As promised, here's my attempt at a philosophy paper. It's not amazing, but I think I will pass. I hope it makes sense, and would be interestede in feedback from anyone who wants to make comments.
The Philosophy of Guide Dog Public Relations
At the age of sixteen, I made the decision to apply to receive and train with a guide dog. I hoped my mobility and ease of travel would increase as I learned to work with my dog. I did not predict some of the public relations challenges I would face as my dog, Julio, and I worked as a team to navigate safely. I daily come up against claims, both true an false, that others believe about guide dogs. People believe that my dog reads traffic lights. They also believe that my dog knows where I want to go, and understands commands like “take me to the mall”. They claim it is important to yield for a guide dog team when in traffic, and that other dogs can distract him. We can examine these claims philosophically to determine their veracity.
The philosopher, Socrates, developed a method of taking apart claims and proving them either true or false. This method is called an elenchus. An elenchus examines claims for contradictions that prove they cannot be true. We perform elenchuses every day without being aware that we are performing them. For example, to perform an elenchus on the claim that guide dogs read traffic lights, one must first examine the statement and determine what is necessary for this statement to be true. For a dog to read traffic lights, it is necessary for the dog to be able to see the traffic light, and for the dog to be able to comprehend the meaning of colors. Since a guide dog usually stands between twenty and twenty-eight inches at the shoulder, and a traffic light is between ten and twenty feet tall, it would be impossible for the dog to see the traffic light. In addition, scientists have determined that dogs cannot see color, but instead see shades of grey; it would be impossible for a dog to interpret the color and meaning of a traffic light. Thus, it is impossible for a dog to read a traffic light. In this case, the contradictions are that the dog must be able to see the light, but cannot, and that the dog must comprehend colors but do not.
We have resolved that the claim that guide dogs read traffic lights is false by the use of reason, but it would also be possible to determine this another way. One could, in theory observe a guide dog team as they cross the street. To be scientifically accurate, one could observe many teams and notice how they cross the street. If one were to observe a team, that person would notice the following pattern. The team would walk up to the curb at a crosswalk and stop. The handler might adjust her alignment, or just simply stand still. When the light turns green for the team to cross, the observer and handler would hear a surge of traffic. The handler would tell his dog “forward” and the team would walk across the street. This pattern would develop each time a team crossed at an intersection with a traffic light. Even if the observer did not notice the sound of the surge in traffic as drivers for the parallel traffic began moving, he would still notice that the team began moving only at the handler’s command. Thus, it would be logical to infer that the dog responded to the handler’s command, not the change in color of the traffic light. I suspect this claim comes from a miss understanding of how a guide dog team travels. People are unaware that Julio and I really do work as a team, and that we each have responsibilities to make sure we travel safely and effectively. In addition, since people who are sighted do not need to rely on their ears, they probably do not think about the sound traffic makes when drivers all accelerate at the same time. It seems logical, then, that it would be impossible for a blind person to make the decision of when to cross the street. In this case, a lack of information leads people to a false claim.
To examine the claim that guide dogs understand locations and destinations as commands, both reason and observation demonstrate the falsehood of the claim. While dogs may understand more than humans give them credit for, they do not understand long, drawn-out commands. A guide dog handler or instructor will tell anyone who asks that dogs can understand concepts, such as right and left, but word associations, such as chair, door and outside are sometimes more difficult because the meaning of these words can change. A chair, for example, can be anything from a La-Z-Boy to a park bench. Word associations generally need to be used in an area near where the sought-after object is located. This means that it would be unfair to expect a guide dog to understand locations such as mall, restaurant and store. If I observe a guide dog team, I see that the handler actually gives directions such as “right” and “left”, not “Take me to the mall.” This belief probably comes from false depictions of guide dog teams in print and on television.
Next, I can prove that it is important to yield to a guide dog team when the team is crossing a street by the use of reason. Obviously, if a car, which moves faster and is larger than a pedestrian hits the pedestrian, it will injure that pedestrian. Moreover, while a guide dog helps keep its blind handler safe by watching for, listening for and avoiding traffic, a car can move more quickly than a dog. Finally, because of these dangers, no one argues that a car should not yield for a sighted pedestrian. Therefore, if we believe we are responsible for helping keep others safe, then, for the reasons above, it is important to yield for a guide dog team, and this claim is true. Since serious harm could come to a guide dog team if we conducted an observation of what happens if drivers do not yield, it would be unethical to conduct that observation. This belief probably comes from campaigns surrounding pedestrian safety, and an increased education effort to teach drivers about the need to yield for all pedestrians, especially those who are blind.
Finally, it is possible to prove that other dogs can distract guide dogs through reason and observation. Distraction means that the guide dog is focusing, at least in part, on something other than guiding its handler. So, if we can be reasonably certain that another dog’s appearance is interesting to a guide dog, and that this interest takes the dog’s attention away from guiding, then it follows that the dog’s response may be a cause of the distraction. If I observe what happens when a guide dog sees a dog, I might see that when the guide dog notices the dog, the guide tries to go play with the other dog. I might also notice the handler working to refocus the dog’s attention by asking the guide to perform tasks like “sit” and “down”. However, I have not actually observed a cause. Therefore, in this case, we cannot observe a cause and effect, but we can infer that the other dog distracts the guide dog. The belief that guide dogs can be distracted probably arises from observations like the one I have outlined.
The ways in which I examined these claims to determine their veracity are not new. Two philosophers, Renae Descartes and David Hume both examined claims to determine if they were true. Descartes used reason, to determine veracity. When he started his famous meditations, he stated “… I don’t need to show each of [my beliefs] to be false. I may never be able to do that, but since reason now convinces me that I ought to withhold my ascent just as carefully from what isn’t obviously certain and indubitable as from what’s obviously false, I can justify the rejection of all my beliefs if in each I can find some ground for doubt.” (Kessler, 262). Descartes’ method takes each claim apart into the smallest parts it is formed from, decide swhat parts of the claim should be doubted and thrown out, builds up his claim with the indubitable pieces of the claim and publishes his work for others to read and critique. By this method, Descarts believed he could find certitude.
David Hume, on the other hand, believed reason can only get us so far. He chose to use his senses to record careful observations. The observer, he believed, should avoid drawing conclusions as she or he observed. The observation should only contain what the observer actually sensed. For example, in his writing “An enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, Hume states “Adam, though his rational faculties be supposed, at the very first entirely perfect, could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him…” (Hume, 274). Hume then explains that we can only observe a series of actions, not a cause and effect. This is why we could only observe a dog, and a guide dog’s actions after seeing the dog, but not an actual cause and effect. Instead, we could infer the cause. Hume also explains that we cannot be certain that our observations will be true in the future. He claims that we cannot be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, because we cannot observe that action ahead of time.
In summary, we have examined four claims about guide dogs, and proven two to be true and two to be false. We have discovered that both Descartes and Hume have methods of determining truth that work equally well in this area. Both reason and observation can help us better understand how a guide dog team works together.
Descartes, Renae. "Meditation I." Voices of Wisdom. Ed. Gary E. Kessler. Boston: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2007. 263-269.
Hume, David. "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." Voices of Wisdom. Ed. Gary E. Kessler. Boston: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2007. 271-277.