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


Josh Milburn

The animal lovers’ paradox is the fact that animal lovers—people who share their lives with nonhuman companions for whom they feel deep love and affection—typically contribute to more nonhuman animal (NHA) death and suffering than they would if they did not keep companions. This is because dogs and cats (upon whom this chapter will focus) will typically be fed large amounts of NHA flesh, and this flesh is the product of practices that inflict death and suffering as a matter of course. Paradoxically, it could be that the best thing that some people could do to reduce NHA death and suffering would be to stop being animal lovers. This sounds deeply odd, and rightly so. This is not to say that individual animal lovers will recognize the oddness of their situation; it is possible that they feel love toward only certain NHAs. When the individual animal lover feels the conflict, she likely faces the vegetarians dilemma: the problem of reconciling “feeding one’s [companion] an animal-based diet that may be perceived as best promoting their well-being with concerns over animal welfare [and animal rights] and environmental degradation threatened by such diets” (Rothgerber 2013, 77).

There has been some discussion of this issue both inside and outside academia. Despite this, academic animal ethics as a whole has been surprisingly quiet on the animal lovers’ paradox and the vegetarian’s dilemma. On the one hand, this is surprising, given that it is at the intersection of two key issues in animal ethics: the ethics of NHA-derived foods and the ethics of companionship. On the other, it is unsurprising, as it seems to throw up serious conflicts between our obligations to our companions and toward those NHAs killed for food.

Recent prominent works on animal ethics from a variety of directions have not addressed the issue. For example, Clare Palmer (2010) advocates a contextual animal ethics, in which we have different kinds of obligations to companions than to “wild” NHAs, but does not discuss companion diets, despite considering companions’ violence against “wild” animals. Palmer coauthored the recent Companion Animal Ethics (Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer 2016) in which companion diet is addressed, but discussions focus upon health, resource use, and environmental impact, rather than the problems with NHA-derived foodstuffs. Alasdair Cochrane (2012) defends an account of justice centered on the interest rights of sentient animals. Though he offers extensive discussions of the injustice of current food practices (2012, ch. 4) and of our obligations toward companions (2012, 129-37; cf. Cochrane 2014), he does not address the conflict between them that arises when we feed companions the flesh of other NHAs.1 Gary Francione (2007, 2008), who supports the abolition of all use of NHAs, stresses the importance of veganism and, though claiming that we should stop producing more, argues that we must care for existing companions. Despite this, and though he keeps vegan dogs (2007, vi), the issue is not addressed in his major works.

There is, then, a surprising lack of consideration in the animal ethics literature of the ethics of companion diets. One exception to this general trend is the work of Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (2013), who draw a picture of a zoopolis, a mixed human/NHA state. On their picture, different NHAs are awarded different political rights based on their relationship with this state, though all sentient NHAs possess certain fundamental rights, such as the right not to be killed by humans. NHAs who are part of the mixed community, such as companions, are citizens, while those who live among but apart from society, such as garden birds, are denizens. “Wild” NHAs are sovereign over their own communities. Donaldson and Kymlicka are acutely aware of the problem sketched above:

Amongst our many duties to domesticated animals, we are responsible for ensuring that they have adequate nutrition. And here we encounter another dilemma: do we have an obligation to feed meat to our domesticated animals, particularly if this is part of their (so-called) natural diet? Must we turn some animals into meat in order to fulfil our duties to our domesticated animal co-citizens? (2013, 149)

Ultimately, “dog and cat members of mixed human-animal society do not have a right to food that involves the killing of other animals” (150). Readers may be surprised at the suggestion that companions not be fed flesh and that they instead be fed a vegan diet, but more and more people are now exploring this option. In 2010, research on the ethical credentials of different “pet food” brands was published in Ethical Consumer (Brown 2010). Among other things, the report looked at which products contained NHA-derived ingredients and which were the product of animal testing—the latter being a dimension of the paradox I cannot explore here. The report recommended several vegan-friendly brands, including Ami and Benevo—companies that produce vegan foods for both dogs and cats (Brown 2010, 12).

One may think, given their talk of “co-citizens” (2013, 149) and “mixed human-animal society” (150), that Donaldson and Kymlicka’s conclusion is a quirk of their framework, and that, if we do not accept their system, we need not accept their conclusion. Here, I could argue that we should accept Donaldson and Kymlicka’s framework; indeed, it is a very good one. However, it is perhaps more interesting to note that we can construct a very strong argument for vegan companions using premises that, within animal ethics, are not at all controversial. I will now set out this argument, before offering an explanation of the various premises and steps. I will then spend the remainder of the chapter exploring possible objections to this argument and offering some practical suggestions.

Premise 1: It is wrong for us to kill or inflict suffering upon sensitive nonhuman animals unless there is some reason of overriding importance.

Premise 2: The production of nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs almost always involves inflicting death and suffering upon sensitive nonhuman animals. Premise 3: Without the consumption of nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs, there would be no production of nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs.

Interim conclusion: Given Premises 1-3, the consumption of nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs is generally wrong, unless there is some reason of overriding importance.

Premise 4: There is generally no reason of overriding importance justifying the consumption of nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs by our companions. Conclusion: Given the interim conclusion and Premise 4, feeding nonhuman animal companions nonhuman animal-derived foodstuffs is generally wrong.

Premise 1 is a normative claim uncontroversial within animal ethics. Some profess to hold the view that the death and suffering of NHAs is of no moral significance. Such people will not accept this argument. Importantly, though, it is highly unlikely that an animal lover would hold this view. What, precisely, counts as a reason “of overriding importance” is what I will spend much of the remainder of this chapter examining. Our answers will differ depending upon the ethical framework we adopt. While utilitarians, like Peter Singer

(1995), would allow that the prevention of greater suffering is a reason of sufficient magnitude to override a general prescription against inflicting suffering, a more deontological thinker, like Tom Regan (1984), would not allow this. By contrast, in certain cases of self-defense, Regan might allow the infliction of death and suffering, while Singer might not. It is clear that neither greater suffering nor self-defense are in the offing in the current case, but other things might be.

Premise 2 is an empirical claim that would not be denied by anyone familiar with, first, modern farming methods, and, second, animal welfare science. There are enough honest descriptions and images of the kinds of suffering inherent in food production available in various media for me to spare readers the details, but it should be noted that suffering and death are as much a part of egg and milk production as they are of flesh production. And, while past philosophers and scientists have voraciously denied that NHAs experience pain, it is thankfully rare to encounter someone claiming this today. Premise 3, too, is an empirical claim that relies on the realities of the market. If, from tomorrow, there was no demand for NHA-derived foodstuffs, it would not be long before their production ceased. The interim conclusion does not unproblematically follow from premises 1-3. Questions abound about the effects of the behavior of a single individual on the market and the obligation to behave morally when those around us do not. However, let us assume that these can be overcome.2 Given all of the above, our continued consumption of NHA-derived products is generally wrong. We should note that there really are no “overriding” circumstances in most cases. According to both the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada (Craig and Mangels 2009; Mangels, Messina, and Vesanto 2003), appropriately planned vegan diets are perfectly healthy for people at any stage of their life. Additionally, such diets are easily accessible to almost anyone in the industrialized West. It does not instantly follow that companions must be fed vegan diets, which is why an additional premise is necessary; however, if Premise 4 is correct, then the conclusion naturally follows: feeding companions NHA-derived foodstuffs is generally wrong.

For the remainder of this chapter, I will explore whether there is generally a reason of overriding significance that permits the feeding of NHA-derived foodstuffs to our companions. We could certainly construct contrived scenarios where there are reasons of overriding importance: for example, if you and your dog are trapped on an island with edible NHAs but no edible plants, you can surely kill the animals to feed yourself and your dog. However, extreme scenarios do not help us. Instead, I am going to explore four reasons we may think we generally have an overriding ethical reason to feed NHA-derived products to our companions. First, I will explore whether making our companions vegan is to force them to live an undignified life. Second, I will explore the idea that companion veganism is problematically unnatural. Third, I will explore the idea that it is unjustlyfreedom-restricting. Finally, I will consider the most important challenge : whether it is unhealthy for the companions to be fed a vegan diet, and what this might mean.

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