Desktop version

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

Modifying the Institution or Practice of Pet-Keeping

From a Harean utilitarian perspective, there are three approaches to modifying the practice of pet-keeping as we have inherited it. These correspond to the three types of ILS rules described above:

  • 1. Laws,
  • 2. Codes of professional ethics, and
  • 3. Common morality.

In this section, I will describe examples of each; then, in the final section, I will discuss two additional considerations that arise from taking a Harean perspective on our relationships with pets.


An obvious way to change the practice of pet-keeping would be through legislation at the various levels of our government. Two-level utilitarians like Hare typically hold that laws should be less broad in scope than common morality. Famously, in On Liberty ([1859] 1956), Mill argued on utilitarian grounds for keeping “the private sphere” immune to government regulation, because the cost of allowing people to make bad decisions about their own lives is outweighed in the long haul by their having the freedom to experiment with new lifestyles. When it comes to pets, however, bad decisions of pet-keepers can significantly harm their sentient charges, so some legal restrictions on pet ownership seem called for.

Obvious examples are laws against neglect and “cruelty,” which are uncontroversial in modern societies. However, attending to the distinctions that I have drawn between companion animals, domesticated partners, and mere pets suggests some further refinements to consider. For an incredible diversity of animals that are kept as pets are ill-suited to being true companions, and in the case of some, providing them with a life in captivity that is better than they would live in the wild can be a tall order.

Catherine Schuppli and David Fraser (2000) have proposed classifying various species in terms of their appropriateness as companion animals and as what I would call “mere pets.” Based on answers to twelve questions about the animals’ welfare, the welfare of humans, and risks to the environment, they conclude that animals in their two most appropriate categories include domestic mice and golden hamsters, as well as most dogs and cats (“as long as they are procured from known and responsible sources” [367]). They place “exotic pet species” such as the green iguana in their category of animals “that have complex or demanding requirements needing skillful and knowledgeable owners” (366, table 2), and they place “dangerous species such as venomous snakes and large cat species” and “species whose requirements (e.g., for normal social behavior) cannot reasonably be met in captivity” into an “unsuitable as pets” category (and they place some dog breeds in this category) (367).

Their framework suggests options for fine- tuning existing laws to better reflect the different welfare-related considerations that arise with animals that are (and are not) suited to being real companions (as opposed to mere pets). For instance, “a municipality might choose to permit only species judged to fall into [their two most appropriate categories], or it might require licensing for species judged to fall into [their complex and demanding needs] category,” perhaps coupled with an inspection system and other requirements as with falconry in the United States (368).

Codes of Professional Ethics

Another venue for effecting change in the practice of pet-keeping as we have inherited it lies in the codes of ethics of professions, and in the analogous official standards of organizations that influence pet owners’ attitudes.

The case of purebred dogs provides a ready illustration. Two areas of concern that could be addressed by this means are the health effects of closed studbooks and the imposition of breed standards requiring ear cropping and tail docking. The notion of a “purebred” dog is usually tied to its lineage’s being traceable in a studbook that was “established by including particular animals that were thought at the time to represent the best specimens of their breed, after which the studbook was typically closed” (Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer 2016, 15). With the first studbook published over 140 years ago, inbreeding has led to a variety of problems with phenotypes, such as English Bulldogs’ partially obstructed airways, and with susceptibility to disease, such as King Charles Spaniels’ high rate of heart disease (Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer 2016, 107-8). In some breeds, the official breed standard requires dogs’ ears to be cropped and/or their tails docked. With regard to tail docking, this is usually true of those that were originally bred to work with humans in ways that would put them at risk of injury or infection if their tails were not docked, but that rationale is lost with regard to most contemporary purebreds.

The main breed-showing associations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) could have a significant impact on future generations of purebred dogs by removing requirements for tail docking and ear cropping from breed standards, and by allowing additional new bloodlines into various breeds’ studbooks. The pragmatist bent of two-level utilitarian thinking that I mentioned earlier forces us to question just how likely it is that such changes are going to occur, however. I am not in a good position to judge, but I suspect that it is not likely that these reforms will emerge from the kennel clubs in the next generation. As far back as 1976, the American Veterinary Medical Association adopted a policy statement recommending that the AKC and other breed associations “delete mention of cropped ears or trimmed ears from breed standards for dogs,” and in 2008 it expanded that recommendation to include tail docking (AVMA 2015), but the AKC has yet to follow that recommendation.

I can imagine, however, an alternate approach to improving the welfare of pet dogs that an organization like the AVMA or the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) could advance via a program that recognizes a new dog breed, one that we might call the Certified Companion-Bred Dog (the names of officially recognized dog breeds are capitalized). From an initial breeding population of dogs who score well on various health measures, as well as tests of trainability and (lack of) aggression, only the highest-scoring offspring would be bred. In the famous Russian experiment breeding tameness into silver foxes, a combination of morphological and behavioral changes typical of domesticated animals emerged from a wild canid species in only 8-10 generations (Trut 1999, 164). This suggests that a special degree of “companionability” could be bred into dogs after selecting across a relatively small number of generations. Then an organization like the HSUS would create a studbook, allowing breeders and buyers to know that they are getting a dog from a lineage designed to work well as companion animals, and which are well suited to becoming domesticated partners. With this record keeping, the imprimatur of an organization like the HSUS, some media coverage, and maybe a trademark on “Certified Companion-Bred Dog,” breeders could turn a good profit producing Certified Companion-Bred Dogs. The resulting breed would not have a uniform appearance, and so publicity surrounding it would also provide a new model of what “a good breed of dog” is, one focused on the dogs’ health and their behavior with humans, rather than on how their appearance resembles some ancestral archetype.

Common Morality

The example of Certified Companion-Bred Dogs illustrates how, in the face of institutional inertia, a Harean utilitarian can still use creative modifications of some ILS rules to improve conditions for future generations of pets. When it comes to the final venue for changing ILS rules, however, the situation is complicated by some features of common morality that were mentioned earlier. These are the facts that there is usually no formal process for altering the rules of common morality, and that often people are not even capable of clearly articulating the ILS rules that they have internalized.

Still, I think that changes in common morality have a greater potential for effecting change than do changes in laws and codes of professional ethics. Just imagine, for instance, that a generation from now, our common morality will have changed so that almost no one thinks it appropriate to crop ears or dock tails for cosmetic reasons. If that change could be ensured by something we do now, then we would not need the AVMA to recommend it, because the AKC would change its breed standards in response to the shift in common morality. So it is worth considering the variety of factors that influence our common morality.

Earlier I mentioned the following: popular literature, film, television, and art; political discussions in the press, on radio and television, and around dinner tables; church authorities’, celebrities’, and public intellectuals’ pontifications; blog posts, viral videos, iconic posters, and photographs; and so on. Usually no one can point to a specific work of art, news reporting, or event as the cause of a shift in common morality. Consider, for instance, the change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage in the United States. Before and after the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling that legalized it nationwide, pundits and news reporters frequently noted how quickly the change had occurred in comparison to shifts in other major cultural norms: roughly speaking, attitudes toward same-sex marriage as measured in opinion polls flip-flopped across only 20-25 years. No one can say exactly what influences were at work, but surely the growing presence of gay musicians, movie and television characters, news anchors, and other public figures contributed to the “normalization” of same-sex marriage. If that is correct, then we must not underestimate the power of the entertainment industry to cause changes in our common morality.

Academics can point to “public intellectuals,” who have successful careers in academia, but also influence public opinion on a large scale. An example related to animal ethics is Peter Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation. Like many who teach classes on related topics, I cannot say how many times someone has told me that reading it affected their thinking about animal ethics. Now in its fourth edition, the number of paperback copies of it in print has sometimes been used as a measure of the growth of the contemporary animal rights movement (see, e.g., Jasper and Nelkin 1992, 37-38), yet at the time he published it, Singer could not have predicted that it would influence so many people for so long. Of course

Singer has had very little to say about pets specifically, but the book’s influence illustrates how a popular work on philosophical themes can help shift public attitudes toward animals.

What lesson emerges from these examples? I would say this: people in all walks of life can contribute to major changes in the common morality of the next generation, sometimes in big ways (e.g., with a book that makes a splash), but always in smaller ones (e.g., by serving as examples of certain lifestyle choices). Whether you are writing a book, making a movie, or just getting on with your job in a world that has not shared certain of your values up to now, you cannot fully predict what effect you are going to have, so just get on with it!

That said, what do I hope changes about the next generation’s common morality with regard to pet animals? I hope that future generations will look askance at the keeping of what I call “mere pets” more than we do today, with only highly knowledgeable individuals keeping various kinds of “exotic” pets. I hope that future generations will take it as a given that when one keeps a pet that I would say qualifies as a true “companion,” one also works at developing what I call “a domesticated partnership” with it, to the extent that its species is capable of that relationship.

What am I doing to contribute to these changes? Well, I publish books and articles on animal ethics in general and companion animal ethics in particular— although I am under no illusion that they will be influential! I also teach about animal ethics in my college classes (although I carefully avoid advocacy in my teaching). And in my private life, I do chat people up on the subject a bit, and I work on my relationships with the two cats that I currently keep as pets. One of them grew up feral in my neighborhood and showed up expecting to eat on my deck (at a very cautious distance from me) and ready to deliver a litter of kittens. A couple of years after I “took her in” (which initially meant trapping her in my house), she now desists when told “no,” she comes on command, she goes into a cat carrier to get her meals, and she stays off the kitchen countertops (at least while I am around). That is something of an accomplishment with a feral cat taken in as an adult, and I hope that my training her to at least some extent sets an example in the area of “earnestly working on a domesticated partnership.”

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics