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


Cynthia Townley

Animals seem to be friends with each other. Many people with a regular routine of dog-walking know the playmates their dogs prefer, and can identify those that just do not get on. Within multi-pet households, patterns of conflict and affiliation often arise between animals of the same or different species. Horses show definite likings and dis- likings for one another, and primatologists observe ape friendships that are distinct from family bonds and hierarchical ordering (de Waal 2005). So animals themselves appear to engage in friendship-like relationships.

On the face of it, Western anglophone culture seems to accept that people can be friends with companion animals. Relationships with companion animals are significant in many people’s lives and documented in photographic books (Darcy 2014), memoirs (Rowlands 2008), as well as many private physical or virtual photo albums. Human friendship with animals is easy to observe and is a common theme in fiction and poetry (Oliver 2013; Auster 1999; Hornung 2010). It may be conceded that for some of us, and at some times in life, an animal friend can provide better comfort and companionship than the humans around us. Consider a person with dementia, for whom humans are discomfortingly unfamiliar, or a hospital patient (Haggard 1985). To a child in a bereaved family, sometimes the best comfort comes from an animal friend.

Taken literally, the familiar saying “a dog is man’s best friend” raises interesting philosophical questions about how to understand such relationships. Philosophers who consider animals to be fully or partially excluded from friendship would see the claim that some people count an animal companion as their true best friend as clearly mistaken. While the term “friend” is commonly applied to relationships with nonhuman animals, the strict concept of friendship, properly understood, applies only to humans. On this full exclusion view, the apparent friendship observed within and between members of different animal species, including human-animal friendship, is not the real thing. If friendship has various kinds, a partial exclusion view would be that animals might be capable of some but not all forms (Jordan 2001; Frooding and Peterson 2011). Consequently, on this view, animals would lack the capacity for the kind of friendship that matters most to people, and so the relationship with an animal would not be “true best friend" but some more limited, shallower, perhaps less valuable connection. Arguably either version of this mistake—ascribing to nonhuman animals any capacity for friendship, or ascribing to them the capacity for the highest form of friendship—would involve inappropriate anthropomorphism, or a faulty ascription to the nonhuman party of characteristics that are in fact absent.

Others might accept that the “best friend" claim could be true in some cases, but would consider it unfortunate that some people have their strongest relationships with companion animals: such lives would be considered relationally impoverished. Even if such a friendship were possible, it would be second-rate in some sense. The person would have a “best" friend, but not the best possible or best kind of friend. Here, the claim would not be mistaken, but the state of affairs would be unfortunate.

In this chapter, I will argue for the possibility of an animal as a friend in the strongest sense. This does not mean that this possibility is always available. Certain kinds of friendship may be sustainable only under certain cultural and material conditions. My experience is limited to middle-class life in an affluent anglophone country (Australia) where many households include companion animals, and while I have no doubt that friendships exist in all human communities, I do not know whether all human communities are conducive to friendships with animals. So the claims here are not intended to be universal—I concede that the conditions for possible relationships may be different elsewhere. But I think this is a contingent matter, like other circumstances that may enhance or discourage possible trajectories of friendships. For example, human-human friendships can use technology to transcend physical distance. It is hard to imagine a friendship maintained via the internet or phone if one party cannot use those tools, so this would typically be unavailable to friendships between members of different species. But friendship presumably predated both analogue and digital literacy, so the use of technology seems more of an incidental feature of some friendships than an integral requirement. Friendship across geographic distances, genders, generations, cultural or religious differences, and species may all be differently patterned, and at least some of these patterns accommodate friendship with nonhuman animals.

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