Going to the dogs, revisited

leona 01About three months ago, Stephanie Strom of The New York Times broke the news that hotel heiress Leona Helmsley had given $5 billion to $8 billion in her bequest to her dog Trouble. As I wrote, the otherwise fascinating story failed to account for the origins of Helmsley’s misanthropy.

Now Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker has advanced the storyline — Helmsley’s bequest, far from being an anomaly, epitomizes nothing less than a legal revolution. This story is even more interesting than the Times‘. Yet it suffers from the same flaw.

In the story’s nutgraph, Toobin, a legal analyst, explains the significance of Helmsley’s last will and testament:

In fact, the clear motivation underlying Leona Helmsley’s will–her desire to pass her wealth on to dogs–is more common than might be expected. Pet-lovers (many of whom now prefer the term “animal companion”) have engineered a quiet revolution in the law to allow, in effect, nonhumans to inherit and spend money. It is becoming routine for dogs to receive cash and real estate in the form of trusts, and there is already at least one major foundation devoted to helping dogs. A network of lawyers and animal activists has orchestrated these changes, largely without opposition, in order to whittle down the legal distinctions between human beings and animals. They are already making plans for the Helmsleys’ billions.

Later, Toobin elaborates on the importance of the broader animal-rights movement: It has succeeded in extending some human rights to animals.

The legal movement, which largely focussed on pets, was, of course, symbiotically aligned with the broader animal-rights movement, which also grew in the nineteen-nineties. But the theme remained the same–to extend the rights of humans to animals. In a country where most people eat meat, many hunt, and most others give little thought to the legal rights of their pets, the complexities of such a change are considerable. Even pro-animal-rights scholars, like Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton, recognize the difficulties. As Singer said at a recent conference in New York City, “We’re talking about beings as different as chimpanzees, pigs, chickens, fish, oysters, and others, and you must recognize those differences.” For the moment, the goals of the movement are modest, and largely limited to domestic animals.

“What the law is doing is catching up with the idea that people don’t consider their pets property, in the way a car or a chair is,” Hoffman told me. “I am not pumping for my cats to be able to vote for McCain or Obama. I’m not saying they could visit me at the hospital, though that’s probably a pretty good idea. The right category for pets is closer to children, who can’t vote, and can’t own property, but you can’t inflict pain on them, either. The law is catching up with societal beliefs.”

Toobin’s story also has other interesting details — the founder of People Soft is giving millions to his dogs; Helmsley may not be able to be buried with her dog because the law precludes the possibility; the effort by animal-rights activists to use bequests not to fund a dog’s lifestyle but to prevent stray animals from being killed in pounds. These are worth reading in full.

At the end of the story, Toobin attempts to find a larger significance in not only Helmsley’s gift but the broader animals-deserve-human rights movement:

Hoffman’s enthusiasm obscures the fundamental moral question about how Helmsley hoped to dispose of her fortune. The way Leona altered her mission statement places the issue in especially stark terms. Version one proposed helping dogs and ailing poor children; version two–the final version–cut out the children and gave everything to the dogs. Is there any justification for such a calculation? Or does Helmsley’s change, along with the broader vogue for pet bequests, reflect a decadent moment in our history? …

“When you see a gift like Leona’s, it’s individualism carried to iconography,” Gregorian went on. “The whole idea that individuals can do whatever they want is part of the American psyche. It’s left to individual decision-making. That you can give to this sector of society, which is animals, as opposed to the other sector, which is human beings, tells you something about her and about the times in which we live.”

Like the Times‘ story, this summary cried out for a religious angle. Both are about the rise of a certain kind of misanthropy. Is this related to a breakdown in traditional religious belief? What do non-traditional religions think about extending some human rights to animals?

Also, Gregorian’s quote deserves more scrutiny. While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?

In any event, I think that regular GR commenter Stephen A.’s reply to my original post applied equally to this story:

the problem is (and the point this entire blog makes, and is here to make) is that religion is often ignored completely in stories that would clearly benefit from a religious angle, like this one. It would certainly add texture to this story about Helmsley, and how she became the person she was.

Indeed.

Print Friendly

  • Dave2

    Mark Stricherz wrote:

    While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?

    I’m really not following this. If you think animals have rights, then you’re about as far from relativism as is possible. After all, you don’t just believe in moral absolutes, you don’t just believe in natural rights for humans, you also believe in natural rights for animals. That’s a wholehearted embrace of moral categories, as opposed to the dismissal of morality you get from relativism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    I’m taking Trusts and Estates this fall and the one thing that we’ve learned is that state legislatures write the rules of inheritance and there is nothing anywhere that says that people have a right to leave their stuff to who they want upon death. State legislatures, if motivated, could make it very difficult for people to leave their stuff to their animals.

    In related news, did anyone see the movie Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties (2006)?

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    About twice a week I work at a park into which hundreds of people come to walk their dogs, taking care to give them the proper exercise and a chance to sniff to their heart’s content. They even carry out the menial task of collecting dog poop. At times, it’s a tossup which end of the leash is in charge.

    It’s that context in which we should look at this bequest. Given the folly of devoting billions for pampered pets like dogs when so many children are neglected, perhaps we should alter our inheritance laws to lean very heavily in favor of bequests to needy humans and, after some reasonable minimum, tax quite heavily this nonsense. Otherwise, we’re rewarding misanthropy like that of the scowling Ms. Helmsley.

    And to the previous post by Dave2, I’d suggest that the relativism lies in equating animal life to human life, or in the case of Peter Singer, of valuing some animal life more than some human life. Singer is, of course, careful to put Princeton professors high on his scale of value and that of happy children with Downs low. Relativists invariably tilt the scales in their favor.

    Such people also often end up sounding like a certain government that came to power in 1930s Europe. It eliminated precisely the sorts of people that Singer wants to eliminate and passed unprecedented laws protecting wetlands and seeking to bring back endangered species, laws that remain on the books to this day.

    Since the war, historians have labored to discover which groups found that movement most appealing. In 1939, some 10% of the adult male population had joined the party, while 25% of the teachers and lawyers had joined, along with 45% of the physicians. For a time, the last seemed to be the largest figure, and the party’s zeal for eugenics was probably the critical factor.

    But then some researchers discovered a group who found that movement even more congenial to their beliefs. Records of the membership of environmental organizations were lost during the war, but lists of Naturschutzer leaders survived. No less than 59% of the nation’s leading environmentalists joined the party, six times the national average and perhaps the record rate for party enthusiasm.

    Source: Raymond H. Dominick III, The Environmental Movement in Germany: Prophets and Pioneers, 1871-1971 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1992), 113f.

    So perhaps it makes sense to not always look at people with a wholehearted love for animals so favorably. Perhaps Ms Helmsley and Peter Singer aren’t that exceptional. Loving animals and nature can easily be reconciled with a hatred for people. That’d also explain why animal rights groups so rarely comment on the horrors animals inflict on one another, preferring to cry out against the occasional human cruelty. Their hatred for their fellow humans exceeds their genuine love for animals.

    In fact, last night I had an interesting discussion on the bus with someone who wants the average American to be forced, by government policy and high prices, to travel on mass transit and leave their thermostats at a chilly 55 even in the bitterest winter weather. He wants that even if the Europeans and Asians are making their homes comfortably warm. It was difficult to see a love for anyone or anything in someone so filled with bile, but a “love of nature” is perhaps the only rationale he could muster for inflicting so much misery on unwilling and harmless people. The polar bears, after all, have grown accustomed to floating about on ice bergs. We can’t deprive them of that by warming our homes with Alaskan oil.

    And I agree that the “religion angle” belonged in this story, at least as the best grounds for opposing those who value a high-priced dog over a child with a less-than-100 IQ. That’s precisely where opposition to Germany’s Euthanasia Program came from, particularly the brave Bishop Gale of Munster. Children have souls, that part of us that makes us unique and special, and will live eternally. Dogs have no souls and when they die, they’re gone utterly and completely. In heaven, we won’t be running into all the chicken, cows and fish we’ve eaten with relish in this life. That makes all the difference.

    Now to dinner….

    –Michael W. Perry, Seattle

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    I should have proofed more carefully. The Catholic leader who preached sermons against the Nazi euthanasia program was the Bishop August Graf von Galen of Munster not “Gale.” He was far too popular to take on during the war, but Hitler planned to settle his score with the bishop after a German victory. The best book on the topic is perhaps Hugh Gregory Gallagher’s By Trust Betrayed. The response of the churches comes in Ch. 11.

    It just came to me. Chapters 9 and 10 in that book deal with the responses of doctors and lawyers. Why do those who write on great social ills so rarely comment on the behavior of the press? For instance, Montgomery, Alabama was a full month into Martin Luther King’s bus boycott before the NY Times took note. That hardly seems to be the response of an institution desperately looking for any break in the Deep South’s prejudicial color line.

    And I remember that it was William Shirer whose first knowledge of the Euthanasia Program came from a secret meeting with a Lutheran pastor risking his life. Where again were the German reporters? Just because you can’t run a story, doesn’t mean that you can’t see that someone else runs it.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

  • Jerry

    Google “saint francis” animal for a certain viewpoint on this topic and you’ll find, amongst other things, a Catholic blessing for pets:

    “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

    http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/francis/blessing.asp or the miracle of Saint Francis and the wolf, one version ends thus:

    When the wolf finally died of old age, the people of Gubbio were sad. The wolf’s peaceful ways had been a living reminder to them of the wonders, patience, virtues and holiness of St. Francis. It had been a living symbol of the power and providence of the living God.

    Is it any wonder that some want to do their best for their “brother” or “sister” pets after they die? Of course, some people go way overboard, but what’s new in some being unbalanced and excessive.

  • MJBubba

    Does anyone else see a connection between extreme animal-rights-ism, mother-earth worship, and belief in alien abductions or bigfoot?
    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3943#comments

  • Walt Hutchens

    And I remember that it was William Shirer whose first knowledge of the Euthanasia Program came from a secret meeting with a Lutheran pastor risking his life. Where again were the German reporters? Just because you can’t run a story, doesn’t mean that you can’t see that someone else runs it.

    I don’t think we have to look at the 1930′s to find examples of newspapers not covering unpopular stories. I’m not aware of any major newspaper or magazine that has taken a critical look at the animal rights movement any time in the last 10 years. Stories on the movement’s progress are almost uniformly written from movement press releases; at best they give a he said-she said look at the situation.

    We do get the occasional critical op-ed piece and (more frequently) letters, which run next to rants about high taxes and reports of alien abductions.

    The reasons today are probably somewhat different than in the 1930s: high labor costs, a weak educational system, the growth of news-tainment media, and a general liberal bias in favor of this most un-liberal movement have been added to the need to speak happiness to power.

  • Dave

    What do non-traditional religions think about extending some human rights to animals?

    Pagans, in general, regard everything as imbued with spirit, including pets. Large estates awarded to animals while ignoring human relatives may reflect personal misanthropy, but the basic idea that humans are not the only receptacles of spirit is not misanthropic.

    {Written, in part, with my cat on my lap.)

  • Dave2

    Mike Perry wrote:

    And to the previous post by Dave2, I’d suggest that the relativism lies in equating animal life to human life, or in the case of Peter Singer, of valuing some animal life more than some human life. Singer is, of course, careful to put Princeton professors high on his scale of value and that of happy children with Downs low. Relativists invariably tilt the scales in their favor.

    From what you’ve written, it looks like you do not understand what relativism is. Peter Singer, for example, is simply not a relativist. He is a utilitarian.

    Moral relativism is the view that the moral status of things is determined by and relative to human moral attitudes, either individually or as embedded in cultural norms. Thus, according to moral relativism, exterminating the Jews is morally right for an individual Nazi or for the German-speaking culture of the Third Reich, even though it is of course morally wrong for you or I or for mainstream American culture.

    Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the moral status of an action (or a practice or a social institution) is determined by the overall balance of well-being that is brought about by that action. So, if the Holocaust brought about an enormous amount of suffering, far greater than any happiness produced (as seems plausible), then utilitarianism will say that those who participated in the Holocaust were behaving wrongly. Note that utilitarianism gives an objective answer to questions of moral right and wrong, independent of human moral attitudes. Like most any ethical theory, utilitarianism has no time for relativism. I’m no utilitarian, but to assimilate utilitarianism to relativism is an egregious error.

    Moreover, there is zero relativism in the view that some animal life is more valuable than some human life. Indeed, such a view is flatly incompatible with relativism. For example, if I really think that a normal adult gorilla is far more valuable than a human zygote (a view I do in fact hold), I am not treating questions of value as a mere matter of opinion or of culture. No, I’m treating such questions as corresponding to actual moral truths: on my view, those who think human zygotes are more valuable than a normal adult gorilla are mistaken. In contrast, a relativist would say that I have my values and they have their values and that’s all there is to it.

    All this can be verified by consulting any Ethics 101 textbook.

    Finally, I believe you are wrong about Peter Singer’s views on children with Down’s syndrome. Here is a quote from his Practical Ethics: “Thus, though many would disagree with Baby Doe’s parents about allowing a Down’s syndrome infant to die (because people with Down’s syndrome can live enjoyable lives and be warm and loving individuals), virtually everyone recognises that in more severe conditions, allowing an infant to die is the only humane and ethically acceptable course to take.” As a utilitarian, Singer has no problem with genetic abnormalities as such. The question is whether they impair quality of life.

  • Imprimartin

    Relativism and Utilitarianism are both the same because the source of the values of both are decided by humans:

    Moral relativism is the view that the moral status of things is determined by and relative to human moral attitudes, either individually or as embedded in cultural norms.

    Notice how “human moral attitudes” and “cultural norms” are decided by humans.

    Utilitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the moral status of an action (or a practice or a social institution) is determined by the overall balance of well-being that is brought about by that action.

    Here, the “overall balance of well-being” is also decided by humans.

    These theories are the same because of the source of “the rules” is the same. Disagreement among the parties does not determine difference.

    …those who think human zygotes are more valuable than a normal adult gorilla are mistaken. In contrast, a relativist would say that I have my values and they have their values and that’s all there is to it.

    Just because a person thinks someone is mistaken, doesn’t disqualify him as a relativist. A relativist says, “I have my values and they have theirs and mine are right because of the angle that I’m viewing from and his are right because of the angle he is viewing from. Consequently, we are both right and wrong at the same time. But make no, mistake, He is wrong because of where I’m standing and I choose to stand here.”

    In contrast, the natural rights arguments go something like this:

    -The source of natural rights are the observable, measureable, and verifiable laws that govern nature.
    -Humans are given some natural rights and animals are given others
    -If humans disagree with each other, someone is mistaken and investigation into the matter will discover who it is.

    A relativist will not acknowledge this governing law. An absolutist will.

    Ethics teacher,
    Martin

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Imprimartin and Dave2,

    Your replies about relativism, utilitarianism, and the natural law are interesting but also tangential to my post. Please stop writing about those topics or your comments will be deleted.

    Mark

  • Dave2

    Mark,

    Did you not write, “While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Yes.

    Your replies, as well as those of others, deal with my question only glancingly.

  • Dave2

    Well, I guess I’d still like to see any real connection between animal rights and moral relativism—i.e., something other than the fact that they’re both associated with the political left in American popular imagination.

  • http://editrixblog.blogspot.com The Editrix

    I came here via a search engine looking for information on Peter Singer and found one of the most interesting, intelligent, informative and inspiring discussions I have ever come across in the comment section of a blog during the ten plus years I am online now. And what does the blog owner do? Instead of thanking the contributors for their time and effort, he threatens to delete their comments because they are ***screech*** “tangential” to his (mediocre) post.

    To misquote the Header of this blog: Get A Clue!

  • http://editrixblog.blogspot.com The Editrix

    “Where again were the German reporters? Just because you can’t run a story, doesn’t mean that you can’t see that someone else runs it.”

    When will Americans FINALLY twig that the poor German people weren’t taken hostage for 12 years by an evil bunch of Little Green Men from outer space, but that they were in their vast majority behind Hitler and the Nazi movement. And yes, including the Holocaust of the European Jews. Do you really think that murdering 6 million people was possible just with the help of a tiny group of Little Green Insiders?

    Stories like that weren’t run because nobody (NObody!) had the slightest interest in running them.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X