Justifying the Institution or Practice of Pet-Keeping

When it comes to any institution or practice that our generation has inherited, the first question to ask is whether or not its existence is justifiable, and why. If it is not justifiable, then we should work toward abolishing it. If it is justifiable, however, we then ask, second, how it should be governed by us collectively as a community, both formally through our laws and codes of professional ethics, and informally, through our less clearly codified common morality. When we are asking about an existing practice or institution, this second question takes the form of asking how our existing ILS rules relating to it should be modified. In this section, I address the first question: is the institution or practice of pet-keeping justifiable from a utilitarian perspective ? I argue that it is justifiable, because three empirical considerations suggest that both pets and people can benefit from it. In the next section, on the assumption that pet-keeping should not be abolished, I illustrate various approaches to modifying the practice in order to increase its contribution to aggregate happiness.

It will help me both to articulate the empirical considerations that support pet-keeping from a utilitarian perspective, and to discuss modifications to the ILS rules governing it, if I first introduce three stipulative definitions. In a 2002 essay entitled “Pets, Companion Animals, and Domesticated Partners," I adopted Deborah Barnbaum’s (1998) analysis of the concept of pet as any entity that meets four criteria, according to which

  • 1. A pet’s keeper feels affection for it (although not necessarily vice-versa),
  • 2. A pet leads a very different life than its keeper,
  • 3. A pet lives in an area significantly under the keeper’s control, and
  • 4. A pet depends on its keeper to have various important interests met.

I then introduced the following stipulative definitions:

A companion animal is a pet that receives the affection and care owners typically give to pets, but also has significant social interaction with its owner and would voluntarily choose to stay with the owner, in part for the sake of the companionship.

A domesticated partner is a pet that works with humans fairly extensively in ways that emphasize and exercise the pet’s mental and/or physical faculties fairly extensively and in healthy ways.

A mere pet is a pet that is neither a companion animal nor a domesticated partner.

In terms of the above categories, I can now describe some empirical considerations that support pet-keeping from a utilitarian perspective. The first is that even if we are talking about what I would call “mere pets,”

1. There is some evidence that keeping pets improves people’s lives.

Scientific interest in the health effects of pet-keeping arose in the 1970s when a graduate student studying the effects of social conditions and isolation on heart disease was surprised to discover a statistical correlation between heart-attack recovery rates and pet-keeping (Serpell [1986] 1996, 97-100). A subsequent study found that calm interactions lower both humans’ and dogs’ blood pressures and were accompanied by significant increases in neuro chemicals associated with relaxation, suggesting that a surge in neurochemicals causes the drop in blood pressure (Odendaal and Meintjes 2003, 298 and 299). On the other hand, a recent review of the available research notes that other studies have failed to replicate such findings and concludes that “the scientific evidence has not yet delivered a clear verdict on the existence of such benefits,” although they note that “studying the health effects of pet ownership is extremely challenging, and it may not in fact be possible to design and conduct the definitive study that will finally settle this debate” (Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer 2016, 53-54). So while it would be premature to conclude that physical and mental health benefits to human pet- keepers have been scientifically demonstrated, there are reasons to think that petkeeping can improve humans’ lives in various ways. And the fact that pet-keeping has been nearly ubiquitous in human societies for several thousand years (the exceptions being medieval times and early-modern Europe, according to Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer [2016, 21]) suggests that humans at least think it is beneficial or enjoyable.

The second empirical consideration that supports pet-keeping from a utilitarian perspective is this:

2. That many animals kept as pets fit my stipulative definition of a “companion animal"—one that has significant social interaction with its owner and would voluntarily stay for the companionship—is prima facie evidence that they have better lives because of the relationships they have with their human keepers.

The large majority of animals kept as pets in contemporary affluent nations are dogs and cats, which appear to bond readily with humans. We know all too well, of course, that human beings sometimes choose to stay in dysfunctional relationships because they see no viable alternative, and a cat or a dog that has lived its entire life with certain humans probably does not see any alternative. At least with regard to cats and dogs, however, because they have been domesticated for thousands of years, it would seem that some form of cohabitation with humans is their “natural habitat,” and concerns about dysfunctional relationships can be addressed by various adjustments in our common morality, laws, and professional ethics as illustrated in the following section. What other species readily meet my definition of a companion animal I cannot say, but consideration #2 applies to any that do.

The third empirical consideration that supports pet-keeping from a utilitarian perspective is this:

3. For pets that meet my stipulative definition of a “domesticated partner" behavioral problems, which are the leading cause of strife in humans’ relationships with pets, can be more effectively controlled, and humans’ relationships with them tend to be more satisfying, than with pets that do not qualify as “domesticated partners"

Studies have found that “behavior problems”—meaning pet behaviors that human owners find bothersome—account for as many as 20 percent of pets surrendered to shelters, and “the number one way to prevent behaviour problems, in the case of dogs at least, is proper education of both the dog and owner through training” (Sandoe, Corr, and Palmer 2016, 133). Cats are more challenging to train, of course, but owners can certainly teach them simple behaviors that help cats and their owners live well together in a domestic setting. For most cats, the average person can teach them to desist when told “no,” to come on command, to enter a carrier for a treat, and so forth.

The increasing popularity both of dog parks, where owners can let their dogs run free but can also legally work with them “off lead,” and of agility courses, where owners work intensively with their dogs in ways that exercise both body and mind, suggests that contemporary dog owners are increasingly cultivating domesticated partnerships with their animals. Relatedly, while I do not know of any studies on the subject, my hunch is that people who work with dogs in complex ways, from basic obedience training through racing agility courses, probably enjoy their relationships with their dogs more than people who do little or no training of them, just because their relationships with those dogs are “richer.” And, of course, the members of one category of domesticated partners, service dogs, benefit their human keepers and others in diverse ways, including helping the visually and hearing impaired and the physically disabled, locating people buried in rubble, anticipating seizures, and so forth.

From the three empirical considerations discussed in this section, I draw three conclusions. The first is that the practice of keeping pets is justifiable from a utilitarian perspective. I say “justifiable” rather than “justified,” because from a Harean perspective, each generation needs to ask anew what modifications to make to the ILS rules that they have inherited from their ancestors. There are obvious downsides to the practice of pet-keeping as we have inherited it. When I say that pet-keeping is justifiable from a utilitarian perspective, I mean only that the empirical considerations discussed in this section suggest that it can, at least under certain circumstances, improve the lives of both the humans and the animals involved. We have in fact inherited the practice of pet-keeping in the various forms that it now takes, and the question for our generation is what modifications of the current practice—modifications achievable in our time—will tend to increase the aggregate happiness of the humans and the animals involved. That is the subject of the next section.

The second conclusion I draw is that although keeping “mere pets” may sometimes be a good thing, it is generally better to keep companion animals than to keep mere pets. Keeping a “mere pet”—one that would not choose to stay for the sake of companionship—could still be a good thing, if the animal is from a species that will not bond with a human, as long as its life in captivity is better than life in the wild would have been. If an animal is capable of enjoying a companion relationship with its owner, however, then it can both live a better life than it would face as a mere pet (or in a feral state, since dogs’ and cats’ “natural habitat” is some form of cohabitation with humans) and also enjoy the interactions with its human keeper(s) that animals unsuited to being companion animals normally shun.

The third conclusion I draw is that it is generally good for pet-keepers to develop, to the extent practicable, a domesticated partnership with their companion animals. Other than dogs, the only commonly kept pets that I can think of with whom humans regularly develop sophisticated domesticated partnerships are horses (and maybe some birds and rodents). As I indicated above with regard to cats, however, the average person can usually train them in some basic ways that facilitate domestic cohabitation, and that will apply to varying degrees for some other species.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >