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This chapter we will discuss the moral responsibilities involved in keeping pets or companion animals and related moral issues concerning shelters, adoption, and killing unwanted companion animals. We will also discuss the arguments for and against hunting, dog and horse racing, rodeos, zoos and related uses of animals: is using animals for any or all of these purposes morally permissible or not? Why or why not?
“Pets” & Pet “Ownership” vs. Companion Animals & Animal Guardians
Keeping animals as companions raises unique responsibilities. Unlike many other ethical issues involving animals where our moral obligations are arguably largely “negative” – to not harm them, to leave them alone, etc. – we arguably have “positive” obligations towards any companion animals we might bring into our homes, e.g., to provide them with food, shelter, medical care, and companionship. This, of course, takes time, effort and money, sometimes a lot of money.
These financial demands can be a burden and give rise to hard questions about the extent of our obligations to animals. After all, there is no health insurance for animals, and animals’ healthcare costs could create great financial strain. What should be done in these common situations? Go into debt to pay for the medical bills? Find someone else to take the animal who can pay? Have the animal killed? Something else? The answers might not be morally or financially easy.
Many critics of animal advocates often say things like, “Animal rights advocates oppose having pets.” This claim seems to be a result either of ignorance or intentional manipulation. First, many animal advocates, including philosophers, have companion animals and often mention these animals in their writings. So it is ignorant to claim that animals advocates oppose having animals as companions.
Many animal advocates, however, do oppose companion animal ownership and, perhaps, the use of the word “pet” if it implies ownership. This is because if you own something, then that something is your property. And (generally, with some exceptions), if something is your property, then (generally, with some exceptions) you can do whatever you want with it, including destroy (or kill) it for whatever reason you would like, or no reason at all. Thus, the objection is that in thinking of companion animals as pets and thereby owned property, that nearly implies that animals’ interests deserve no consideration in their own right and so on. Animal advocates, of course, reject that. And they argue that breeding companion animals is wrong because for every “new” animal produced another already existing animal in a shelter will not be adopted and thus killed. But they also believe that animals, such as cats and dogs, can be kept as companions, provided they are well cared for.
These are some common views about companion animals held by many animal advocates. Given that this is what they believe, why do critics of animal advocacy so often say that animal advocates oppose keeping companion animals?
Ends and Means
Like many uses of animals, using animals in rodeos, circuses, zoos, racing, in hunting, etc. are often justified by appealing to various “ends” or “products” of the use. For these kinds of arguments (for both these issues, as well as when this kind of argument is used to defend eating animals, or experimenting on them, and so on), here are some questions to ask:
- Is this a morally justified end, i.e., some worthy goal?
- E.g., zoos might be justified by the claim that they are supposed to result in greater respect for animals, arguably a laudable goal. Rodeos might be justified by the claim that they produce entertainment for people, surely a more controversial goal. Some hunters might claim that the goal of hunting is to bring about the human pleasures resulting from killing animals, arguably a goal that could not be morally justified.
- Is this use of animals an effective, or the most effective, means toward that goal?
- E.g., with zoos, scientific research might show that zoo attendance results in no greater respect for animals, and perhaps increased disrespect for animals. Thus, perhaps zoos are not an effective means toward that end. Regarding hunting, yes, killing animals is indeed the most effective means to getting the pleasures that people claim to get from killing animals (but perhaps video games could have similar results?).
- Or are there other, better, ways to achieve this goal?
- E.g., regarding zoos, surely there are better ways to teach respect for animals. Regarding rodeos, there are other ways to produce entertainment for humans and, arguably, ways that don’t produce harm for animals (or humans) surely are morally better than those that depend on harm.
- Finally, what exactly are the best reasons to think that using animals for such an end is morally justified, especially in cases where animals are harmed greatly (and we would never dream of using human beings for such a purpose)? Are these reasons any good, i.e., sound arguments for the conclusion that this activity is morally permissible? And what exactly are the best reasons to think that using animals for such an end is morally unjustified, especially in cases where animals are harmed greatly (and we would never dream of using human beings for such a purpose)?
These sorts of questions above are applicable to all questions about animal use.
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