Friday, July 22, 2011

Dogs and conscience


Thomas Aquinas believed that dogs could not go to heaven, because they had no soul. He articulated a soul as the capacity to exert free will. A person with a soul must have a conscience.

Today I wonder if dogs have a conscience. Do dogs really know when they have done wrong without you telling them? My rescue dog Sophie is a true pirate dog. She believes that any food is fair game and takes delight in stealing.

I am going on a long bike trip and have packed special food bars. Some of them are chocolate and coffee, others peanut butter. Each bar is sealed in foil, and that placed in a plastic bag and that in a larger bag. I left to pick up my car and returned to see a foil wrapper, thankfully for peanut butter and jelly, on the floor. There were traces of torn wrapper that led, yes right to the pirates lair...her food dish.

Sophie had no idea she was doing wrong. She was rather proud of her accomplishment and sat beside me gleefully. There was no remorse, no apology. Sophie enjoyed her ill gotten gains without apology, guilt or even an upset stomach!

There are three levels to a conscience. The first level is when we don't do an action because we know there will be punishment. This is when the owner chastises the dog. This is self preservation! A second, and higher level, is that we don't do an action because we know it will upset the social order or others. This is the fear of social chastisement. Had Sophie been at this level, she would have known such a theft would clearly have upset me and confused the other dogs. The third level of conscience, Aquinas would say is we do not sin or do wrong, in order to please God. I would say that we often choose the right path out of love. It can be love of one's family, or simply to obey one's moral compass. We do this action because it is the right thing to do. This is often demonstrated by people who have risked their lives to save others. They will often just say 'it was the right thing to do'. This higher level of conscience I believe can be seen in dogs. There are stories of dogs sacrificing themselves to save a family member in fires or situations of danger.

Sophie failed somewhere between the first and second level of conscience. She is amoral. I am not sure the same can be said for all dogs. Thomas clearly never owned a dog!

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