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A Duty to Adopt Animal Companions: Comparison with Human Adoption

The first major similarity behind both human and animal adoption arguments is the view that adoption is a morally worthy activity because it helps an existing being in critical need of a new home and family. In contrast, procreation of children or paying someone to breed one’s pet creates a new life with needs. But there are millions of existing children and animal companions who could benefit from adoption. Why create a new life to give scarce resources to when there are existing lives already in need of them? This is the main question that gives a duty to adopt in either case its moral force. An existing individual (human or nonhuman) will be badly off if it is not rescued, while a potentially existing individual is not worse off if she is not created. She is in no way at all. So adoption of existing children or animals is morally urgent; it meets a serious, critical need. Creation of individuals, if it is a benefit to them at all, is not urgent.2 Not conferring the benefit does not result in any harm. The basic idea behind a duty to adopt humans or animals is the same: we should place moral priority on benefiting existing beings in critical need rather than create more needy beings.

The small literature on a duty to adopt children grounds the duty in the more familiar duty to rescue, which states that we should provide life-saving benefits to people when it is of no morally significant cost to ourselves to do so.3 The initial analogy between rescue and adoption is compelling. Children in need of adoption are vulnerable moral innocents, in no way responsible for their plight. The benefit they need—that of a stable family, with loving parents—is critical. It will greatly impact their lives for the better, and its absence will greatly harm their lives. Without stable families, even when in an institutional setting, children may lack basic nutrition and medical care. They may be subject to neglect and abuse. Children without stable, familiar caretakers are at risk for psychological and emotional deficits, including an impoverished ability to form secure emotional attachments.4 The prima facie case for a duty to adopt based on a duty to rescue is solid—children in need of adoption have a critical need that others can meet.

Proponents of a duty to adopt then argue that the costs of adopting rather than procreating are not morally significant enough to outweigh the good of rescuing through adoption. For instance, though adoption is financially costly, proponents of a duty to adopt note that its sum is easily minimized in context when considered against the large amount of money required to raise a child from infancy to adulthood.5 Many people who cannot easily procreate choose very expensive artificial reproductive services (such as in vitro fertilization) whose costs and logistical difficulties easily swamp those of adoption.6 Many people can muster up the resources when they want to. Also, though some adoptions can be expensive, there are less expensive alternatives to adopting. Finally, many people can afford adoption despite its costs.

Duty-to-adopt proponents also consider the “intrinsic costs” of adoption, including the failure to maintain the biological and genetic relationship between parent and child. Elsewhere, I investigate the reasons for desiring a genetically- related child and argue that these reasons do not defeat a duty to adopt children, as they are too trivial in weight, or are improper under a normative conception of parental interests, or they fail to distinguish genetically-related children from adopted ones.7 The strategy is to show that children in need of adoption can generate a prima facie case for a duty to rescue through adoption, and then to show that costs associated with adoption, as compared to those of procreation, do not defeat the duty.

One could make a similar case for a duty to adopt animal companions based on the duty to rescue. After all, dogs and cats are in no way responsible for their plight. They are vulnerable and needy victims of a broken animal welfare system, negligent past-owners, or tragedy. Adoption gives them a critically needed benefit—that of a loving family—which will greatly improve their lives. Lack of that benefit will greatly harm their lives. Un-adopted animals and animals deemed unadoptable are routinely euthanized in shelters or left on the streets to fend for themselves. An astronomical 2.7-3.7 million are euthanized each year in the US.8 The odds of survival for an animal entering a shelter are depressingly low. Though 35 percent of dogs and 37 percent of cats entering shelters are adopted, 31 percent of dogs and 41 percent of cats will be euthanized.9 Even if any particular animal has a good chance of being adopted, the longer she stays in the shelter, the more room she takes up that could go to another animal, who will be killed for lack of space. There is a strong prima facie case for a duty to adopt companion animals.

Might one object to the animal adoption argument based on the duty to rescue on the grounds that animals are not the proper recipients of obligations of beneficence ? One might deny that animals have any moral rights.10 This putative lack of animal rights is what allegedly permits us to eat them, to perform invasive research on them, and to hold them captive. One might think: if animals have no right against us that we not harm them in these ways, then surely they have no right that we aid them.

Obviously, one could respond by arguing that animals indeed do have moral rights. But we need not sort out the issues with rights to defend the claim that animal lives can be the proper sources of a duty to rescue.11 For one, it is not at all clear that, even in the human case, someone having the duty to rescue must depend upon someone else having a right to be rescued. Imagine the following case: there are five children at risk of drowning in a pond. You can save one of them at little cost to yourself, but only one of them.12 You clearly have a duty to rescue a child. But if the duty to rescue is grounded in a rights claim of the child, then if one child has a right to be rescued, so do the other four. For they are all similarly situated. But then no matter which child you rescue, you violate the rights of the four you did not rescue. It seems implausible that in rescuing a child and doing the best you can do, you violate four children’s rights. One might amend the view: each child has a right that you consider her equally among others in deciding whom to rescue. But this right alone will not explain why you have a duty to rescue anyone in the first place. It is a right to be considered as a beneficiary of the duty, not grounds for the duty itself. We still need an explanation of the duty to rescue. Rights are not helping.

This should not trouble us, for there are better explanations of the duty to rescue. It is an especially urgent obligation of beneficence that arises when an agent is in a position to respond to and potentially prevent another being from coming to grave harm. The beneficiary need not have a right to be rescued for an agent to have a duty to rescue; the beneficiary only need have morally relevant and urgent interests. Nonhuman animals do: they are sentient, have needs, have interests, and can suffer harms. For these reasons, it is implausible to deny that we have general, positive obligations to animals. It would be morally heinous if one refused to free a dog whose paw was stuck on the railroad tracks, at risk of being struck by an oncoming train, if one could easily do so. Further, that we have obligations of beneficence to animals is intuitively supported and acted upon. Where else does the iconic image of a firefighter rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree come from? Our cities support rescue organizations. From an early age, children rescue lost puppies and kitties, or nurse to health a squirrel or a bird that has fallen from a tree. Given the intuitive support for the claim, it would prove too much to deny the possibility for a duty to adopt animals by rejecting a duty to rescue them.

Plausibly, a general obligation of beneficence to animal companion species is augmented by the special obligations we may have to domesticated animals. As Bernard Rollin says, “The dog, in short, has been developed to be dependent on us; that is at the basis of our social contract metaphor.”13 Human beings are responsible for the domestic dog and cat (as well as other animals, including those we use for agriculture and medical research), who are uniquely vulnerable and dependent upon us. Millions of such animals are homeless, neglected, or in desperate need due to our creation and continuation of their kind. We are collectively responsible for their plight in a way that we are not responsible for the plight of wild animals (although, of course, we may be responsible for the latter’s plight for other reasons—for example, due to our contribution to environmental degradation).14

The duty to adopt companion animals may be specific to companion animals because of their nature. As a type, they are benefited by being adopted—that is, by being given shelter and companionship with humans. Adoption may not be best for most wild animals, though they may be benefited by rescue more generally (and rehabilitation and release). This may seem obvious or trivial upon mention, but it is important. A duty to adopt is a specific kind of rescue—sharing a family, bringing a being into your circle of intimates, offering companionship. It is morally notable that we may have this duty to enter into special relationships with specific kinds of animals who can share this social bond with us. Indeed, by their very nature—one created by us—they depend upon it.

Like the duty to adopt children, a prima facie case for a duty to adopt animal companions is strong. But it is only the first step. Proponents of the duty to adopt animal companions must show that the prima facie duty to rescue is not defeated by other interests we might have in creating rather than rescuing our pets.

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