A very sad story about a horrendous problem hit the headlines in Hawaii recently. Unfortunately, it's not an isolated incident. Similar stories are cropping up across the United States. The story is about "puppy mills" where dogs are housed in cramped cages, living for prolonged periods caked in their own excrement, and developing all of the kinds of health problems that arise from those conditions. What kind of people raise animals this way? The kind of people who care more about making money than treating their "breeding machines" (their term, not mine) with any degree of kindness. How do we fix this problem?
The answer being proposed in Hawaii and across the nation is "more rules." Rules about how big a dog's cage must be, rules about how many breeding animals a puppy mill may own, rules about hygeine and human interaction. The existing rules are either not clear enough or do not impose severe enough penalties to be effective. But will more rules fix the problem, or will they just have the effect of forcing puppy mill operators to find new ways to observe the letter of the law without satisfying the spirit behind the law–the necessity in a civilized society of treating even the animals among us with some degree of kindness? And if the puppy mill owners find that they cannot operate within the new limits set in Hawaii, they will simply move their operations to jurisdictions that are less conscientious about how animals are treated. Clearly, as long as the prevailing attitude is "all's fair in love and business," the solution of "more rules" will take us only so far. The new rules cannot and will not fix our society's inability to produce members who do not need external rules to tell them how to act with kindness.
We have all heard the phrase, "you can't legislate morality," and it is true. Although all law is an expression of morality (i.e., by imposing penalties on certain conduct, we dictate what behavior we, as a society, will not tolerate) no law will cause a person's heart to embrace what is right and reject what is wrong. It is not that hard obey the outward law while coming up with ways to get what we want, even if what we want is exactly what the law was intended to prevent. The challenge for us as a society is getting all of us to want the right things.
In his 1986-1987 "President's Report," Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, famously lamented the rift between the old-fashioned moral code that told us how to behave, and modern-day ethical inquiry, which asks us to think carefully about the choices we make, but does not presume to tell us which choices are correct. As Bok points out, our young people will not learn a moral code in the halls of our mainstream colleges and universities. As a product of Hawaii's public schools, I can testify that moral instruction is not likely to happen in the K-12 years either. Yet all of us, irrespective of faith or philosophy, intuitively know that some choices are unquestionably right, and some choices are just plain wrong. There is a moral code built into each one of us, and it works pretty well if we let it. So how did we get to the point where we, quite frankly, deny what we know to be true and buy into an insidious timidity about requiring right behavior of ourselves and our neighbors? And how do we get back to the point where it will be unnecessary for our government to have to prescribe what kind of behavior will be tolerated–and not just behavior toward dogs kept for breeding purposes?
One step in the right direction would be for us to talk to each other about the big questions that are shaping our culture. Too often, our cultural conversation about values becomes a political conversation, and most of our political discourse today is simply a matter of people calling each other names from across the room without making any effort whatsoever to understand, and to communicate that we understand, each other's views. How often have you heard someone on the Left call someone on the Right (or vice versa) a "Nazi" in order to brand the other side Wrong? If you know very much about Hitler and his henchmen, you realize that this is like calling the GEICO gecko "Godzilla." There may be certain similarities between a harmless lizard and a dinosaur on steroids (they are both green, for example), but the differences between them far outweigh any reason to call an insurance salesman a monster. It is time for all of us to have the courage and the humility to walk across the room, look into each other's eyes, and have real coversations about right and wrong and what is best for all of us. We will find that our moral compasses point in pretty much the same direction.
Once we get used to talking to each other in moral terms, we can get to the point where we expect, and then demand, moral behavior of ourselves and each other. If we are honest in our rhetoric, we can call for correction without demonizing anyone. The power of our shared values, if we communicate them fairly (and even err on the side of mercy), will make it unnecessary for us to make more rules about how not to abuse dogs, and a whole lot more.