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Abolitionist Arguments

A second kind of argument against breeding companion animals and allowing them to breed with one another is one that calls for the eventual abolition of the institution of keeping companion animals. According to these “abolitionist” arguments, while humans should continue to care for the companion animals already in existence, they should desist from allowing any more of these animals to come into existence. This is because abolitionists think that there is something morally problematic about the category “companion animals.” The purported problem would not be entirely avoided by shifting from owning companion animals to merely keeping them. The only ethically defensible means of bringing an end to the institution of keeping companion animals is by desisting from breeding them and by sterilizing those already in existence.

In what follows, we shall consider two abolitionist objections, namely what we shall call the “property objection” and the “dependency objection.” In order to consider these objections on their own merits, we shall make no assumptions about the soundness of the anti-natalist arguments.

The Property Objection

As far as the law is concerned, companion animals are the personal property of the humans who keep them. The humans are the owners of those animals. However, humans as well as our legal systems distinguish companion animals from inanimate items of property in that they recognize that humans ought not to treat companion animals in certain ways and that they owe at least some duties directly to these animals.8

While many people may find the present situation satisfactory, there are some who object to it. For example, Gary Francione acknowledges that existing legal systems offer some protection for companion animals’ interests, but he insists that they are unable to offer sufficient protection for the interests of these animals.9 Thus, he thinks that while humans ought to continue to care for those companion animals who already exist, they ought not breed these animals or even allow them to reproduce with one another.10 We shall refer to this view as the “property objection.”

Our ceasing to breed companion animals, when coupled with our preventing them from reproducing with one another, would eventually result in the extinction of these animals. Thus, the property objection is by no means uncontroversial, and there are numerous responses to it. One might, for example, agree with Professor Francione that the legal status of companion animals raises some serious moral questions, but think that we would be permitted to breed companion animals and to allow them to reproduce with one another if their legal status changed such that they were no longer viewed as property.11

The problem with this response, however, is that the legal status of companion animals is unlikely to change any time soon. Far too many people still regard animals as property, thus making imminent legal change unlikely. There is little reason to think that these attitudes are going to change in the short term. If breeding continues, many generations of animals will continue to have the status of property. Thus the property objection cannot be met by a glib appeal to the prospects of a changed legal status.

Another possible response to the property objection is to say that having the legal status of property need not harm companion animals, if those who keep these animals do not accept the law’s view of those animals as property. That is to say, humans who do not regard their companion animals as property, but rather as sentient beings who are due everything that such a being is morally due, would not harm the animals in their care.12 Thus, it might be thought that such humans may permissibly breed their companion animals or allow them to breed on condition that they ensure that the resultant offspring will be kept by humans with the same attitude.

However, while companion animals need not suffer any harm as a result of their being owned, they might nonetheless be wronged, just as one would wrong human beings by owning them, irrespective of how well they were treated. In other words, “property” is simply not an appropriate category in which to place human beings. To place any human being in the category of property is to impugn the moral status or intrinsic value of that human being and thus to wrong him or her. Similarly, it might be said that to place a companion animal in the category of property is necessarily to impugn the moral status or intrinsic value of, and so to wrong, that animal. This is because, with regard to being owned, there is no morally relevant difference between, for example, very young children or severely cognitively impaired humans and (most of) those animals who tend nowadays to be kept as companions. Young children, severely cognitively impaired humans, and companion animals are all sentient, and none are autonomous. Thus, even if they suffer no harm as a result of their being categorized as property, their being categorized in this way can nonetheless be said to wrong them. This remains true irrespective of how well they might be treated by their respective humans.

In response to this argument, it might be said that it is necessary to distinguish between a companion animal’s (a) being wronged by the law and (b) being wronged by the humans in whose home it is kept. With regard to (b), it is necessary to distinguish furthermore between a human’s (i) accepting or endorsing the law’s categorization of companion animals as property and (ii) rejecting the law’s categorization of companion animals as property.

Given that the law categorizes companion animals as property, they are clearly wronged by the law. However, it is our view that they are wronged by the humans in whose homes they are kept only if those humans accept or endorse the law’s categorization of companion animals as property. Those humans who reject the law’s categorization do not share the law’s wrongful attitude and thus they own their companion animals merely in the technical, legal sense. Therefore, they do not wrong their companion animals by “owning” them.

One issue remains. Even if humans who reject the current legal status of animals do not themselves wrong their companion animals, they remain the “keepers,” “custodians,” or “caretakers” of those animals. (The same would be true of more humans if the legal status of animals changed and they were no longer legally property.) To be a keeper, custodian, or caretaker of a companion animal is much like being the (legal) guardian of a child, for example. In the same way that the guardian of a child is charged with caring for and safeguarding the interests of that child, the keeper, custodian, or caretaker of a companion animal is charged with caring for and safeguarding the interests of his companion animal. The question, then, is whether our continuing to bring companion animals into existence would be morally permissible if we merely kept and did not own them (or owned them only in a technical legal sense). This question brings us to the second abolitionist objection.

The Dependency Objection

According to Gary Francione,13 even if the legal status of companion animals were changed so that they no longer fell into the category of property, humans would nonetheless have a moral obligation to ensure that no more companion animals were brought into existence. This is because he thinks that there is something inherently wrong with keeping pets and not merely with owning

them. But what could be wrong with keeping companion animals if we are good keepers, that is, if we never fail to care for and safeguard the interests of those animals?

In Professor Francione’s view, the inherent wrongfulness has to do with the fact that companion animals are domesticated animals. Domesticated animals are much more docile and trusting than the wild animals from whom they descended. While this renders them better suited to living with, or in close proximity to, humans, it also renders them less effective predators and too trusting to be successful in evading (other) predators. (There are packs of feral dogs, but life for them is typically “nasty, brutish, and short.”) The consequence is that domesticated animals are almost entirely dependent on humans for the satisfaction of their fundamental needs and desires.

To be so dependent on another is to be in a position of extreme vulnerability. And to find oneself in this position is to run a very high risk of leading a short and miserable life. For this reason, Professor Francione deems it morally indefensible to place, or allow another creature to be placed, in such a position. Given,

then, that our continuing to bring or allow domesticated animals to be brought into existence is to place or allow these animals to be placed in such a position, he thinks that we ought not to continue to do these things. Thus, he thinks that we ought to take steps to bring an end to the practice of keeping companion animals.14

In responding to this objection, we shall restrict our attention to kind and caring keepers alone. Although it is true that these keepers’ animals are at their mercy, they are precisely the kind of keepers who can be relied upon to satisfy their pets’ needs and desires (to the greatest extent possible). Thus, if the dependency objection is to make any sense in these cases, it must be because even if the relevant animals’ needs and desires are met, it is morally unconscionable that companion animals are so dependent on their respective keepers.

To appreciate why this might be so, it might help to imagine a hypothetical situation in which someone began to breed genetically altered chimpanzees who are ill-suited to living in the wild, but well-suited to living with, or in close proximity to, humans. Those domesticated chimpanzees would have mental capacities equivalent to those of wild chimpanzees. They would, however, be much less aggressive and more docile, for example, than their wild relatives. Since they would therefore be unable to live independently of humans in the human world, the domesticated chimpanzees would be perpetually dependent on humans for the satisfaction of their fundamental needs and desires. Is there something morally problematic about creating a breed of such chimpanzees?15

While some might see nothing wrong with doing so as long as humans satisfy their needs and desires, others might have the intuition that it is morally problematic to choose to bring into existence a creature who will be perpetually dependent on another for the satisfaction of its fundamental needs and desires, even if it will be well cared for.

Thus, we are left with a clash of intuitions. What can be said in the face of these conflicting intuitions and the absence of any clear way of choosing between them? Some might argue that since proponents of the dependency objection are making the claim that certain actions are wrong and wish to change people’s practices, they must bear the burden of proof. Since they have not been able to provide a compelling argument, however, it might be thought that we are entitled to dismiss the dependency objection.

However, others might reject the idea that proponents of the objection bear the burden of proof. In this case, the clash of intuitions that we are faced with would imply that the cogency of the “dependency objection” simply cannot be evaluated. Although it would be preferable to resolve this matter, it is entirely possible that there is no resolution available (at least at present). If that is the case, we should not artificially impose or stipulate one. Thus it is unclear whether, on the basis of the dependency objection, it is wrong to continue to breed companion animals and allow them to reproduce with one another. Fortunately, we do not need to reach a conclusion about the dependency objection in order to determine whether breeding companion animals and allowing them to reproduce with one another is permissible. There are other excellent practical reasons for thinking that these practices are wrong.

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