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Canine Luxury: Triumph or Tragedy?

The NYT has a nice article questioning the conventional wisdom that we spend too much on health care. Another piece rather slyly suggests we may not be spending enough on dog kennels.

Top-notch “country clubs for dogs” are explained as a “trend [that] ‘highlights the profound love that many of us have for our dogs.'” Fortunate canines are treated to quite a regimen:

In the afternoon, when the dogs return to their suites from their daily activities, they get freshly baked biscuits. Baths and massages are available for an extra charge. And before lights-out, around 9 p.m., [they are read] a bedtime story over the sound system.

The trend toward luxury kennels reminds me of a recent defense I read of high spending on pets: [after jump]

The predicament: your dog’s life is in danger, and you have to decide whether to spend a significant amount of money and time to remedy its malady. One alternative, among many, is to spend an equivalent amount to help, even save, a number of human lives; the International Red Cross or a United Nations relief fund could use that money to feed the starving or rescue disaster victims. Will you, to put it most pointedly, choose the life (and comfort, and even luxuriance) of your dog over that of human beings? Though one alternative is clearly virtuous, and the other questionable, you—like most North Americans facing this choice—will likely choose the latter. And the choice you make, interestingly enough, calls into question the basic principles of ethics, political philosophy, and human primacy.

On the other hand, a group encouraging charitable giving sees pet expenditures as a ripe target for redistributive tithing. They think extraordinary spending on pets is less a “considered conviction” that moral theory has to accommodate, than evidence of sin, or at least a falling short of moral standards.

I’ve been trying to work through this conflict for some time, and I have to admit some of my preliminary conclusions are counterintuitive. But I think this deep conflict highlights a real problem for nearly all moral theory, and especially the new “experimental philosophy” that is closely attentive to psychological data on how people actually reason. Consider the following dilemma posed in Frank Michelman’s essay “On Regulating Practices with Theories Drawn From Them:”

There are such things as wide or pervasive social practices. . . . It seems we can approach them as stores of clues to reasons and the reasonable. From the empirical run of our own practice, we can try to distill a set of inner, mental grounds and sources of it: representations and worldviews, conceptions and beliefs, desires and ideals. We thus (insofar as we succeed) put on display our own reason . . . .
Is this like catching your shadow? Can we really do it? Can we in this way make practice yield up reglative guides to the further conduct and improvement of itself?

I think co-blogger Mike does this in an interesting way in his piece on “pattern-oriented fair use,” which argues that “fair use originated as a judicially-unacknowledged effort via the law to validate certain favored social practices and patterns.” But I think we have a pretty good working consensus on the purposes of (at least that exemption to) copyright protections. I am far more worried about philosophy of far more contested practices, like personal consumption, charitable giving, and acceptable levels of inequality in life chances. To take extant views or practices as “given” may constitute an abdication of critical perspective.