Care, Companionship, and Instrumentality
My contention is that our relationships with companion animals teach us about caring in robust ways. Such a claim can smack of an instrumental relationship. Is this just another way to exploit animals for human gain? Certainly, within a traditional liberal individualistic identity that undergirds modern capitalist society, it could appear so. However, if one takes the fundamental relationality of human beings seriously, then learning care from animals is anything but a parasitic relationship. In care theory, the relationship is central not only to morality, but to identity and epistemology as well. Although a modernist approach desires to place acting, knowing, and being in separate categories, they are not discrete in the gestalt that constitutes the human condition. Having a relationship with a companion animal is adding to my identity just as much as it is adding to my companion’s.
Although the sum is greater than the parts, when it comes to identity, I am ultimately made up of my relationships.27 Each relationship not only teaches me something, but also contributes to who I am. These changes and additions can be subtle or profound. The more meaningful the relationship, the greater potential impact it has on who I am. When I live in a household with another being, as is the case with companion animals, I make myself vulnerable to adapting who I am to this relationship, particularly if there is trust and respect in the relationship. Of course, some people enter into abusive relationships with their companion animals, but such relationships can hardly be called caring. Someone may claim that he or she is caring for an animal by using corporal punishment, for example, but that does not meet the standards for responsiveness and growth we have laid out for care.
Companion animals both live in continuity with us and are not us at the same time. This is the paradox of care. I am able to make a connection with the other because of our shared existence as embodied beings—and I thus often sympathetically understand some of what the other is going through—but at the same time, the other represents an alterity that I can never own; the other thus stands outside of me. If I accidently step on Bella’s paw, I do not have to wonder whether it hurts. Even though Bella is a member of a different species, I can grasp her pain as manifested by a yelp and a cowering movement. There are other times, for example, when we are at a park, and Bella barks at me. I try my hardest to understand. She is wagging her tail, and it seems to be a friendly bark. However, I am not sure if she wants me to throw a stick, run, or do something else. At these moments, Bella reminds me that we are different and that I cannot completely understand her. However, analogously, this lack of complete understanding is the same with all caring relationships. Even with the benefit of language, I do not always know exactly what other people need or want. If I want to offer care, I have to attend to them and endeavor to understand their circumstances and desires with the best habits of care that I have acquired, realizing that the others will always be alterities, others whose difference I must respect.
Bella’s actions compel me to attend to her in ways that humans do not. The answers do not always come easily, although over time routines provide an equilibrium of understanding. For example, I know that Bella likes to eat several times a day but seems to prefer our presence in the house when she eats. However, I do not know why she takes a small morsel and eats it first some six feet from her bowl, prior to going back to the bowl to consume the rest of her meal. The reason for this habit is unclear to me, but I respect this habit and let it be.
Respect is an under-theorized aspect of care. There are some who raise concerns about the potential for paternalism in care relationships, but authentically caring does not allow for running roughshod over respect. Whether the relationship is with other humans or animals, sometimes we must make decisions. In a caring relationship though, those decisions take into account the expressed needs of the other. As Rita Manning describes,
Caring does not require that we simply accede to the wishes of the one cared for. Rather, we should respond in the interest of the one cared for, insofar as furthering that interest is compatible with our abilities and where this response sustains the network of care that connects us. In doing so, I should be sensitive to the relationship, and open to the possibility of compromise and accommodation.28
There really is no authentic responsive caring for companion animals without some respect for the one cared for.
Names are another sign of respect. Companion animals are universally named. These names are imbued with meaning. Having a name signifies a being who can be cared for; this explains why laboratory workers engaged in animal experimentation or vivisection avoid naming the animals they work with. A name also signifies a will that must be respected. “Bella wants to go outside.” “Bella wants to go for a walk.” “Bella wants some love.” These statements all suggest the acknowledgement of an embodied will. Although caring sometimes means denying another being’s will, it does mean taking that will seriously and responding to it.29
What I have attempted to convey in this section is that the fact that companion animals can teach us much about caring does not imply that the relationship is strictly instrumental. The relationship is instrumental in the way that any caring relationship is, in that we learn from one another what it means to care. Companion animals have the added “advantage” of requiring a greater range of our attentiveness because we cannot fall back on linguistic narrative. This “limitation” makes companion animals better teachers for certain aspects of caring. For this reason, I am inclined to agree with Jean Harvey in seeing instrumentality as compatible with a caring or loving relationship:
The other part of the point is that authentic love does not see the loved one as a means to an end, or in this case, two ends: receiving love and providing a vehicle for expressing love. Love values the loved one for who she is in herself; the focus is on the one loved, not the love received, and it is a
kind of cherishing that has commitment at its heart.30