17 January 2005

Categorizing Animals

Some animals are wild and some domesticated. Some domesticated animals are used as resources for human ends and some are cared for as family members. I believe our moral obligations differ depending on which category a particular animal belongs to. This is not ad hoc. I also believe that our moral obligations to humans differ depending on which category they belong to. I have obligations to my children, for example, that I have to no other child. I have obligations to Americans that I have to no other nationality. Here are the three categories:
1. Wild animals. Wild animals should be left alone. We should not hunt them, trap them, capture them for zoos or circuses, or displace them. Nor should we intervene to prevent predation. Saving one animal from another only starves the other. The relevant principle here is nonmaleficence (do no harm).

2. Domesticated resource animals. Institutions such as factory farms, which treat animals as resources for human consumption, should be abolished. We should stop breeding cows, pigs, and chickens for their meat, eggs, hides, and other materials. The relevant principle here is nonmaleficence (do no harm).

3. Companions. Domesticated animals that we take into our homes, such as dogs and cats, have the status of children or friends. We have obligations not only to refrain from harming them (as we do to all animals), but to provide for their needs. The relevant principles here are nonmaleficence (do no harm) and beneficence (do good).
Consequentialists deny the existence of special responsibilities. They say that any partiality toward those near and dear to one is impermissible. They also deny the moral significance of the distinction between harming and not preventing harm. If I allow you to die, they say, I am a murderer, even if I had nothing to do with your predicament. Many of us think that the failure to make these distinctions counts against consequentialism. For more on this subject, see my essay “Doing Right by Our Animal Companions,” a link to which appears on the left side of this blog.

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