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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals


Another crucial term in the title of this book is “relationships." There can be many kinds of relationships—ranging from exploitive, domineering, uncaring, and unjust, to supportive, loving, sensitive, and fulfilling. Like human-human relationships, animal-human relationships are complicated, and they can exemplify contradictory characteristics. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that all human relationships with companion animals are unequal, and that fact must be taken into account. Although it may sometimes feel as if our cats and dogs have power over us, either because we love them so much or because their behavior is sometimes counter to our own desires and goals, we have almost complete power over the animals who live with us.

In her chapter, Jean Harvey argues that “the primary moral obligation we have with respect to companion animals is to develop, nurture, respect, and protect this relationship." Indeed, all of the contributors to this book seek to contribute to the extension of morally good relationships between human and nonhuman beings: relationships that adequately take into account the animals’ own interests, needs, desires, and vulnerabilities, that are cognizant of the built-in inequality of human and animal, and that support the flourishing of both the animal and the human being.

At the same time, many of the contributors also explore what we, as human beings, can learn from our relationships with our companion animals. In “Building a Meaningful Social World between Human and Companion Animals through Empathy," Antonio Calcagno draws upon the concept of empathy to explain how we create our relationships with companion animals. Maurice Hamington (“Care, Moral Progress, and Companion Animals") argues that these relationships help us to develop our ability to be more caring moral individuals, and thereby contribute to the habits and skills needed for genuine moral progress. In “Ethical Behavior in Animals," Bernard Rollin shows how animal companions themselves model and demonstrate ethical behavior.

On the other hand, Kathryn Norlock, in “ ‘I Don’t Want the Responsibility’: The Moral Implications of Avoiding Dependency Relations with Companion Animals" interrogates the moral implications of deliberately choosing not to live with companion animals. She urges people who do not live with companion animals to recognize what she suggests are their moral obligations to provide monetary, material, and sociopolitical forms of support to those who are caregivers of companion animals.

Two chapters focus on the endpoint of the human-companion animal relationship. My own contribution to the book, “Throw Out the Dog? Death, Longevity, and Companion Animals" argues that longevity for companion animals, as for human beings, is important: barring great suffering, a longer life is a better life, and we should not be insouciant about sacrificing animal lives for human lives. And in “The Euthanasia of Companion Animals" Michael Cholbi offers an account of when and why companion animals ought to be euthanized, and who is entitled to make the decision to end their lives.

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