“How much money must I give to justify getting a dog from a breeder?”

The hidden costs of canines


I loved this question from the New York Times Magazine Ethicist column about just how guilty a LW had to feel about going with a dog from a breeder rather than one from a shelter, and whether money could expiate that guilt.

Is this ethical? Is it relevant that I have taken in strays in the past and given them a loving home for the rest of their lives? Is it relevant that I have never abandoned or failed to neuter or spay a pet? Is it relevant that, given a choice between a shelter dog and no dog, I would choose no dog at all? What if I give money to shelters for neutering stray dogs? What if I give money for education to prevent people from adopting puppies without properly training or socializing them, thus preventing those dogs from ending up in shelters? How much money must I give to justify getting a dog from a breeder? Or should breeders donate a certain amount for each puppy sold either to shelters or to education programs?

Allow me to answer these questions one at a time.

  1. Not really. Don’t look so wounded. You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t already know deep down, probably better than I do, that breeders are an ethically murky choice at best.
  2. No. (Also: strays? If you’re okay with strays, what do you have against shelter dogs?)
  3. No.
  4. Yes.
  5. No.
  6. No!
  7. $500,000, but it must be routed through me. Paypal or Google Wallet are both fine.
  8. What?

The Ethicist reacts to this breathless, bug-eyed petitioner somewhat differently. First, he lets the LW off the hook, writing, “given that you are morally free not to have a dog, you are morally free not to have a shelter dog.” But, perhaps without meaning to, he also then goes on to encourage the LW’s neurosis.

as a dog lover who worries about abandoned animals, you probably should contribute to organizations that may reduce their numbers. Don’t think of this as the canine equivalent of a carbon-offset program. The reason to contribute is not that doing business with a breeder automatically makes you culpable but that it’s a way to support a cause about which you care deeply.

I don’t agree that philanthropy is going to soothe this tortured soul. Something seems wrong with this LW, to the degree that it almost seems unprofessional to address the superficial concern instead of digging into the two far more critical subtextual questions. Like so!

  1. LW, why can’t you accept that yes, you’re making an ethically murky decision, and turning your wallet over and shaking it won’t make a lick of difference? We all make decisions that are selfish, expedient, and shortsighted sometimes. As adults, we are obligated to own those decisions. If you can’t commit to a breeder dog without feeling this eternally, soul-wringingly bad about it, then maybe that’s a sign that you’re not making the right choice for you.
  2. Can money expiate guilt? I’m inclined to think no, myself, that only good actions can make up for bad ones. The church doesn’t sell indulgences anymore. Daniel Handler’s community didn’t forgive him because he gave to the right charity but because he seemed committed to learning and growing and making up for his mistake.

Otherwise, we allow people to spend their way into having their cake and eating it too.

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