Ethics of Pets
Are pets really our companions or are they more like slaves? Are there some instances where keeping pets is permissible? In this paper, I argue that there are some circumstances in which it remains permissible to keep pets. Specifically, if you met the following conditions: respect your pet’s rights, socializing your pets, permit as much autonomy as possible, and acknowledge your pets are individuals with personhood. However, I also argue that some forms of pet-keeping are immoral. Specifically, immoral forms of pet-keeping include obtaining pets from a breeder, animal abuse, and failure/ inability to meet basic needs of your pet.
Some say keeping pets is always wrong because pets are recognized as property. Francione takes an abolitionist view on pet-keeping. Francione says, “Those of us who live with companion animals are owners as far as the law is concerned and we have the legal right to treat our animals as we see fit with few limitations (Francione, Animal 3).” According to Francione, the institution of pet-keeping is inherently unjust (Francione, Pets 2). Consider the case of slavery. In the same way it was wrong to keep slaves as property, it is wrong to keep animals as property. Someone who is a ‘good’ pet owner is still morally wrong in the same way a ‘good’ slave owner was morally wrong.
Donaldson and Kymlicka disagree; the abolitionist view is morally impermissible because it would’ve been horribly unjust to exile former enslaved people, and phasing them out of existence and tell them it was because of the history of unjust relations, without integrating them as citizens into society. In the same way that slaves were integrated into society, pets should also be integrated into society as co-citizens (Zoopolis 74). We should treat animals as more or less free, or autonomous.
I defend a welfare view on animal ethics. Domesticated non-human animals should be given equal consideration because animal are sentient. Because sentience is the prerequisite to having any interests at all, sentience or the ability to suffer is what grants a being moral and equal consideration (Singer 107). Consider the case of kicking a rock: If Bob decides to kick a rock, it is morally permissible because the rock has no interest not to suffer. However, if Bob decides to kick a rat, this is morally impermissible because the rat has an interest not to suffer. Because beings have different capacities, equal consideration does not necessarily indicate equal treatment. For example, women are granted abortion rights in some states. It does not follow that men also have abortion rights because men don’t have a capacity to carry a child. Women and men are not treated the same, but, rather, they are considered equally. Similarly, since animals are sentient, they should be considered equally as well by granting them basic rights. The inability to separate all humans from all animals is known as The Argument for Marginal Cases. Because of marginal cases such as disabled humans or babies, one criteria or specific characteristic is unable to separate all humans from all animals, creating the all and only problem. All and only humans cannot be encompassed by a characteristic (All and Only Problem). If some other criteria were accorded to signify the right to moral consideration, then it would be speciesism because marginal cases (disabled individuals and babies) are given equal consideration despite their lack of this criteria. For example, some say rationality should grant a being equal consideration; however, non-rational humans such as individuals with cognitive disabilities and babies are given equal consideration although some animals are more rational than they are. This constitutes speciesism, allowing the interests of our own species to override the greater interests of members of others due to prejudice/bias. Because they are sentient, pets’ interests deserve to be considered like how humans interests deserve to be considered. This moral and equal consideration should grant pets as many rights as disabled humans are given. In the same way disabled humans are dependent on other humans for survival, so are domesticated animals. Since these domesticated non-humans are existing because of us (due to breeders and puppy mills) and are dependent on us, we have an obligation to care for them. We should give basic rights to animals, making them co-citizens. This does not mean that animals will be voting because animals do not have rationality. Rather, they will be recognized as members of our community and co-exist with us equally. As citizens, among other aspects, domesticated no-human animals should be given residency (a place to live) and inclusion (their interests count when considering public good).
However, not all forms of pet-keeping are okay. There are certain forms of pet-keeping which most people will agree are wrong such as abuse or neglect. However, other forms of pet-keeping are not as obviously wrong such as breeders and puppy mills. Obtaining a pet from a breeder or puppy mill is morally impermissible because of the amount of suffering that animal will experience from the puppy mill such as compromising basic health and mobility. As Donaldson and Kimlicka note, “Companion animals are often bred at puppy mills by unscrupulous profit-seekers. They are often bred to achieve aesthetic ideals which compromise their basic health and mobility” (Zoopolis 77). Keeping a pet that was already an existing domesticated non-human animal or saving one from a shelter is morally permissible because it would lessen suffering of animals; however, puppy mills and breeders will bring more puppies into existence, creating more suffering of animals than necessary. There are already animals in need of adoption in the world so bringing more animals in the world is impermissible. By breeding more animals, the animals being bred take away homes from already existing animals at shelters which creates more suffering because the pre-existing animals remain without a home.
Because animals have an interest not to suffer and are sentient beings, they have personhood and have individuality and personalities. To consider them equally to humans, we must acknowledge their personhood.
Pet-keeping is morally permissible under certain conditions. Proper socialization is a qualification for permissible pet-keeping. Often times, pet owners do not socialize their pets and their pets are alone often without socialization. Lack of socialization is impermissible because the pets are not treated as equal members or citizens of society. To bring pets as full members of the community, they must socialize, as it is a developmental process. By socializing with humans and other pets, we can foster a mixed human-animal political community (Zoopolis 124).
Basic needs such as exercise, diet, and outdoor access must also be met. Pets must be given proper food and shelter. They also must have outdoor access such as a backyard for running around periodically. Often times, pets are confined in a house; however, pets should be given enough exercise by being taken out for walks as well. When it comes to food, we are responsible to make sure our pets have adequate nutrition. Given the option, animals would probably prefer meat to a vegan alternative. However, meat should not be offered to them because to gain this meat, we would have to compromise the autonomy of other beings and create a great amount of suffering from the slaughtered animals for an arbitrary amount of pleasure from taste for our pets (Zoopolis 150).
An objector could argue that it’s unnatural for animals not to eat meat and by taking away our pets’ choices to choose, we are hindering their autonomy. However, commercial pet food is also unnatural (Zoopolis 150). Over time, domesticated animals have adapted to our world and other cultural diets. As long as their nutritional needs are being met, it does not matter if pets prefer meat or a vegan diet. If we fed pets meat, we would hinder the autonomy of other beings by killing them for the pleasure of our pets.
Another condition of morally permissible pet keeping is to permit as much autonomy as possible. Because animals are sentient which is the prerequisite to having any interests at all, they deserve equal consideration, which includes the acknowledgement and recognition of their personhood. We must acknowledge that are pets are individuals with personhood by according them basic rights, respecting their rights and treating them like citizens. However, there are instances in which we cannot afford to give pets complete autonomy. For example, sex and reproduction is one instance in which we violate their basic rights for the greater good.
Continuing to breed domesticated animals into existence is morally wrong because of the compromised mobility/health of animals bred and homes taken away from already existing animals. However, even if breeders are no longer breeding domesticated animals into existence, domesticated non-human animals will still mate with each other, bringing more domesticated animals into existence. Because of this, we should spay or neuter existing domesticated animals to control the amount of domesticated non-human animals in existence.
Objectors argue that spaying or neutering domesticated non-humans is morally impermissible because it emphasizes the original wrongdoing of domesticating non-humans to begin with and compromises non-humans’ autonomy. However, consider the alternative.
The abolitionist/extinction approach to domesticated animals pursues the abolition of relations between humans and domesticated non-human animals; essentially, this means the domesticated animals would become extinct since they are dependent on humans for survival. Releasing all domesticated animals into the wild to undo our wrong would not be permissible; by seeking extinction of animals, we are compromising the species’ autonomy as a whole by not allowing them their right to reproduce themselves and found families. Consider the case of slavery again. Abolishing slavery did not mean abolishing all former slaves as a whole and denying them rights to reproduce, but, rather, integrating them into society (Zoopolis 79); similarly, domesticated non-human animals deserve the integration into society. Domesticated animals are dependent on humans for survival. The way to grant these domesticated animals as much autonomy as possible is not to release them into the wild or phase them out of existence; they would not be able to survive and would become extinct. Consider the case of handicapped or mentally disabled humans. Releasing mentally disabled or handicapped humans into the world is not morally permissible because they are dependent on non handicapped humans for survival. Rather, humans take care of handicapped humans while preserving their autonomy by only intervening when necessary. It is morally permissible to care for existing domesticated animals because they are dependent on us for survival; however, existing domesticated animals should also be sterilized to control the amount of animals coming into existence.
Spaying and neutering is a necessary intervention for the good of domesticated non-human species themselves. This is not morally impermissible since interventions are also present for the sex lives of certain humans. Regulations are placed on individuals with STDs, individuals who live in countries such as China which enforced a one-child policy, and disabled individuals (Zoopolis 81) who are unable to take care of children should they become pregnant or be sexually active. Although instances such as China’s one-child policy do not directly keep families from having children, there are implications in such regulations that sexual activity must be controlled, in a sense. Consider the case of an elderly woman, Martha, who isn’t lucid and whose mental state is compromised in terms of memory. She isn’t able to care for herself so she lives in a nursing home. Martha is sexually active at the nursing home; however, if she becomes pregnant, she would not be able to care for her child due to her elderly status and health. Martha’s family decides intervene to prevent this. This is one instance in which sex and reproduction intervention was necessary in the case of humans. In the same way that intervention is necessary with humans who are dependent on other humans, intervention is also necessary at times for non-humans who are dependent on humans. Sex and reproduction is one instance which is a necessary evil despite the fact that we must preserve autonomy as much as possible.
An objector could argue that keeping a pet and neglecting it is morally permissible because otherwise she/he would be at a shelter which would be no better. The pet would be just as neglected at the shelter, if not more, than it would be if someone decided to adopt and become a pet-keeper. However, this objection is not valid and is speciesist. We would not think it was morally permissible to adopt a child with the intent to neglect him/her. In the same way the child deserves consideration, non-human animals also deserve equal consideration. Because it is not morally permissible to adopt and neglect a child, it is not morally permissible to adopt and neglect a pet. In the same way we have a moral obligation not to have or adopt children if we cannot take care of them, we have a moral obligation not to have pets if we cannot take care of them.
Since breeding more animals is morally impermissible because there are already animals existing who need homes, how much does this apply to human children who need homes? In the same way we must take care of the existing animals in this world without homes, we are morally obligated to adopt and take care of existing children in this world. With the state of the environment, it is plausible to think that, because of environmental issues such as global warming, the disarray of the planet makes it questionable as to whether the planet can sustain any more children as well. With issues like overpopulation and eco-gluttony/overconsumption, the United States consumption is extremely demanding on global resources (Young 184). By bringing a child into this world, we are harming other beings by diminishing more resources, in addition of taking homes from an existing child. Existing children will already have an impact on the environment while having more children would, not just strain our resources but indirectly cause suffering to existing children. Similarly, breeding animals is morally equivalent and would cause harm to the environment and the existing domesticated non-human animals.
Pet-keeping is not always morally impermissible; there are some circumstances in which it remains permissible to keep pets. It is morally permissible to keep pets if you meet the following conditions: respect your pet’s rights, socializing your pets, permit as much autonomy as possible, and acknowledge your pets are individuals with personhood. However, there are immoral forms of pet-keeping. Immoral forms of pet-keeping include obtaining pets from a breeder, animal abuse, and failure/ inability to meet basic needs of your pet.
Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. New York: 2011.
Francione, Gary L. “Gary L. Francione.” Animal Rights The Abolitionist Approach, Gary L. Francione Http://Www.abolitionistapproach.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2015/09/aa_logo.Png, 28 Oct. 2014, www.abolitionistapproach.com/pets-the-inherent-problems-of-domestication/.
Francione, Gary L. “Gary L. Francione.” Animal Rights The Abolitionist Approach, Gary L. Francione Http://Www.abolitionistapproach.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2015/09/aa_logo.Png, 10 Jan. 2007, www.abolitionistapproach.com/animal-rights-and-domesticated-nonhumans/.
Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” Animal Rights, 2017, pp. 103–116., doi:10.4324/9781315262529-2.
Young, Thomas. “Overconsumption and Procreation: Are They Morally Equivalent?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 16 Dec. 2002, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1468-5930.00185.