Michael Vick, Animal Rights and Killing People

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Thursday, May 21, 2009

Michael Vick, Animal Rights and Killing People

May 21, 2009

Michael Vick tortured dogs and watched them fight for pleasure and money. This is not only against the law, but morally disturbing. Michael Vick has served jail time for his bad behavior and now is coming out.

Some people feel Vick has not been punished enough and perhaps they are correct, but the reasoning behind the anti-Vick arguments is sometimes quite disturbing. In a league where deadbeat dads, drunk drivers, drug abusers, and wife beaters still play, it would be odd to deny him the right to practice his profession for his particular crimes.

Saying this does not justify what he did, but does try to put it into perspective.

What Vick did was wrong, but it is not so obviously wrong that his practices have been universally condemned in all places at all times. Fathering many children and failing to support them has been (nearly) universally condemned, because of the vast societal implications, but animal cruelty was harder to see. It would be odd for the NFL to consider the first transgression against being a “role model” forgivable, but the second meriting banishment for life.

Centuries of reflection on animal pain and what inflicting it does to people led many Christians (in particular) and some secular thinkers to begin pressing for animal cruelty laws in the nineteenth century. Traditional “sports” such as bear baiting and cock fighting began to decline. This was an appropriate exercise of Victorian Christian reasoning and by the twentieth century very traditional Christians such as C.S. Lewis often joined anti-vivisection leagues. Lewis’ book Problem of Pain contains an eloquent chapter on the problem of animal pain.

I think we have learned that inflicting animal suffering for our pleasure is morally wrong.

If Michael Vick had bad moral formation, it is easily possible that he could have failed to see that what was licit and legal (though still troubling) in Shakespeare’s time could not longer be done today. Christian civilizations learn by experience and we had learned that dog fighting is bad. However, this is not the sort of crime that might appear obviously bad to all people at all places at all times.

His ignorance does not justify his deeds, but it does mitigate the amount of punishment that seems appropriate to me.

Some opponents of Vick have gone very much further and equated animal cruelty to manslaughter (or argued that it is worse). See this odd SI piece:

For some Vick critics, nothing short of a significant ban from Goodell — lifetime or at least another full season — will mollify them. They would prefer the NFL be the No Felons League. They don’t agree with the second or third chances already accorded to drug abusers, drunk drivers, domestic abusers or other peace disturbers. And they see Vick as equally or more despicable, given his criminal activity was ongoing rather than an isolated moment of rage or bad judgment. Getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated and taking a human life in a highway accident is a different category of evil from the cruelty and depravity of profiting from and taking pleasure in the serial suffering and killing of another creature.

If the rule became: “no felons need apply,” that would make sense to me, but the further notion that Vick “more despicable” than a domestic abuser is very, very disturbing. First, it equates harming a spouse with harming a dog. Humans have greater moral worth than animals. Second, it pretends domestic violence is usually (or always?) a one time act of rage when it is not.

Critics often treat harming dogs as worse than harming other animals (say pigs), because of American and Western feelings about dogs as pets. Causing gratuitous animal pain is wrong with any animal, but critics of Vick’s should (generally) leave their sentimentality about pets out of the equation.

The critics are right that it is morally worse to plan evil and carry it out. Our laws reflect this difference in the way we treat planned murder (first degree) and murder that is done out of passion. However, it is difficult to see how manslaughter performed when a driver intentionally decides to drink and drive and the kills people does not have greater societal and moral harm, than fighting dogs. The only victim of the manslaughter is not just the dead person, a soul created in the image of God ripped from life by moral carelessness, but the vast social network of the person. The impact on the drunk who killed is also great as is the effect on his social network.

Michael Vick did a bad thing, but it is not so bad as other things. We need not develop a false moral equivalency to condemn him. I hope the NFL treats him as it does other felons who appear to be contrite. Obviously playing pro football is a privilege and not a right, but punishing Vick in a more severe way than other folk because of the Hallmark-greeting card status of dogs in America is wrong.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.