Monday, September 12, 2016

Pets and Slavery

In 'The Case Against Pets', Rutgers law professors Francione and Charlton argue that "domestication and pet ownership [...] violate the fundamental rights of animals."  This is, I think, a deeply absurd position.

A large part of their essay is just concerned with arguing against treating pets as property.  I think it's pretty clear that the ordinary social meaning of having a pet already rules this out.  One may carve up one's property for fun; if someone were to carve up their pet, we would (rightly) want them to be locked up for animal cruelty.  If the legal system failed to do this, they would certainly be shunned by the rest of society, who would be deeply horrified by their actions.

It's an interesting question whether non-rational beings can have a right to life in addition to a right against cruel treatment.  If so, the implications would be quite radical, even aside from the complete abolition of the meat industry.  Society would presumably be obliged to support animal shelters to an extent that removes the current need to kill many perfectly healthy animals due to overcrowding.  I think that's a plausible enough position, though there are counterarguments to consider.

Where the authors go off the rails is when they suggest that "domestication itself raises serious moral issues irrespective of how the non-humans involved are treated" -- such that pet ownership would still be wrong even if animal rights against cruel treatment and convenience-killing were secured.  Why do they think this?  What further rights are being violated, merely by caring for your pet?  Here is what F&C write:
Domesticated animals are completely dependent on humans, who control every aspect of their lives. Unlike human children, who will one day become autonomous, non-humans never will. That is the entire point of domestication – we want domesticated animals to depend on us. [...] We might make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. They do not belong in our world, irrespective of how well we treat them. This is more or less true of all domesticated non-humans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We control their lives forever. They truly are ‘animal slaves’. Some of us might be benevolent masters, but we really can’t be anything more than that.

"Slavery is bad, X is like slavery, therefore X is bad" is superficial reasoning.  Much depends on whether X shares the relevant features or preconditions that explain why slavery is so bad.

I take the basic problem with (human) slavery to be that it is so drastically contrary to the interests of the enslaved.  Not only were slaves historically mistreated in all sorts of ways, but even an imaginary "happy slave" seems in a tragic position insofar as their capacity for rational autonomy -- and hence for a fully flourishing human life -- is being stunted rather than nourished.  Rationally autonomous beings have an interest in developing and preserving their autonomy, and when this interest is violated their life is (in this respect) worse as a result.

This crucial feature is obviously lacking in non-rational animals.  So long as we do not mistreat them (whether by outright cruelty or mere neglect, e.g. failure to provide a sufficiently stimulating environment) domestic animals' chances at a fully flourishing life are not impaired by the mere fact of our control over them.  They have no interest in being free of our control, because they have no capacity for rational autonomy that would be served by such "freedom".  Life in the wild is often nasty, brutish and short.  We can provide much better lives for our companion animals.

Perhaps the simplest way to refute F&C's argument is to note that moral rights must track interests.  It makes no sense to posit a right that serves no possible interest.  F&C acknowledge that domestic animals have no interest that would be served by a right against dependency or human control / guardianship. (They do not advocate abandoning domestic species to the wild, but rather taking care of those that currently exist whilst preventing any others from coming into existence.)  Domestic pets are not better served by non-existence than they are by living happy lives under human guardianship.  So it is absurd to posit a right whose only purpose would be to push us towards this worse outcome.  That would be the most pointless, counterproductive right ever.

We do better to realize that dependency is not always and everywhere intrinsically bad.  Dependents are vulnerable to abuse, and extended dependency may be an obstacle to important kinds of development, at least for beings -- like humans -- with the capacity for rational autonomy.  But it is hard to see why dependency per se should be considered a bad thing for a dog.  To think this would seem an unfortunate kind of anthropomorphism.


  1. While I'm sympathetic to your line of critique, it looks very much to me like you load the deck by precluding the possibility of a right with self-standing normative force, that is, force which is not in turn explained by welfare or interests. Naturally, once this is just stipulated, then pets appear to gain a lot more than they lose by being domesticated. But why the stipulation? Your assertion that such a self-standing right "makes no sense" seems like little more than an assertion.

    Next, even if we accept your view that rights bottom out in flourishing, there is the Aristotelian approach, which defines flourishing in terms of the characteristic activity of a species. On this view, each member of a species has a right to some kind of autonomy *because* it enables that species to carry out its characteristic modes of being. Domestication is bluntly inconsistent with this kind of flourishing, often disturbingly so. Consider that many or most pet owners spay and neuter their pets, and that many pets are confined to the indoors, where they cannot engage in a great many of the activities characteristic of their species. This, it seems to me, is a very powerful argument, since it is highly intuitive that (for example) a life without sex, nurturing young and hunting is not a fully feline life. All of this to say: the fact that rights are grounded in flourishing is only an argument against F&C if pet ownership does not systematically reduce the flourishing of animals.

    1. Hi Vanitas, my claim that it "makes no sense to posit a right that serves no possible interest" is not intended as a "stipulation", but something more like a self-evident truth that I'd expect anyone to agree with upon reflection. What would be the point of a right that serves no possible interest? What plausible counterexamples to this principle can you suggest? If I suggested that we have a right to not be exposed to oxygen, it would seem reasonable for you to respond by pointing out that that cannot be so, since such a putative right would serve no possible interest of human beings, who depends upon oxygen for survival. If we had such a right, the only way to secure it would be to prevent us from ever coming into existence. But that would be a morally worse outcome for us, if our existence is generally happy and good.

      My suggestion is that positing that domesticated animals have a right against human guardianship makes about as little sense as positing a human right against exposure to oxygen. Such a right is positively contrary to the interests of the beings in question. That should make us very dubious about the alleged right in question. Even if you don't accept my principle that would strictly rule it out as an impossibility, I think it at least shifts the burden of proof on to F&C to establish that such a morally unfortunate (and unusual) right exists.

      A separate point, but worth mentioning, is that even if a right exists (perhaps because it is usually beneficial to the rights-holders), the right-holder may choose to waive it if it is contrary to their interests in a particular situation. Well-treated domestic pets would surely prefer to exist than not to exist (if we imagine temporarily idealizing their capacities and giving them the choice), and so respect for them demands that we accept that they would waive any such right against guardianship. To continue to impose such a morally unfortunate "right" on them against their interests and against what they would surely choose if capable of so choosing is clearly not an animal-friendly position.

    2. On your second point: I worry that the Aristotelian view rests on an is/ought fallacy. Just because some behaviour is "natural" (or "characteristic") doesn't mean it is good or necessary for the flourishing of the being in question. I would be more inclined to think it is suggestive of a deep-rooted desire, the thwarting of which may be expected to be contrary to the individuals' interests, but not necessarily (depending on how it's done, etc.).

      But regardless, none of that suggests a right against human control and guardianship per se, but at most suggests an objection so some particular (and not universal) ways that some people may treat their pets. So this is not a defense of F&C's stronger position.

      I think it's also worth flagging that on no plausible view do animals have a right to reproduce. Given the excessive number of stray or unwanted cats and dogs, it seems morally essential to spay and neuter large numbers of these species, to prevent significant harms to the next generation. (I assume that the lives of stray or unwanted cats and dogs tend to be unhappy ones.) Of course, as a pet-supporter I would want to ensure that we continue to allow enough kittens and puppies to come into existence as we can provide supportive and loving homes for. F&C, by contrast, advocate for universal spaying/neutering. So I do not see any advantage for their view here!

      Anyway, when you raise the question of whether pet ownership "systematically reduce[s] the flourishing of animals", we need to ask: relative to what alternative? The only alternatives I see are extinction or living in the wild, and it should be pretty clear that life as a pet is far and away the best of the three options for the animal in question, even if there are certain respects in which such a life is less than perfect. For it remains a pretty good option on the whole, whereas the alternatives are not.

  2. F&C start their argument moving from the posited incompatibility between ownership and animal rights. They differentiate between the guarding of a child, temporary and with a clear final cause, and the domestication of an animal, permanent and somehow unnatural. But the latter is not unnatural per se. “Au contraire”, it stems from the mutual necessity of at least two living entities, one of them being human, in a common parasitic/symbiotic life with a shared vision of present and future utility. The master/slave relationship is easy to overcome for any individual case; let’s start “adopting” pets instead of “owning” them, endorse new practices and laws and the case will be over.
    On the other hand, what we enslaved and still we do are species, negating their flourishing (as pointed out here above) and using eugenics to reproduce puppies for hour company.
    Institutionalized domestication, artificial selection, intensive breeding, all represent the real downturn that makes their radical claim hard to underestimate.
    What is difficult to justify is ultimately not the ownership of pets, but our acquiescence to the trade of sentient living organisms.
    So far so good. But why positing animal rights limited to pets (or to mammals, fish, hens)?
    Here is where F&C brave try in my opinion fails. In a practical way we cannot avoid the environment anthropization. Can’t we avoid moving rabbits, roaches, ants away from their homes whenever we need so? How about their rights? Are of less importance because they are not (commonly at least) treated or viewed as pets? This is why insofar as courageous and heroic the position of F&C, moving away from the utilitarian and concentrical singerian current approach to animal “rights” seems to be, if not unjustified, at least impractical.

  3. I fully agree with Richard's points up to but not including "This crucial feature [interest in their autonomy] is obviously lacking in non-rational animals." I also agree with the opening of the last paragraph, "We do better to realize that dependency is not always and everywhere intrinsically bad".

    However the parts about how it is "obvious" that this or that mental feature is lacking in "non-rational" elements is entirely pulled out of a hat and unsupported by arguments or evidence.

    I fear that this point will be easily dismissed; we grew up and live in a society where the mental lives of non-human animals were entirely unstudied until a few decades ago, and even today are studied in all the biased ways 19th-century Western anthropologists studied other cultures. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, Western intelligentsia took it as obvious that non-whites were "non-rational" to various extents. Read Thomas Sowell's "Intellectuals and Race" for a stomach-turning sampling of beliefs held by very smart people with very advanced degrees in very high positions of intellectual prestige 100 years ago.

    Most people (possibly also you) have a gut feeling that they more or less understand how non-human animals' minds work, but that is little more than availability and substitution biases. In reality, most people don't even know the questions to ask to even begin understanding other species' minds.

    I recommend (American & Dutch Academy of Sciences member) Frans de Waals' book "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are" for the most basic of introductions to this disastrously unknown topic.

  4. Hi Richard and Veritas,

    I'd like to add that the authors claim "A right is a way of protecting an interest; it protects interests irrespective of consequences."
    So, they agree with Richard's take on this. It seems they do believe that some interest is being breached.
    A couple of other issues that might be of relevance:
    1. They are in favor of caring for existing pets, including cats and dogs. But what about the suffering inflicted on animals used to feed those cats and dogs?

    2. What about, say, ants kept as pets?
    Those are animals too, so it seems the same rationale would apply to them too.

    3. What about plants?
    I'm not trying to make a "slippery slope" argument, but rather, suggest that unless the interest in question is clearly specified - given their claim about rights - it's hard to see why one should stop at animals. Is it the capacity for suffering, even if we're talking about situations in which they wouldn't suffer? Do we know for sure plants can't suffer?

    4. There are other uses of animals that wouldn't count as what they call "frivolous": Dogs used to protect humans against other humans (not everyone has other effective means of defense), raptors used to protect airports from birds, dogs used by blind people, cats used to control rat populations, etc.

    5. Do animals not have an interest in having sex?
    Castrating them seems to prevent that.

    6. The authors claim that the position that cats, dogs, etc., have a right to reproduce would commit humans to continue to reproduce them. But why? If they have an interest in reproducing and that gives them the right, we would just have a negative right not to prevent them from reproducing, which is pretty much achievable by letting them do as they please. Many would reproduce, and some species would thrive in the wild.
    A specific example: if people no longer castrated cats, and didn't take any measures to either help them reproduce or keeping them from doing that, there would be plenty of cats in the future (maybe fewer birds, though.)

    1. Sorry, Vanitas, I read your name wrong. My mistake.

    2. The right to reproduce is an interesting idea.. but I don't see how what we already do does not result in enabling them to reproduce.

      I would think it's safe to assume that every living creature feels the drive to reproduce. Without that drive this planet would be a barren place indeed.

      Before the domestication of these animals, their uninhibited ability to reproduce was tempered by a number of environmental pressures that served to regulate their population. I think of domestication as the act of removing those selective pressures, or protecting a species from them.

      Predation is no longer a big problem now that we shelter and protect our domesticated animals from all other animals that may seek to eat them, even if that meant eradicating an entire population of the predators.

      That shelter we provide also helps to protect from diseases, along with veterinary medicine, and from competition with other species as well as their own.

      Food scarcity is no longer a problem, every kind of domesticated animal has its own feed. Even strays and feral cats benefit from domestication, there is almost no shortage of food thanks to kindly souls that regularly feed strays. And if that fails there is usually rubbish to be found and the small rodents that attracts.

      We have also freed our domesticated animals from the constraints of geographic isolation. We introduce them into new environments that are favorable or change the environment in a way that suits them, either way we increase their chance of reproduction. For animals that were territorial, they are no longer limited by the resources available in their territory or the threat of encroaching neighbors.

      There are other ways in which we have enabled the reproduction of our favorite species, but I'm not trying to argue whether or not we should or even could stop doing any of these things, I just want to point out that we put ourselves in this position of having to actively control the population of our pets.

      We do this as a matter of course with livestock, but we don't view what we do with pets as the same thing. Are the end results of the slaughterhouse and the animal "shelter" all that different?

      I think it's worth holding off on deciding whether any of it is right or good or not so that we can look at how our treatment of animals, even the best kind, actually affects them. And in what ways, if any, their lives would be different without human intervention.

      As for the comparison of pet ownership to slave ownership, to me it seems to be a simple comparison between the features of the "ownership" itself, specifically ownership of another living, sentient being. There are differences, certainly huge differences, but there are also similarities.

      If we really do believe our pets are members of the family then wouldn't it be useful to consider the ways that may contradict with treating them like we own them?

      Sterilization of your family members while they are still no more than toddlers is not going to be considered good parenting, yet it is considered responsible pet ownership to spay or neuter as soon as your pet is the right size or age to handle anethesia. The very real risks of death are totally acceptable as well.

      Owners of animals and humans both have no qualms removing their property's offspring and separating them, giving or selling them to whomever they choose. Owners can choose when or if their property will breed and who they breed with. They can experiment with breeding stock to try and reproduce certain desirable traits.

      Pets, like slaves, also do not have the liberty to exist outside of human ownership. Unless they can successfully avoid human contact, that is. But essentially a pet must have an owner, and any one without an owner is fair game to be taken possession of or disposed of.

      Maybe the word 'slavery' is just too strong. But I think it's clear that 'property' certainly applies. Domesticated animals are human property, and we treat them as such.

  5. Thanks Richard. That was such a bad article -- but note there's nothing new. It's Francione's view, unchanged, as far as I can tell.

    Two remarks: I'd be more careful with pets' happy existence being better for them than nonexistence. How close to just worth living must their life be for this to be true? If their existence is worth living but entails grave harms (like - suppose - humanely raised cows) then questioning their existence is no longer absurd. Rights may not be the best way to do that, but it's at least plausible that, once alive, these animals have an interest in (and so perhaps a right to) continued existence. But if this entails slaughter in one's prime (for farm animals), then perhaps it's better not creating that interest in the first place (and nonexisting beings, I believe, but it's debated, do not have an interest in being brought into existence). Where you are right on is: pet dependency is not relevantly like either premature death or slavery.

  6. Basically you're saying pets are not slaves cause it's socially accepted? Human slavery was at one point "socially accepted" does that mean it was ok? The fact that some animals lives are better cause they are slaves of humans is irrelevant. Yes some animals would probably choose to live with humans as they do now but the simple fact is they don't have any choice. By your logic slavery is ok as long as you make your slaves life better. And no you don't have to give animals rights, that's still imposing human rules on them they're human. And I my self am not saying free all animals that's stupid. I'm saying stop dancing around the issue which is that human force animals to do their bidding and they have no choice but to comply. You're just playing semantics. If you force another living being to do what you want and take away their right to choose not to that's a slave.

    1. No, try reading the original post again, more carefully.

      Here's the key section: "I take the basic problem with (human) slavery to be that it is so drastically contrary to the interests of the enslaved. Not only were slaves historically mistreated in all sorts of ways, but even an imaginary "happy slave" seems in a tragic position insofar as their capacity for rational autonomy -- and hence for a fully flourishing human life -- is being stunted rather than nourished. Rationally autonomous beings have an interest in developing and preserving their autonomy, and when this interest is violated their life is (in this respect) worse as a result. This crucial feature is obviously lacking in non-rational animals..."


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