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


Gary Varner

When it is understood simply as the view that the right thing to do is whatever will maximize aggregate happiness, utilitarianism is easily parodied and dismissed for failing to match everyday persons’ intuitions about a range of cases, including lying, breaking promises, and punishing the innocent. And as far back as John Stuart Mill, people have worried that, by focusing on cost/benefit calculations, “utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing” ([1861] 1957, 25), and thus unfit for loving relationships and good friendships. Someone whose relationships with others are at every moment consciously mediated by calculations about what would maximize aggregate happiness certainly does not seem like a good candidate friend or lover, or, for that matter, a good companion for a pet.

The utilitarianism that Mill was describing, however, is caricatured when it is understood simply as the view that you ought always to do whatever you think will maximize aggregate happiness under the circumstances. In this essay I illustrate how a more nuanced version of utilitarianism that descended from Mill—the “two-level” utilitarianism of the late twentieth century philosopher R. M. Hare (1919-2002)—provides a nuanced perspective on our relationships with each other and with our animal companions, one that mirrors the complex and varying relationships that people in different positions have to the animals most commonly kept as pets. It also provides a useful framework for understanding how, when, and why the standards for those relationships embodied in our laws, codes of professional ethics, and our shared “common morality” should change over time.

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