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Do dogs have a moral compass?

Do dogs have a moral compass?


Frequently when I write a newsletter, my team members, friends, or family wonder if the piece was about them and if they did something wrong, but it is rarely the case. 

Dr. Dobias' border collie dog Pax out in nature

I love writing because it allows me to process and ponder over life and the challenges that come up. I also enjoy comparing our lives to those of dogs’, because they serve as a juxtaposition, and let's be honest, they almost always win in how they deal with life 😉

Today, I would like to touch upon the topic of morals, which is the result of reading an article that said that real evil exists! For years I was convinced that deep inside there was goodness in all of us and that those who mistreat, steal from, and hurt others physically or emotionally, deserve the benefit of the doubt despite the mistakes they’ve made. I thought that perhaps they had a rough childhood, or experienced an emotional trauma, or abuse. I was just having a hard time believing that people could be evil in their essence. 

However, as I have gained more life experience, I now agree that some people are just pure evil, because their moral compass is broken or set to a very high tolerance of wrongdoing. The pet food and pharmaceutical industries are good examples of this. 

For decades, pet food companies and people working for them have been making food from inferior ingredients, claiming their recipes are scientifically based, while they must know on some level that they are not. One doesn't need to be a scientist to see that processed food is inferior to a wholesome diet. Also, I don't know one single human nutritionist claiming that processed food is better. 

The formerly "mighty" Volkswagen company is another glaring example where the moral compass of its executives was way off. The company’s wrongdoing was blatantly clear.

When it comes to morals and ethics, pharmaceutical companies are a little more complicated. Many of them manufacture life-saving medication, while they also produce harmful and side-effect causing drugs (that boost their profits) the company's executives would never take themselves. They know better. 

For most of us, it is upsetting to see that this lack of corporate integrity is quite common and that money often wins over safety, fair trade, environmental issues, and the greater good.

Paradoxically, despite the wide public discontent with the status quo, only a small fraction of people in our society blow the whistle and take personal risks such as losing their job, freedom, and being persecuted, which is seen in the case of Edward Snowden

He was bound by a non-disclosure agreement, but became a whistleblower because he discovered mass citizen surveillance that he viewed as morally unacceptable, and felt the public deserved to know. 

Unfortunately, his situation has led others to fear for their own persecution, and as a result, they will never speak up and help to repair what is wrong in our society. 

Most of us are guilty of not speaking up often enough out of fear, which is not unlike life used to be behind the Iron Curtain, as I still clearly remember. Our moral compass may be set at the right level, however, we either don’t want to be bothered or more commonly, are afraid of personal consequences. 

This makes me wonder if there is a point in our lives where this all starts. 

What do psychologists say?

Psychologists say this begins relatively early on in life, just around the time we enter elementary school. We all remember that tattle-tales were generally laughed at and seen as weak. Of course, sometimes their reports of misconduct were petty and personal, but this has unfairly affected whistleblowers, who are different. They speak up about serious issues and risk their jobs, freedoms, and lives for everyone's sake.

Family also plays an important role in moral compass setting. For example, if you grow up in a family where stealing and fraud is the norm, your moral settings will be different than if you grow up in a family that follows high moral standards, and treats others with respect and generosity.

There is also one other peculiar element that sets our moral compass that I witnessed behind the Iron Curtain. The communist party members gave themselves the green light to raid and steal from the nation, which made the rest think that it was okay to steal from the government, but definitely not from each other. 

Sadly, we do not need to go back in the past to find examples of a lack of governmental integrity. For example, the so-called developed countries, including the USA, Canada, and many others, frequently cozy up to countries that violate human rights. Their decisions are based on convenience and power, instead of integrity and what is morally right. How else can we explain the huge difference in our relationships with Cuba and China - both communist countries - or Saudi Arabia and Iran?

In the Middle East, oil, not ethics and human rights, appears to have the final say. I find it perplexing that most voters don’t seem to care that our governments' moral compass is off. Do you?

To say all this, no one is 100% perfect, but we all can strive to be, and do better. Most of us are guilty of not taking action, because we are too busy to notice, or we fear the consequences of speaking out. There is no doubt that some problems are huge and daunting, but if we want to make the world a better place, that should not be an excuse to put our heads in the sand. 

I am sure that pet food company executives would not want to eat low-grade toxic food, and I am certain that pharmaceutical CEO’s would not want to give their loved ones drugs that are ineffective, toxic, or cause serious side-effects.

I am also certain that fraudsters and liars do not like to be victims of fraud and lies, which should make it easy for them to see where the line is. It does take a little bit of willpower not to be lured by money, comfort, and personal benefits, but it is not that hard. Moral standards are like muscles, they get stronger and more powerful with practice.

A good example is a veterinarian who suggests doing only as he would do for his own pets, no more and no less. The plumbers and electricians who charge a fair price. The pet food or supplement manufacturer who honestly lists all ingredients.

I am certain that if we all used the above-mentioned principles, the world would be a better place. 

This brings me back to dogs, and the question about whether or not they have a moral compass. At first, I thought maybe not, but then I quickly reassessed. 

Dogs have a very clearly set moral compass, based on their pack rules, their morals are just different than ours. For example, Fido is quite carefree about relieving himself in public, or humping visiting uncle John’s leg, but it would be a big no-no for him to violate the rules of his pack, which he strictly follows.

And when it comes to setting our own moral compass, all we really need to do is treat others the way we would want to be treated. 

Give your dog a hug for me.

 © Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM

About the author

Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM is an Integrative veterinarian, nutritionist and creator of natural supplements for dogs and people. Helping you and your dog prevent disease, treat nutritional deficiencies, and enjoy happier, healthier, and longer lives together.

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