The Case Against Pets — A Response Revisited

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Hey Emcee!

Recently I revisited a piece I wrote a while back in which I responded to a very interesting and intellectually challenging argument for the fundamental moral wrongness of the keeping of animals as pets (linked below).

In it I argued that although I essentially accepted the majority or even all of the arguments the authors made I ultimately rejected their position because it assumed that our pets lacked agency. In other words, that they had no choice in the matter in becoming our pets. I am including the original post in (almost) its entirety at the end of this post so you can see how I crafted my arguments. As I read through it again I basically continue to agree with that position however I wonder how strong it actually is with respect to our modern day pets. Taking the long view/historical perspective certainly fit well with the point I was trying to make. All the current evidence suggests our modern day pets (at least indirectly but mostly directly) “wanted” to be in close proximity to humans and “chose” to accept life as our pets as part of the deal. That is well and good for those ancient and first generation pets but is it legitimate to suggest (as I did) that modern pets essentially “carry” the legacy of their ancestors choice into the now. In other words that they still have agency in their pethood because their ancestors did. It is difficult to accept that as legitimate especially when imagining how such an argument could be used in the human realm. We generally do not accept that we are bound by choices made by our ancestors. Why should our pets? Tough question and one I do not have an answer for at the moment.

In any event the original post is below.

As the current guardian of two cats whom I treasure more than words can express I was taken off guard to say the least by the strength of the case made in the piece. I have no problem accepting the ethical arguments that show conclusively in my view that the mistreatment of non human animals is morally wrong. Yet I still eat and use products derived from animals, including products that almost certainly were derived from animals whose treatment I would equate with torture. That said my intention here is not to address my obvious lack of ethical principles in this regard.

Instead I seek to comment on the position taken in the above referenced article with respect to the ethics of keeping animals as domestic pets. The main thrust of the argument is that by keeping animals as pets we ultimately reduce them to the role of property. Much as slave owners justified their treatment of the slaves they owned by arguing that their rights as property owners gave them total dominion over their slaves, modern men and women who keep pets must resort to the same position to justify their actions. The authors neatly dismiss the “argument from kindness” and “pet owners caring for the well being of their property” with well crafted and reasonable responses that I accept.

How then are we still able to justify the keeping of pets? A good summation of their position is described in the following passage from the text.

“The same problem exists where non-humans are concerned. If animals are property, they can have no inherent or intrinsic value. They have only extrinsic or external value. They are things that we value. They have no rights; we have rights, as property owners, to value them. And we might choose to value them at zero.”

Ultimately I think their case fails because it assumes that non human animals, specifically domestic animals who we keep as pets, have no choice in their situation. In other words they lack agency. They assume that these animals lack the fundamental ability to act in their own self interest. Our pets are simply forced to be such by the circumstances of the world as it exists today. I reject this notion. I believe that our pets made an actual decision at some point in their evolution to become “friendly” with humans. They recognized the advantages humans could confer in term of their own long term survival and adaptability and “hitched their horse to our wagon” so to speak. I don’t suggest that this was a conscious decision. At least not conscious in the way we define a human decision. I could expound upon this point at length and it certainly deserves close scrutiny and skepticism however I do not I intend to address it here.

Crassly one could say they chose to become our property, or at least chose to act as if they were our property because they realized how advantageous such a position would be in the long term. In this sense one could argue they “tricked” us into becoming their caretakers. Far from being our property they are actually the masters. After all it is not our pets that feed us, or take us to the doctor/vet, or clean our litter boxes, or walk us, or pick up our shit. Our pets do not groom us or pet us or worry constantly about our well being.

Obviously many animals we now keep as pets are not pampered or cared for. In fact many still live on the streets, or in cages, or in other horrible conditions. However the existence of their species, the species that makes up our domestic pet population is not threatened with extinction anytime soon. The same cannot be said of the vast majority of animals we do not keep as pets. It is important to emphasize that my position does not imply in any way that we as humans are morally justified in our current situation. It is certainly fair to ask what right we have to determine the fate of all the other living beings on this planet. However I do accept that this is in fact the case. And so I ask, with respect to our pets, who is the property and who is the master?

Written by

Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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