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An Argument against Pedigree-Breeding

Pedigree-breeding causes significant and avoidable harms to animals. These harms are avoidable because they would not occur, or would occur to a lesser extent, in a general outbreeding scheme. This avoidable harm cannot be justified on any reasonable assumptions about animals’ moral standing.

My (unargued) starting point is that essentially all moral theories recognize and grant significant weight to a principle of non-maleficence as concerns other humans, which holds that we ought not to harm others and should keep unavoidable harms to a minimum. Allowable harms tend to be very limited, including, for example, harms committed in defense of one’s life and safety or small harms imposed by the state in the service of an important public health goal (e.g., required vaccination)—but not much else. Notably, perpetrating harms upon others for one’s own personal benefit (e.g., financial benefit, sexual gratification, entertainment) is generally considered unjustified, especially when the harms in question are not trivial. Even committed utilitarians—whose preferred theory might seem to sanction various harms to individuals if such harms maximize population welfare—often expend much argumentative effort in attempting to preserve the stringency of non-maleficence, for example, by appealing to indirect effects or by adopting rule-utilitarianism.

Second, powerful arguments have been provided for granting many sentient animals’ interests equal moral consideration (EC) to humans’ interests (e.g., DeGrazia 2002), and certainly most mammals, which would include many species of companion animals. This means not only that these animals’ interests should be given equal moral weight to comparable human interests, but also more generally that it is wrong to morally “discount” animals’ interests. Such arguments are motivated by the claims that sentient animals have interests and thus moral standing; that species per se is a morally arbitrary characteristic according to which to assign moral standing; and that other possible criteria for morally discounting animals’ interests, such as their lesser intelligence, inability to use language, inability to form contracts, or inability to robustly participate in the “moral community” (however this is defined) all fail for one reason or another. Usually these arguments fail because they also have the consequence that certain members of the human community do not deserve equal moral consideration of their interests, a conclusion that most persons find counterintuitive and unacceptable. In addition, arguments against EC run into other difficulties. For example, our special obligations to other persons with whom we have close relationships are invariably positive in nature; the lack of a close relationship does not relax the stringency of our negative obligations in human-human morality, so it is unclear why it should do so in human-animal morality, as the “moral community” argument often holds (see DeGrazia 2002). If we accept EC, as I think we should, then we can only justifiably harm animals in the very limited kinds of scenarios in which similar harm would be justifiable to other humans. Pedigreebreeding does not even come close to meeting the test of stringency we impose on allowable harms to other humans: it causes harm that is nontrivial and easily avoidable, and does not serve a vital human interest (e.g., individual self-defense or safeguarding the welfare of the entire community). Thus pedigree-breeding is not justifiable on an EC view.

It might be observed that not all pedigree-breed animals suffer from breed- associated disease, and while this is true, it does not affect the moral conclusion. What matters from the standpoint of a person creating more purebred animals is ex ante risk, not ex post harm. As with other risky decisions (e.g., drunk driving), a lucky good outcome does not negate the fact that the decision, when it is undertaken, is riskier than another decision that one could have made (driving only when sober, mating mixed-breeds instead of pedigree-breeds). Further, the appropriate frame of ethical analysis is not merely (and probably not even primarily) with individual breeding decisions; it is with the avoidable harm inherent in perpetuating a breed as a whole. Two pedigree-breed animals can only be mated if the breed as a whole is maintained, and as long as some members of the breed are affected by breed-associated disease, then pedigree-breeding causes avoidable harm. Furthermore, the preceding discussion shows that the EC-based conclusion against pedigree-breeding does not depend on the harms of breed- associated disease’s being frequent or severe (though they often are); the strength of our obligation of non-maleficence to companion animals is sufficiently high that harm in general will not be permissible unless for very important reasons.

I might rest my case with the argument from EC, but it will be useful to show that pedigree-breeding is not justifiable on any plausible version of an unequal moral consideration (UC) view, either—especially since many readers might be inclined toward such a view. According to UC views, animals’ interests deserve some moral consideration, but less so than humans’ interests. UC views might take a number of forms, but the most plausible form is the sliding-scale view, according to which a being’s level of moral considerability is a function of its mental complexity. At the top of the hierarchy stand humans, who deserve full moral consideration. As one moves “down” the phylogenetic scale, animals of progressively lesser cognitive, affective, and social complexity are granted progressively lesser moral consideration (DeGrazia 2002). According to the sliding-scale view, the permissibility of harming an animal will depend on three things: (1) the degree of harm involved, (2) the animal’s place on the sliding scale, which will determine how much moral weight we give to this harm, and (3) the significance of the human interest that is being advanced by harming the animal. It has already been argued that the harms of breed-associated diseases are often significant and that they occur frequently. As concerns the issue of moral standing, common companion animals, such as dogs and cats, possess relatively complex mental lives—not as complex as those of some other nonhuman animals, including numerous primate species and dolphins, but complex enough that we can reasonably expect that our companion animals will sit fairly high on the scale of moral considerability. This means that strong reasons will have to be provided to justify harming them.

Pedigree-breeding does not seem to serve a significant human interest. In fact, in the vast majority of cases it seems to serve a trivial interest, namely an aesthetic interest, and not of the deep kind that we might associate with art, but rather of the more shallow kind that we associate with “fancying” something, which can reasonably be described as entertainment. This conclusion seems rather obvious to me, but in conversation with some veterinarians and breeders I have encountered substantial resistance to the preceding claim. It is argued that persons who take an interest in pedigree-breeds sometimes devote significant time, money, and energy to breeding, showing, and general “breed fancying.” They may even base their careers and personal identities on it and form deep attachments to a particular breed. Are their interests in pedigree-breeding morally significant? I would answer “no” for several reasons.

First, we should resist the view that something qualifies as a significant human interest simply in virtue of being proclaimed as such. This view implausibly collapses all critical distance between what we value and what we ought to value. Even more implausibly, it also prevents us from making judgments of the relative importance of interests, but we do this sort of thing all of the time: we do not view things like having adequate food, shelter, and medical care, or an ability to exert some measure of control over our lives, as of similar importance to getting a new TV or even accepting a job with a slightly shorter commute.

Second, while human interests in entertainment and the development of hobbies are of some moral significance at the categorical level—after all, who would want to live a life devoid of leisure pursuits ?—there are many alternative ways to satisfy these interests apart from pedigree-breeding. Since taking animals seriously means that we should look for ways to avoid conflicts between our interests and theirs (see Zamir 2007), we should look for ways other than pedigree-breeding to satisfy our interests in entertainment and hobby-building. Some persons might press by asserting a significant interest in pedigree-breeding specifically, arguing that it provides something irreplaceable to their lives, which would be impoverished without it. But it just seems very unlikely, to this author at least, that such persons would not be able to find equivalent satisfaction in other activities. Some of the perceived significance in the human interest in pedigree-breeding likely stems from the meaningful relationships that persons form with individual animals of a specific breed, but such meaningful human-animal relationships can and do often exist with mixed-breed animals as well.

This perceived significance might also arise from the way in which some people build a personal identity around one or more of such breeds. Once a specific personal identity is formed, it might seem daunting to contemplate giving up something crucial to that identity, as though a part of oneself would be lost. However, reflection on the complexity and variety of human interests and hobbies suggests to me that a significant part of the value of many hobbies lies in building a person’s identity, apart from the value of the specific hobby/interest in question. Many (though certainly not all) hobby-based interests do not in themselves appear to have much intrinsic moral significance. They are enjoyed and serve the larger human need for entertainment, purposive activity, and the formation of a personal identity. However, many persons are interested in many things, with the intensity of interests waxing and waning over time. An identity built around one interest may instead be built around another. What is more, hobbies often have instrumental value, for example, because they allow people to find support in a community, but again such value can be served by any number of hobbies.

Further, even if we accept the claim that some persons’ lives would genuinely be impoverished by the elimination of pedigree-breeds, this only holds true of persons who have previously built a personal identity around such breeds. Were we to do away with pedigree-breeding, future persons would never develop such an interest in the first place and would develop other interests instead. Nothing of independent moral value would appear to be lost in this scenario (if anything, it would be morally preferable on account of the harm that pedigree-breeding causes and its implicit commodification of animals); rather, all that would be lost would be someone’s particular interest in pedigree-breeding. Thus, any loss to human interests entailed by the elimination of pedigree-breeding would be transient.

Finally, it might be argued that the moral significance of human interests is a function not just of their strength for the persons who hold them, but also of the kind of interests that they are. For example, we might discourage a person’s development of certain interests, such as an interest in psychologically manipulating others or engaging in an environmentally destructive hobby, not just on the grounds that these activities result in harm to others, but also on the grounds that our own moral development is hindered by the adoption of such interests, exactly because of their consequences for others. Said another way, we should not be the kind of people who develop such interests. While UC views do justify comparatively more harms to animals than EC views, the purpose for which we are harming animals still matters very much to the justification of such harm. Harms perpetrated to advance an important social goal, such as curing a disease, might sometimes be justified on a UC view, but pedigree-breeding does not serve an interest this important. Further, in the case of research, someone who harms an animal does so only as a means to the larger end of a social benefit that is otherwise unobtainable (or so at least the scientists conducting the research tend to assume), but in the case of pedigree-breeding, the harms are a function of the ends themselves. These differences between the harms of research and those of pedigree-breeding help to show why an interest in the latter might be negatively evaluated from the standpoint of moral virtue, even on a UC view allowing some harms to animals.

The preceding discussion has focused on pedigree-breeding as an aesthetic interest; what of pedigree-breeding for other purposes, such as herding, hunting, or other sport? The first thing to say regarding these other uses of purebred animals is that they are far less common than the keeping of such animals for aesthetic purposes. Second, some such uses—particularly sporting—can be subsumed under entertainment and so require no further argument. Activities such as hunting and herding might at one time have served a significant human interest, but since humans no longer need to rely on either hunting or animal agriculture more generally (even though many choose to utilize the products of the latter), this significance can no longer be claimed. At most, this need might justify the keeping of some herding animals in non-industrialized pastoral societies relying on animal agriculture, but for all intents and purposes it would still result in the abandonment of herding breeds.

In sum, we have a number of reasons to conclude that the human interest in pedigree-breeding is not morally significant, which means that pedigree-breeding is not justifiable on a plausible UC view.

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