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Pet Ownership and the Ethical Perils of Domination

photograph of dog in cramped cage

For many of us, our pets are our beloved family members. However, the lives of many pets are an excruciating ordeal, full of pain and boredom. This is an inescapable consequence of the fact that they are utterly dependent upon us to meet their most basic needs. For these reasons, I think that pet ownership should be drastically reduced and radically rethought.

What is a pet? Let me propose a novel definition, paraphrasing Yi-Fu Tuan: a pet is an object of our affections that we dominate. Philosophers define domination as an unconstrained imbalance of power that enables agents to control other agents or the conditions of their actions. My view is that our control of our pets is unjust because it is largely legally unconstrained: it is almost entirely up to an owner how she will or will not use her power. This fact, in turn, makes pets extremely vulnerable to abuse and, much more commonly, neglect.

Consider the average urban-dwelling dog. Almost nothing about her life is up to her: whether she receives adequate food, water, shelter, medical care, and social interaction is entirely down to the owner’s whims. This is because legally, pets are considered property; besides animal cruelty laws, there are no legally enforced standards for pet ownership.

The evidence suggests that the result of our dominion over our pets is an incredible amount of suffering. Although some pets are able to have genuinely good lives, owners as a whole seem either unable or unwilling to meet their pets’ complex needs. Let’s start with physical health. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than half of all dogs and cats in the U.S. are obese. The number of cats and dogs who never, in their entire life, visit a veterinarian is anywhere from about twenty-five to fifty percent, with most estimates falling on the higher end. At least 70 percent of captive reptiles die before they even reach the pet store shelf, and of these survivors, about 75 percent will not live past their first year as a pet.

Most of the animals we keep as pets are social creatures. Some, like dogs, have evolved to form strong emotional bonds with their human owners. But we humans are just as bad at ensuring our pets have rich social lives as we are at maintaining their physical health. The amount of time the average pet owner spends interacting with his or her critter is estimated at about 40 minutes a day — hardly enough to be called a reciprocal and mutually enhancing friendship. Goldfish are social creatures, but many are kept in tiny aquaria with no possibility of stimulating interaction either with their environment or other fish. For example, on Amazon one can find a USB Desk Organizer Aquarium — with attached desk organizer, including a multifunction pen holder and LCD calendar — that holds one and a half quarts of water (6 cups) and is advertised as suitable for live fish.

Many owners simply give away their animals when they no longer feel like shouldering the burden of caring for them. Somewhere between six and eight million dogs and cats and other sentient creatures pass through the shelter system each year; about one third of these are there because their owners brought them in. If they are lucky, these animals are adopted by a loving family. But many are not lucky: some 3 million are euthanized every year.

One challenge of ethically assessing pet ownership in the United States is the paucity of data, itself a sign of a troubling ethical insouciance. But the evidence of our mistreatment of our pets is all around us. To give one personal example: I once rented a house next to a family that owned a St. Bernard they kept in the backyard. This “family” dog spent almost all of the day baking under the New Mexico sun with no stimulation and no interaction with humans.

As we might expect, just as allowing humans to legally dominate one another — a practice that is outlawed almost everywhere in the world — leads to extreme suffering, so does allowing humans to legally dominate their pets. The echoes of human slavery in pet ownership raise the specter of a more radical objection: that pet ownership, like slavery, is wrong in itself. Luckily for pet owners everywhere, I do not think this claim can be sustained.

What makes slavery wrong in itself is that human beings have an actual and strong interest in autonomy, or in the ability to fulfill their desires unconstrained and uncontrolled by external forces. To say that they have an interest in this ability is to say that they desire it: human beings have the complex higher-order desire that they be able to fulfill their first-order desires without external constraint or control. Because slavery as such negates autonomy, it violates a human being’s autonomy interest. This makes slavery wrong as such. By contrast, I do not believe that animals have an autonomy interest. My dog wants to go outside, wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and wants to chase squirrels, but I very much doubt that my dog wants to be able to do these things without constraint. Having an autonomy interest requires a level of cognitive sophistication that our pets lack.

Although pet ownership is not wrong as such, this does not mean that we should rest content with the legal domination that is part and parcel of contemporary pet ownership. Instead, we should introduce far more stringent, and legally enforceable, standards. In particular, I propose that states adopt a pet “bill of rights,” to be enforced by a dedicated government agency, with at least the following provisions:

  1. Every pet is entitled to adequate food, shelter and water.
  2. Every pet is entitled to adequate medical care.
  3. Every pet is entitled to adequate physical and mental stimulation.
  4. If appropriate, every pet is entitled to adequate human or non-human companionship.

What can individuals do to make the world a better place for pets? Perhaps the choice with the greatest impact would be to not have a pet at all. The evidence suggests that many pet owners are not prepared to shoulder the burden of satisfying the pet bill of rights provisions. One should take this responsibility extremely seriously, which starts with considering seriously whether one is both willing and able to provide for another sentient being’s entire welfare.

Perhaps humanity’s greatest moral achievement to date was the abolition of legal slavery, driven by the insight that giving people legal dominion over other people is morally wrong. Our relationships with our pets are different in important respects from slavery. After all, many — though by no means all — owners are profoundly emotionally connected to their pets. There are already some legal protections for pets, as for all animals — although I have argued that these protections are woefully inadequate. Most importantly from the moral point of view, animals do not have the autonomy interest that would make pet ownership, like slavery, wrong in itself. Nevertheless, our history of slavery should make us sensitive to the moral implications of tolerating legal domination, even over non-human creatures.

What PETA Gets Right about Animal Metaphors (and What it Gets Wrong)

Sign that reads "if dogs tasted like pork, would you eat them? What's the difference?" bearing a PETA logo

Earlier this month, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) accidentally sparked several days worth of jokes on the internet after its social media accounts shared an image recommending that English idioms relying on animal metaphors be retired. Rather than saying that someone is “taking the bull by the horns” when she faces a difficult problem head-on, PETA suggested that we say she is “taking the flower by the thorns;” instead of calling test subjects “guinea pigs,” the posts proposed a metaphor like “test tubes,” and so on.

To PETA, such metaphorical language is another example of the deeply rooted speciesism in Western society; the idea that humans are privileged creatures that deserve special treatment over other creatures simply in virtue of our DNA. Often compared to injustices like racism or sexism, speciesism is an explanatory mechanism undergirding the mistreatment of non-human animals in arenas ranging from industrial farms to domestic homes. When some animal species are eaten or experimented on while others are welcomed as members of the family, it is often nothing more than human perspective that differentiates the animals in question; such a subjective position is not, some argue, altogether different from subjective social preferences that allowed some-but-not-all genders to vote or some-but-not-all races to use the same drinking fountains (abuses that pale in comparison to still-persistent patriarchal norms or the continuing legacy of the African slave trade). In a follow-up tweet, PETA explained that “Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.”

On one hand, the comparison of the current plight of nonhuman animals to the historical sufferings of marginalized groups threatens to trivialize the victories won by reformers in the Civil Rights movement or in the post-Stonewall era. Certainly, it is difficult to compare, say, pre-suffrage women to present-day factory farmed pigs without risking insulting confusion at exactly what the comparison is supposed to be. Moreover, such analogies risk implying that the mission to promote equality amongst groups with variable sexual orientations, genders, races, or other factors has been fully accomplished (as if “that’s taken care of, so now we can move on to the animal issue”) – clearly, any hints of such a notion are false.

On the other hand, some might retort that it is precisely this attitude that balks at human-animal comparisons that PETA and other groups seek to alter; if we immediately write off animal concerns as unimportant or such comparisons as impossible because “humans are not animals,” then we unavoidably reaffirm the very undercurrents of speciesism that PETA’s original post was trying to highlight. It is true that the language we use matters when shaping public perception of a topic; consider, for example, an idiom drenched in racist connotations, such as the one used recently by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to some outcry. The power of diction to affect the discourse remains true, even if the subjects used as objects in such language cannot understand the words in question.

Of course, a common sticking point in this conversation is the role of PETA itself. Much of the criticism the organization fielded in response to its graphic revolved not around metaphoric language per se, but on PETA’s own draconian policies on euthanasia or other seemingly-inconsistent positions on animal death that the animal-rights organization appears to hold. For many, PETA’s claimed position of moral superiority is undeserved in the face of widespread evidence that they support the execution of animals for any reason; for its part, PETA argues that its policies are targeted only to preventing undue suffering (although, admittedly, it is hard to see how this actually plays out on the ground).

Nevertheless, this short episode can serve as a useful example of some ethical implications for our word choices when framing conversations about larger ethical issues. And when it comes to animal rights, whether we’re beating a dead one or feeding a fed one, this horse should be considered carefully when going forward.