Doc was the family dog.
He was purchased by my father as a working dog. He spent his days at FH Auto Sales, a family-owned used car lot where he lounged about, purportedly scaring potential robbers from attempting anything sinister. I can only assume this worked well, because when I'd hang out after school there, I would constantly hear loud, surprised exclamations. "Oh, my god! You have a devil dog behind the counter!" "What the fuck?! Can that dog jump over to this side?" "Oh, hell, no, I ain't coming to that counter."
The building was originally used as a small bank, so there were teller stations, a large safe in the back, and lots of empty space where Doc would lie in wait as potential car purchasers would walk up to the counter, only to notice him at the last second. Of course, not all the comments were on the family Doberman Pinscher; if they looked all the way to the back, sometimes they'd first see the large snake sunning itself in a terrarium. (My father used to let him loose in a different car each night, widely publicizing this to staff. This apparently did a good job of deterring inside jobs from workers who knew that Doc came home each night to sleep at my home.)
Doc (or Doctor Death, as his certificate of registration read in full) was a dropout from guard dog school. The usual training involves teaching dogs to bite the raised arm of a would-be attacker, and then to not let go until help arrived. As such, trainers would wear these humongous padded sleeves on their arms to prevent damage from the dogs they trained. Doc, however, would bite the arm only once, and then start repeatedly biting the attacker everywhere else, including places that weren't as well padded. (Knowing what I now know about the hellish training these people put innocent dogs through, I believe the trainer may have deserved it. It also explains why they named him what they did.) My father was able to purchase him much more cheaply this way.
From my perspective as a child, Doc was amazingly well trained. He would not eat unless given a verbal command allowing him to. If you called him from the front yard, he would jump over the extra tall fence in the backyard. He was extremely gentle with children, and always loved running to and fro. In short, Doc was a good dog.
But this is not a story about Doc. It's the other character that I want to focus on here: me.
At first, I was just a kid. I would play with Doc nearly every day. We bonded in the backyard. I'd give commands in german in front of my friends to show off his obedience. When I'd jump in the pool, he'd come to the edge and let me splash him repeatedly. I was the good part of his life.
Doc looked to me as a savior. I spent the most time with him. Before me, from almost his birth, he endured so much in that hellhole of a training facility. To Doc, I was a godsend. An angel of friendship and softness. I provided sustenance. I played with him. We were friends.
Yet this friendship was flawed, for I didn't think of him in a similar way. It's difficult to describe now, with my current views of the world, how my brain worked back then. I almost want to say that I thought of others mostly as I thought of mere objects — but, no, that isn't quite right. I saw a difference there; I just didn't think it was important to act on it. Doc was like an advanced toy. A robot that I took extra special care of, because it could break easily if I didn't. I never hurt Doc, because why would I? And yet it was largely for the same selfish reason that I did not deliberately break my expensive toys. (There's a reason why this blog entry remains photoless.)
When I left, I did not think of Doc. I remember, in college, meeting people who would talk about missing their pet back at home, and I would write them off as just being weird. After all, I didn't miss the pool table back at my house. It was just a weird concept for me.
I know now that there was something wrong with the way I processed empathy back then. I didn't really outwardly exhibit sociopathic behavior except in occasional situations, but this was due more to me realizing how I should (instrumentally) act in order for others to feel comfortable around me. It wasn't due to me actually caring (intrinsically) about how others thought or felt.
I traveled a bit before coming back home. When I returned, my parents were divorcing. Doc no longer had a family home; he stayed full time at the car lot. I didn't know this at the time, of course. I never bothered to ask about him. I'm not sure I even ever thought of him. Instead, I just did what I liked with each day, focusing mostly on myself and how I might interact with the world.
I believe I was in my very early twenties, perhaps just 20, when my father took me aside to tell me: Doc is dying. He was to be taken to be 'euthanized' the next day. I should come by the car lot to say goodbye.
It was the first I'd thought of Doc for several years. It was rare for my father to suggest that I do something that had nothing to do with making money, so it stuck out to me as something I should do. Memories flooded to me, not of Doc, but of movies I'd seen where the main character sees an animal off to die. Vaguely, I wondered if the event would elicit emotion from me. I recall that night making plans on how I should act in the situation in order for others to see me acting appropriately. In particular, I remember planning to tilt my head to the side and down, so that my glasses would obscure where tears might form in other humans.
Had you observed me there, you might think I was a normal human. I hugged and talked with Doc. I whispered niceties even when others were nowhere near — but, as I did so, I recall thinking inside my head that this was for the benefit of anyone who might have bugged the back room where Doc lay suffering and still. I can remember specifically thinking that it was not for the benefit of ghosts, as I'd have no chance to hide my true self from them in any case, and definitely not for mind-reading aliens, who would better understand why I seemed to have such different thoughts from my fellow humans. In any case, my words were not said for Doc, though I suppose the principle of double effect may have made the experience comforting for him anyway.
Hours later, Doc died in a veterinary office. I wasn't present. I think I may have gone out for fast food. I didn't really think of Doc again for several years.
Slowly, with punctuated equilibrium, I changed over the decades. I dove deeply into ethical philosophy. I learned more about the sociopathic tendencies I hid in my brain. And eventually, I decided to care.
Perhaps it is still instrumental care. As a moral nonrealist, I don't really believe in intrinsic care. But I've decided that I want suffering to be bad. I want things to be good that others seem to agree are good. I want to spread positive memes, and I want to do it effectively. I now work closely with the effective altruism movement. I care specifically about animals, however instrumental it might ultimately be. And when I think back to Doc, my eyes tear up. Not because anyone is looking. (Not even mind-reading aliens.) I tear up because Doc mattered. I did not act appropriately back then. I should have loved him. I cry now because I know that I didn't.
Jasper, my current feline housemate, is well-loved. I care deeply about his life and how he experiences it. He is family in a way that I never really thought was the case for my actual family members when I was young. When I interact with Jasper, it varies as to whether the interaction is for me or for him. We do things for each other. He comforts me when I am sad. I love him.
Doc never got that. I'm not sure I was capable of love back then. It wasn't fair to him. And so I tear up.
And now here comes Jasper to comfort me in my sadness.