Capital Punishment and Love

Dr. Edward Willard Watson wrote a brief complaint about the lack of people who “specializ[e] in humanity”:

“A dog not long ago killed its owner’s wife. It chewed her neck and arms (see newspapers), and her husband is said to have declined to kill it. He loved it, he said. It was of good pedigree; he knew its sire and grandsire…. This story illustrates well the virtues and vices of the true dog lover. Certain people are ‘doggy’ people; they fill their homes with dogs. The dogs annoy and bite their friends, and they only laugh: ‘He won’t bite you,’ or ‘He won’t hurt you.’ Animal lovers are seldom lovers of humanity itself. Those who weep over the woes of animals are, as a rule, callous to the suffering of fellow beings. We specialize in sensitiveness. There are bird lovers and horse lovers and cat lovers, who see no cruelty so long as their favorite animal does not suffer. Even in human suffering we specialize; the man or woman interested in the Cruelty to Children Society cares little how much father and mother endure…. In short, the heart seems unable to entertain a general kindness to all, animals and men. There are probably even those who only love ‘suffering snakes,’ and weep crocodile tears over the woes of alligators!”

While I question the impulses behind his writing, there’s some truth in what he says. Not, of course, the part about animal lovers being unable to love people, too, but his argument about specialization. At the very least, it’s fascinating that we believe this.

After the death of my beloved dog, I started keeping cats, which many friends interpreted as me “making a switch”—the assumption being, one can either love dogs or cats, but not both. (I am exploring this in an article I’m drafting.) Or, when I tell people how much I love my cats, I am politely told that I’m speaking with “a dog person” (suggesting that, therefore, there can be no sympathy in how I’m extolling my cats). These statements evince a belief that human affections must be specialized: a sort of anti-Communism of affect. 

And to return to the good doctor’s brief article, it sounds like he disapproves of the man for not putting his dog to death—as if his failure to do so shows he cares more for the dog than the killed wife, the fellow human. Would the dog’s death really prove he loves his wife/a fellow human more than a mere dog? That would be like saying capital punishment is the only way to express one’s love for the victim. In this ghastly equation, acts of death towards members of Category A become acts of love towards members of Category B. 

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