We are all dogs!

funny_dog_graduation_card-p137595474087171570f42_325The other day, one of my classmates brought his new puppy to workshop. It’s a basset hound. It is adorable.

Today, while I was sitting in our other class, I was watching the people across the table from me. And I suddenly realized, “We are all animals!”

And then I had this hallucinatory vision of a bunch of dogs sitting around a table, with books open in front of them, and barking at each other. I don’t really remember what else happened in class.

The fact that we are animals means that our desires and purposes are, in some way, similar to those of the other animals around us. Not quite the same, obviously, but certainly bearing more in common with them than we might think.

Of course it’s not particularly insightful to think of human beings as animals, but it was interesting to think about dogs. Normally, when we think of animals, we think of lives that are wild, violent, and filled with constant struggle. There are two schools of thought about this. One says, “Oh, we are happier than the wild animal because we’ve built a more comfortable life and we’ve found more elevated things to occupy our times.” The other (the Ted Kaczynski school) says, “We are less happy than the wild animal, because, biologically, we are coded to derive satisfaction from the struggle to survive and, now that our lives are so comfortable, we struggle to find any kind of meaning in all the false activity that we surround ourselves with.”

But when we think about the dog, both of these standpoints fall apart.

Dogs have lives that are very easy. There is no struggle to survive.

Dogs also have no meaningful activities to fill their lives. They have no autonomy. They must do what their masters want them to do. And they spend much of their lives inside fairly small habitats that must, over time, lose any ability to excite them.

And yet dogs appear to be fairly happy.

I could be wrong about that, of course, but when a dog is sad, you sort of know. And that’s very different from how they normally act.

What does this mean? From what does the dog derive its happiness? It certainly does nothing to earn it.

In any case, I’m not terribly interested in forming generalized theories of happiness, because it’s long been my opinion that, fundamentally, happiness is no longer a matter of philosophy: it has become a scientific problem. Scientists and doctors need to figure out: a) what it is; b) how to measure it; and c) how to increase it.

It will probably take a very long time to solve that problem. In the mean time, the rest of us will have to muddle through. The thing to do is to figure out what works for each of us. The existentialist would say that you choose where to find meaning. But I don’t think that this is primarily an intellectual activity. The solution isn’t to ratiocinate on it: the solution is to feel our own interiors and to try to understand the particular way in which our animal instinct has gotten its wires crossed with our intellectual life, so we can, in some murky way, figure out which human activities fulfill our base drives.

Comments (



  1. William

    On the happiness of dogs, I also found the defense of zoos in the book Life of Pi thought-provoking. Also,

    Scientists and doctors need to figure out: a) what it is; b) how to measure it; and c) how to increase it.

    Are you aware of Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment?


    Many people (okay, including myself) consider it a powerful argument against the idea that solely achieving some mental state is a sufficiently worthy goal for a person to have in life.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      To me it seems obvious that the machine would be better than real life. Nozick is basically asking the question, “Suppose I built a machine that felt, in every way, better than real life. Would you prefer it over real life?”

      Since my preferences are guided by my feelings, I would, of course, prefer it.

      The only reason someone would say “No,” is because it’s very difficult to imagine what future happiness would look like. If someone got ten seconds in the experience machine and then was asked whether they wanted to unplug, the answer would be very different.

      1. William

        Interesting. Well, the reason the thought experiment has become (somewhat) famous is that many people don’t agree with you that their preferences are guided by their feelings alone, they believe that the fact that an experience can be classified as “real” or “not real” is important.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          I’m not sure those people are taking the thought experiment seriously enough, though. Because they know the machine doesn’t exist, they’re going with the life-affirming and aesthetically satisfying answer. But if it did, I bet lots of them would change their tune. It would be a hard thing to trudge through the pain and despair of the real world, day after day after day, when your life could so easily be very different.

          1. William