20 September 2004

Confusions and Fallacies About Animals, Part 19

Anyone who eats meat and thinks it justified will have no qualms about feeding meat to his or her dogs or cats. If you’re in this category, you may want to stop reading right here, for I’m sure you have other things to do. But what about those of us who believe that meat-eating is wrong? Must we, to be consistent, feed our animal companions a vegetarian diet? Is it wrong to purchase dog or cat food that contains animal products such as beef, pork, chicken, lamb, or fish?

Let me say up front that I feed animal products to Sophie and Shelbie, my canine companions. They eat Science Diet dry food, Science Diet canned food every third day, and an assortment of treats and chew bones made from cows, pigs, chickens, and lambs. Is it wrong of me to buy these items for them?

As in the case of humans, we must distinguish between needs and wants. If dogs and cats need animal products in order to be healthy or live a long time, that would resolve the moral issue in favor of feeding animal products to them, especially since the animal products in their food are by-products of other industries. I may be wrong about this, but I doubt that pigs are killed solely for their ears. More likely, they are killed for their flesh, which is consumed by humans, and the remainder of their body parts are used for pet food.

I’ve heard it said that dogs don’t need animal products in their diet. I’m skeptical. Humans are omnivores, so they can get on fine without animal products. But dogs are carnivores, or close to it, so it stands to reason that they need meat in order to get essential nutrients and vitamins. If so, then I would be morally derelict in not giving Sophie and Shelbie food made from animal products.

Suppose the facts are otherwise and that dogs don’t need animal products in their diet. Is it wrong of me to give them animal products solely because they enjoy them? Sophie and Shelbie love chewing on rawhide, pig ears, and other animal treats. Their lives would be impoverished without them. Not in the sense that they couldn’t survive without them, but in the sense that they wouldn’t have pleasurable experiences, satisfactions, and enjoyments.

As you can tell, I’m ambivalent about feeding animal products to Sophie and Shelbie. I’m strongly inclined to continue doing so even if it should turn out to be wrong according to my own moral principles. But it would be nice if I could do so compatibly with my principles. What do you think?

Please don’t say that I’m silly for agonizing about this. That would show that you don’t grasp the problem. It may not be a problem for you, but it is for me. Suppose you have a friend who loves gardening but wonders whether it’s right to use pesticides. It would be the height of insensitivity (or indifference) to say, “Forget about the bugs! Kill ’em!” You may not care about the bugs, but your friend does. Your friend has a problem. Shouldn’t you want to help?

Many philosophical problems are like this. Philosophers pull their hair out trying to reconcile free will and determinism. Imagine someone who says, “Why reconcile them? Just pick one and chuck the other!” That wouldn’t solve the problem. It would avoid it. Some problems—intellectual, moral, or practical—must be faced and solved, not avoided. Simply understanding what the problem is shows philosophical aptitude. Do you see the moral problem I face with respect to dog food? It’s a problem that arises because of two commitments I’ve made: to refrain from harming others and to give my stinkers a good life.

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