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On the Morality of Rental Pet Prohibitions

photograph of "No Dogs Allowed" sign in front of apartment complex

I recently moved into a new home. Fortunately, our new landlord allowed the furriest member of our family to join us. Not all landlords are so kind, however. Many rental agreements contain clauses explicitly prohibiting tenants from owning pets. But such limitations are now being challenged. The U.K. is currently considering legislation that would give tenants the legal right to request a pet in their home, with landlords not being able to unreasonably refuse. New York City, on the other hand, already gives tenants the right to keep a pet in a no-pet property after three months of residence.

Landlords are understandably concerned about such developments. But it’s worth considering why we might think they have the ability to refuse tenancy to the two-thirds of the population that own pets.

We might begin by taking a rights-based approach: arguing that since the landlord is the owner of the property, they have the right to dictate whatever tenancy terms they see fit. If a potential tenant finds these terms unsatisfactory, then they are welcome to look elsewhere for a home. But such an approach – while elegant in its simplicity – fundamentally fails to describe how the law approaches the relationship between landlords and tenants. Property owners are not all-powerful lords overseeing their fiefdoms. As soon as they enter into a contract to lease their property, their rights in that property become limited. Most jurisdictions, for example, recognize the right of tenants to the exclusive possession and peaceful enjoyment of their property. A landlord could not, for example, prohibit the reading of books on the property, or capriciously make a rule outlawing the possession of Tupperware.

A rule against the ownership of pets, then, must be based on more than just the landlord’s right to dictate the terms of a lease. There must be good reason why this particular use of the property can be prohibited, when others cannot.

The obvious answer is, of course, the potential for damage that accompanies pet ownership. Most landlords don’t prohibit animals on the basis of a de Vil-esque hatred of animals. Instead, it stems from a fear that their valuable investment – a home – will be devalued through the devastation wrought by non-human occupants. And let’s be honest, this fear isn’t entirely unfounded. Anyone who has owned a pet will know that animals aren’t always entirely respectful of private property. They are quite capable of causing – sometimes catastrophic – damage.

Perhaps, then, the proper argument against pet ownership in a rental property is a consequentialist one. While tenants do indeed have a right to peacefully enjoy the property in which they reside, this right can be curtailed where an activity creates significant risk of damage to the home. It would, for example, be completely unreasonable for a tenant to claim that the right to peaceful enjoyment allows them to detonate fireworks in their living room. It’s also what allows landlords to create prohibitions against things like smoking.

But there are several problems with this argument. First, if the potential for damage is what justifies a prohibition against pets, then landlords should be permitted to prohibit anything else that brings that same potential for damage. But they’re not. A docile, well-trained cat is far less likely to create chaos than a rampaging toddler. But in most jurisdictions, there are clear protections in place that forbid a landlord from refusing to rent to a family with children. In the U.S., it’s a violation of Federal Law.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between a child and a pet. For one, there seems to be a generally recognized “right” to the former, but not the latter. But this is where a second concern with the consequentialist approach arises: such an argument must weigh all of the consequences – not only the costs. And while a pet might be importantly different to a child, the benefits a pet brings to its family are of a very similar kind. Pets bring companionship and joy. They even improve our improve our mental health. And the benefits aren‘t just to tenants. A recent study showed that pet-friendly homes in New York City brought landlords an additional $250 in rental income every month. There’s every chance that these benefits to tenants and landlords may easily offset the potential costs of any pet-related damage.

Which brings us to a final problem with the consequentialist approach: any rental arrangement brings with it an inherent risk of property damage – and there are already ample mechanisms in place to reduce the cost associated with that risk. That’s what security deposits are for. If a tenant – or their furry companion – causes damage, then this deposit will provide compensation for the landlord. In fact, in many cases, this deposit can be supplemented by an additional pet deposit and cleaning fee. Access to mechanisms such as these make a blanket prohibition on pet ownership in a rental property even harder to justify.

The upshot, then, is this: while a tenant might have the right to peacefully enjoy their rental property, there are circumstances where a significant risk of damage can allow a landlord to dictate the terms of a tenancy. The ownership of a pet, however, is not sufficient to meet this standard. If it was, then other activities (like having a child) could also be prohibited. What’s more, the benefits of pet ownership for the tenant far outweigh the potential costs to the landlord – costs which, through the appropriate use of existing mechanisms like security deposits – can be almost entirely eliminated.

At the end of the day, pets are – for many – just as much a member of the family as any of the humans of the household. Giving up those family members is unthinkable, which is why pet prohibitions lock many families out of a vast number of rental properties. What’s more, prohibiting pets from rental properties – while legally enshrining the rights of certain human family members – might also be yet another example of blatant speciesism

Moral Problems with Mink Production

photograph of mink fur

In a strange twist during a year that has seen more than its fair share of strange twists, a potential new threat in the fight against the coronavirus has emerged, this time in the form of a mutation in the virus found in minks. It has always been known that animals like mink are susceptible to some of the same kinds of respiratory diseases that affect humans, and that viruses can mutate when passed between different kinds of animals (it is speculated, after all, that the origin of coronavirus in humans originally came from bats). While there is reason to be optimistic that the mutation will not be too much of a problem for the development of a vaccine, the threat of a mutated version of the virus widely spreading to humans seems like the absolute last thing we need right now.

The mutated version of the virus was first discovered in Denmark, although a number of other major mink-producing countries (including Poland, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands) have reported the presence of COVID-19 in their minks, as well. As an early response, the Danish government imposed lockdowns in the relevant parts of the country, and attempted to force mink farmers to cull the country’s nearly 17 million minks that are farmed for their fur. This move has received considerable backlash: political opposition has challenged that the government has no legal right to force farmers to cull their mink herds, and the Danish agriculture minister stepped down as a result. Other governments are in the process of deciding which measures to take, although no clear plans of action have yet to emerge.

One aspect of this story that may have caught you off guard is the astonishing number of minks that could potentially need to be destroyed: in Denmark alone there are almost three minks for every human. While this number was never explicitly a secret, it wasn’t exactly well-known either, and after having been made public it has raised more than a few eyebrows of those concerned with animal welfare. While arguments against the raising of animals for their fur are not new, it is perhaps worth revisiting the topic in the face of this potential mass culling.

Typically in arguments like these one considers pros and cons, weighing reasons that have been provided in favor and those that oppose, and seeing which view is better supported by evidence and argument. When it comes to the question of whether minks should be farmed on a mass scale for fur production, however, the balance of moral reasons points pretty clearly against the practice.

Let’s consider some of the reasons against. In a recent letter to Science, three scientists from some of the largest mink-producing countries outline some key reasons why mink production should stop: in addition to the potential to transmit diseases harmful to humans, the conditions for raising mink are typically inhumane, with “minks showing signs of fearfulness, self-mutilation, infanticide, and breeding difficulties.” On top of all that, there is the environmental impact the comes along with any mass animal farming operation: the letter cites that “the climate footprint of producing 1 kg of mink fur is 5 times as high as the footprint of producing 1 kg of wool.”

So here are some arguments against: potential to harm humans with mutated viruses, cruelty to the animals, and damage to the environment. Are there reasons in favor?  Economic reasons come to mind: there is a demand for mink pelts, and so we might think that farmers should be able to supply them. Indeed, culling a country’s entire population of minks would have significant economic effects: the world’s largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen Fur, is reporting to be shutting down in the wake of the Danish government’s culling order, with the potential for an additional 3,000 jobs being lost in the case of a collapse of the mink industry. Certainly, then, the livelihood of mink farmers is at least one factor to be concerned with.

How one weighs these reasons will depend on how much one thinks that minks are animals worthy of moral consideration. If, for instance, one is concerned that mass fur farming is cruel to animals that ought not be treated cruelly, then even though putting an end to mink farming would harm those who make it their livelihood, this might seem like a minor concern when thinking about the overall benefits of ending an inhumane industry. This is not to say that the concerns of mink farmers should be completely ignored – the Danish government, for example, is currently considering a financial rescue package for mink farmers – but rather that, all things considered, the benefits of ending the practice seem to outweigh the harms.

There is, however, another moral problem in the vicinity: given that we currently are not sure how harmful the mutated version of the virus is, should we, in fact, kill millions of minks as a precaution? Recall that one of the reasons against farming minks in the first place was that it is inhumane: presumably, it is wrong to cause animals unnecessary suffering, and there is ample evidence that mass farming practices cause such suffering. However, if we think that these animals have some moral value, then that is also a factor to take into consideration when deciding whether they should be culled.

In trying to figure out what the best course of action in this case is there are clearly scientific questions that need to be addressed. As we saw above, it’s not clear whether the mutated version of the virus is dangerous, or whether it would interfere with the production of an effective vaccine, and so it is not clear whether at this point there is enough evidence to warrant a mass culling of minks. However, one might think that it is best to err towards caution: given the damage that the coronavirus has already caused, it might be best not to take any chances of it getting even further out of control. On the other hand, it is known that viruses mutating is common, and so even if all the minks are destroyed then that’s far from a guarantee that there will be no further mutations in the future. The mere threat of mutation, then, may not be a good reason to kill millions of animals.

At the same time, some animal rights groups have stated that the mass culling of the existing minks that are farmed for their fur would be the best course of action if it would put an end to the farming of minks in the future. For instance, Humane Society International stated that while there “was never going to be a happy ending for the 60 million mink exploited for fur annually” that “stopping breeding them altogether would be the best way to prevent animals suffering in the future for the fickle whims of fashion.” Culling minks could not only prevent future harm to humans, but also potentially put an end to an industry that would otherwise cause much more harm to animals in the future.

This is not an easy moral problem to solve. Regardless of what decision is ultimately made, though, this development in the ongoing coronavirus saga has at least shed light on a moral issue that is worthy of additional consideration.

Who Owns the Space Behind an Airline Seat?

There is a battle going on in passenger airplanes all over the country between passengers who think they have a right to recline their seat and the people in the seats behind them. The story broke last week when a man installed a new invention, The Knee Defender, to prevent a woman from reclining her seat. The airline attendant asked him to remove it, and he refused – presumably insisting on his right to not be encroached upon.

It’s now an interesting question: who has the right to the 12 inches of space. Josh Barro argues that the right goes to the person who controls the reclining function, because use of the reclining function was part of the purchase. He further argues that passengers to have to pay the person in front a fee to have them refrain from reclining. However, you might think that the person behind the potential recliner has purchased access to the space behind the seat. They would also have presumably purchased a right to the use the seat tray as they see fit. It’s also conceivable that the airlines have simply oversold the space, and have created a situation where there are incompatible claims on the same space. Damon Darlin argues (contra Barro) that the Knee Defender is a good thing because it evens the negotiation playing. Instead of being slammed into by the person with the advantage (the recliner), both sides are on equal negotiating ground.

Now, even philosophers are weighing in.

What do you think? Do seat recliners have the right to recline, or do the people behind the seats have the right to their leg room? Is it permissible to use The Knee Defender to stop a recliner?