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A Strangeness in My Mind

A Suffering Dog

By Jonathan B. Wight

Researching something else I happened upon Sam Hollander’s autobiography. Hollander is the greatest living expert on classical economics—Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Mill, and Marx. After a long career at University of Toronto he emigrated to Israel.

One Sabbath morning he confronted an injured dog on his property. What is he to do?

Hollander’s account (below) demonstrates pluralism in ethics, namely, when deciding right from wrong we are often pulled between the force of religious tradition or norms, utilitarian theory, and gut intuition (his “small inner voice” that I ascribe to Adam Smith’s moral sentiments or impartial spectator). In this case, Hollander follows his gut:

[Paragraph breaks added for readability.]

“One fine Sabbath day I was attracted by a noise in the garden and upon investigation discovered a dog with a gaping wound in his side, that had found his way on to my property or perhaps been abandoned there by his owner. A visiting grandson checked a standard religious-law book to confirm that it is forbidden to desecrate the Sabbath for an animal though one is permitted to offer it food and water. The dog was unable to drink let alone eat.


“There remained the options of doing nothing more until nightfall, letting the animal suffer in silence whilst we continued our Sabbath meal, to the accompaniment of gleeful table songs, or taking the patient to the animal hospital. This latter alternative, which I decided upon, implied numerous rabbinical transgressions that I shall not enter into here.

“My duty I felt was clear. As Jeremy Bentham put the matter when he discussed animal protection in the late eighteenth century: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?" (Bentham 1982 [1780]: 283). Equally, it must be insisted, my decision could be justified theologically by appeal to the rule not to cause pain to an animal. (One is obliged, for example, to feed one’s animals before oneself; there are strict rules against overburdening and much else.)

“Halacha or Jewish Law in practice – like Sharia law incidentally – is a question of proper balance; there is often no black and white in religious decision making, all depending on the weighting made by the expert authority consulted. Consulting the nearest Rabbi I ruled out in the case at hand, lest he arrive at a different balance to the one I was convinced was proper; in fact I was sure from experience that he would reject my position.(10) And given the circumstances there was no time to seek out an authority likely to confirm it.(11)

“My whole point, however, is that in the last resort one must take responsibility for one’s own actions and make one’s own calculations rather than depend upon the authority of law books and their interpreters in the event that conflicts arise between the formal rules expressing established "custom," and the "small inner voice" when it speaks up loud and clear.

“How strange that it should take a dog to teach me so elementary a lesson, and so late in life.”

Yes, conflicts arise because our ethical traditions and instincts are pluralist. Somehow, the human beast lumbers onward, making mistakes and hopefully learning in ways that can be passed on to future generations (the optimist speaking).



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