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Ethics and Dog Breeding: Some Introductory Thoughts

by C. Patrick Ormos (2003)

Given the emotional level of recent discussions about the breeding of merles, it seemed reasonable to lay out two important concepts used in ethical reasoning: method and values. In philosophy, ethics is defined as “the science and study of morality and human behavior.” [Random House Dictionary] Philosophical ethics focuses on the more abstract and theoretical area of ethics. Theological ethics, while also abstract, often moves more easily into the practical area of ethics. Applied ethics, or morality, is the level of ethics with which most of us are more familiar.

“Should I breed my bitch?” is an expression of a moral question. The answer will lie in the area of applied ethics, or morality. Why and how I made that decision is more of an exercise in theoretical ethics.

In terms of method, ethical systems easily divide into two major branches: deontological ethics (ethics of rules or principles) and teleogical ethics (ethics of goals). Rather than understanding these as being in opposition, it is more helpful to think of them as two ends of a continuum. Most of us find ourselves somewhere between the two ends, rather than at one end or another.

Deontological ethics is based on rules or principles. For example, an ethic based on the Ten Commandments of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, or an ethic based on the rules in the Koran (Shari’a), are both deontological. An ethic based on the goal or end or purpose of an action is teleological. Such an ethic says that as long as the end is good, then the means are good, or “the end justifies the means.” Few people function at either extreme of the continuum, that is in a pure ethic of rules or in a pure ethic of goals. Most of us function with a mixture of rules and

Let’s use PRA as an example. Please note that what follows is not a full explication of the ethics of breeding PRA. Rather what I have attempted is simply to use PRA, and after that the blue merle issue, as examples for us to understand the interplay of method and values.

Bob Caldwell has said publicly that he will never, under any circumstances, breed to a PRA carrier. He has made a rule about how to deal with PRA carriers, believing that there are other alternatives. Cathy and I have allowed our studs to be used twice with PRA carrier bitches. All three of us are concerned about the health of the breed, all three of us have agreed that eventually we will need to stop breeding PRA carriers, and yet we have come to different decisions. Two people came to us with quality bitches that were PRA carriers. They wanted to carry on their bloodlines, and yet wanted to deal responsibly with the PRA status of their bitches. Bob’s answer was to say, don’t breed them. Our answer was to say test all the puppies, and try once. Bob applied the rule – don’t breed to PRA carriers – consistently. We understood the goal – carrying on the bloodline and quality of the bitches – and bred to them.

Recognize that the purpose of ethics is always the furtherance of the good – however that may be defined. An argument could be made that bitch A (a carrier) is outstanding, and that dog B (a carrier) is equally outstanding. It could be argued that these two are so outstanding that their genes need to be perpetuated in the breed, and that we have a genetic test which would allow us to try and breed around the deleterious gene. Obviously there would be disagreement about breeding these dogs (see above). However, let’s take it a step further and suggest that these two would be perfect matches for each other. Their pedigrees click and phenotypically they are complementary. Were someone to suggest that s/he didn’t care about PRA and that s/he would indeed breed these two dogs together, I would expect that most of the breeders would condemn such action. The consensus in the breed is that breeding PRA affected dogs, the result of two carriers, is not in the best interests of the breed and is not a good, and that the eventual goal of breeders is the eradication of this condition – in other words, such an action (intentionally
breeding PRA affected dogs) would be immoral.

Were this person to go further and argue that his/her goal was to breed winning dogs, irrespective of their health status or possible future impact on the breed, then, while many of us in a moment of ruthless honesty might agree that we, too, have a goal of breeding winning dogs, most of us would balk at the notion that health issues don’t matter, and would end up considering such a breeder as immoral.

This brings us to the second major influence in morality, which is values. Most values are held by people as axiomatic truths, that is, as self-evident. Most arguments over morality can be traced to differences in method or values. The deepest arguments tend to be over values, since
values are often subconscious and thus are very volatile.

While Bob and I may differ to a degree in our ethical method, we share a common value – the importance of health to both the individual dog and to the breed as a whole. In my theoretical example above, it is clear that we do not share that common value.

The emotional nature of arguments over merle breeding is based in these conflicting values. Steve Gladstone’s dictum, “No good Cardigan is a bad color.” is a value statement. As such, it is unassailable by logic. It is deeply rooted in his psyche. Despite the strength of this value, he lives within a system which does not permit the free expression of that value in either his breeding practice or in his judging decisions. Neither the AKC nor the CWCCA support that value, and Steve has chosen to live within that set of restrictions, while advocating for change. Other values that Steve holds have supported his choice to stay within the CWCCA and the

Other breeders, expressing their own values, have chosen to not be members of the CWCCA in order to be free to breed the colors as they wish. In other breeds, some have left AKC and moved to the UKC in order to change the standards to permit showing the different colors, which they have produced.

On the other side of this issue are those breeders who believe in upholding the traditional colors of the Cardigan. This is also a value. Many of them would put it in terms of preserving the heritage of the breed.

Values are powerful things. It is a useful exercise, when caught up emotionally in an argument, to take a deep breath, sit down and try to write out some of these self-evident truths (axioms) about breeding and dogs. You may be surprised by what you believe. Then take a moment to try and figure out what rules/principles you live by, and what goals you work towards. As these become clearer so will your ethics.

Patrick Ormos


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