What My Dog Can Do: On the Effect of The Wealth of Nations I.ii.2

In the midst of one of the most famous passages in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” (WN I.ii.2).

In and of itself, this is probably not a noteworthy sentence, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way because I have seen it happen. My late dog Mingus would regularly exchange his bone with his “best friend” Casey, and they would do so without conflict or negative consequence.

Mingus was both very empathetic and emotive. Like many border collies, he was smart, could communicate his desires clearly, and was tremendously attentive to his caregivers’ moods, suggesting, already, many Smithian traits. As many animal behaviorists will insist though, these descriptions may be anthropomorphizations. I loved Mingus dearly and was certainly susceptible to projecting meaning onto his actions beyond his capabilities.

Whether Mingus had intent or not, my designation of Mingus as worth affective consideration is compatible with Smith’s moral psychology. On the one hand, because sympathy is, for Smith, an “illusion of the imagination”—people can even sympathize with the dead—emotions need not actually be present in the observed for the spectator to sympathize with them (TMS I.i.1.13). Under Smith’s schema, my fellow feeling with Mingus would be no less sympathy if he himself did not have the thoughts or emotions I judged him to have. And, while he was likely incapable of the impartiality required for Smithian moral agency on his own, this does not disqualify him from my consideration. He may be designated, in Alejandra Mancilla’s terms, a “moral patient” that we advocate for (Mancilla, 2009, pp. 3, 6).

One the other hand, if Mingus did have intent (which I think is the case) I would have been in the most qualified position to know it. Because sympathy works best with those who are closest to us—those in our inner circle of sympathy—I could best interpret his behavior, facial expressions, and voice. I knew Mingus almost his entire life and he had only the briefest time to socialize to other humans before my wife and I adopted him (we rescued him from a Humane Society when he was a few months old). My family knew his preferences, tendencies, behaviors, and moods, and he knew ours; the entire household dynamic including all the human interrelationships, was significantly affected by his presence. This was painfully and repeatedly confirmed when Mingus died unexpectedly and the sociology of the house had to be renegotiated.

Mingus was family even by Smith’s definition; for him, familial relationships are not biologically defined. “The force of blood,” Smith writes, “exists no-where but in trag­edies and romances.” Familial love is instead the “habitual sympathy” of those “naturally bred up in the same house” (TMS VI.ii.1.5–8). In short, losing him was not like losing a family member, it was actually losing one, and the Smithian framework for intimacy, communication, empathy, and care all support this point of view. As a result, whatever claim Smith makes about dogs and exchange does not extend further than the single assertion about economic capability. It has no consequences for the human-animal relationship.

Nevertheless, even though whether I anthropomorphize Mingus is irrelevant to the question of whether I can sympathize with him, it is indeed relevant to whether or not he was capable of exchange since the latter implies intent. Smith’s claim that dogs do not engage in contract appears to me false, but my belief does not make it so anymore than Smith’s writing confirms it. An empiricist system like Smith’s can be as indeterminate as any behaviorism, and the impartial spectator is fallible enough that even our deepest convictions may become corrupt (ASP 72).

Identifying whether dogs have intent is problematic, especially since there is disagreement as to what content such intentionality would have. Neuroscientists can, of course, photograph brain activity, but materialist descriptions of thinking are also subject to interpretation. Smith’s comment on dogs place us squarely in the classic philosophical problem of other minds and Smith’s corpus does not have the resources to solve it.

Recognizing the metaphysical and philosophical limitations of Smith’s approach, then, my intent in this paper is not to ask whether dogs engage in contract per se, but what happens to Smith’s account of humanity if they can. I will offer more evidence to suggest that the possibility is believable, but my emphasis will be on the text rather than the fact of the matter.

This textual approach is further justified by a commentator who claimed that Smith’s remarks about dogs be considered an essentialist definition of human beings. He claimed that Smith was arguing, not simply that people are the only ones who make contracts, but that making contracts is a necessary part of what it means to be human. If Mingus’s behavior challenges Smith’s veracity, and if the commentator is correct—if Smith defines a human life in this context—then Smith’s error might call his other writing into question as well. My task in this discussion is to ask if it does, and if so, how much. To do so, I engage in detailed exegesis on WN I.ii.2 and argue that this sentence is neither a definition of humanity nor intrinsically connected to the rest of Smith’s work. I conclude by explaining why I think this examination is relevant and important. To these purposes, unless otherwise specified, I will regard exchange and contract as designating the same behavior: consciously giving another creature, in Smith’s words, “this for that” (WN I.ii.2).

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