would this consistent approach prove morally superior to what we have now? As a matter of pure results, it is difficult to predict. Such license might result in people recognizing that all animal cruelty is (equally) reprehensible and accordingly giving up the consumption of animals. This seems unlikely, though, and a system of zero regulation could easily have the opposite effect: people could further separate themselves from all non-human animal species, such that any existing impulse against inhumane treatment of animals might shrink in the face of the growing numbers of uses to which animal "parts" might be put.

Not knowing the consequences of different approaches, I am inclined to think that some (inadequate, largely unenforced, and unprincipled) regulation of animal cruelty is better than none. In the United States, 10 billion land animals are killed for food every year (27 million per day), and - contrary to popular belief - the overwhelming majority of them suffer excruciating pain long before their final moments. Most people, however, are capable of empathizing with these animals, which is why the meat industry works so hard to conceal its operations from public scrutiny.

So when people rise up in protest at the conduct of Michael Vick and the dog-fighting industry, the best response may be to acknowledge the homage that vice pays to virtue. Rather than say "You have no standing to speak of animal cruelty, given that you eat (and thereby subsidize the torture of) animals who suffered as much as Vick's dogs," we might instead say "You are right. Cruelty to dogs is terrible. Your protests send a powerful message about that. And would you now consider reducing your consumption of other animals, for the same reason?"

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School and a vegan. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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