02 June 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 8

How, philosophically speaking, should we think about dogs and cats? I’ve heard it said by people in the animal-liberation movement that dogs, cats, and other companion animals are slaves. If so, then they are being wronged and must be liberated forthwith, at whatever cost to our other interests. Just as the institution of human chattel slavery was an abomination, so too is the institution of pet ownership. Both are unjust. Both, accordingly, must be abolished. If you live with a dog or a cat, you are no better, morally, than a plantation owner in the ante-bellum South.

I’m ashamed to admit that I used to think this way, but now I consider it confused. Dogs and cats are domesticated animals. They are not wild. Dogs are not wolves; cats are not wildcats; and you and I are not apes. We evolved from apes, just as dogs evolved from wolves, but being evolved from X doesn’t make one an X. Humans and dogs have lived together for thousands of years. To think that a dog, bred to live with or near humans and to depend on them for food and shelter, could fend for itself in the wild is absurd. Could you fend for yourself in the wild? You might last for a while, but your existence (to quote Hobbes) would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The best way to think of dogs and cats is as children. They depend on us. They’re vulnerable. By bringing them into our lives, we assume responsibility for them. They need protection from things they don’t understand, such as automobiles, toxic substances, and malicious people. I’m tempted to say that the proper model for our relationships with dogs and cats is friendship, but while there are aspects of our relationships that are equal (as friendship requires), there are other aspects that are unequal. Parents aren’t their children’s friends, although one day, if they are lucky, they will be. So perhaps that’s the difference. Children can become friends of their parents. Dogs and cats cannot.

There’s a loose sense of “friend” in which I can befriend a dog. We do say, after all, that a dog is “man’s best friend.” But that’s metaphorical. A friend, as Aristotle pointed out, is an alter ego (other self). Friendship is a relation between equals. Some philosophers have thought (and some people still think) that even a man and a woman cannot be friends. Not because they’re different, which of course they are, but because they’re intellectually and morally unequal. As much as I love Sophie and Shelbie, my canine companions, they are not my friends. They are more like my children, looking to me for guidance and protection. I’m a moral agent; they’re moral patients.

To return to the charge that all companion animals are slaves, perhaps the person making it has in mind other animals besides dogs and cats. Wild animals such as lizards, snakes, monkeys, rodents (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs), and birds did not evolve with humans. They are out of place living in houses. This is highly unnatural for them and must be a source of frustration and distress (although not, given their natures, resentment). We should treat animals according to their nature. It’s in the nature of domesticated animals to need care; it’s in the nature of wild animals to be left alone in their habitats.

If you want to read more along these lines, see my 1998 essay “Doing Right by Our Animal Companions,” which appeared in The Journal of Ethics.

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