Is the Domestication of Animals Morally Justifiable?

They can’t breathe properly but many people think they are cute so it’s okay. Photo by Sneaky Elbow on Unsplash

For the past thirty or so years, I have developed what has come to known as the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights. One aspect of that theory rejects the status of animals as chattel property and maintains that we are morally obligated to abolish, and not merely regulate, the use of animals exclusively as resources. My Abolitionist theory sees veganism as a moral imperative and maintains that if animals matter morally, we cannot justify using them for food, clothing, entertainment, or research as all of those uses assume that animals are nothing but commodities, or things we may use and kill for our purposes.

As part of this rejection of the status of things that exist only for our benefit, the theory also rejects domestication and maintains that, although we have a moral obligation to care for those domesticated nonhumans who are here now, we should not continue to produce domesticated animals to use and kill.

But what about animals such as those species we use as companion animals, or “pets”?

I suggest that that domestication itself presents a serious moral problem for anyone who maintains that animals matter morally and even with respect to animals with whom we may have a more benign relationship.

Although some of us treat our companion animals as family members, some of us do not. But however we treat our dogs, cats, etc., they are property as far as the law is concerned. If you regard your dog as a member of your family and treat her well, the law will protect your decision just as it will your decision to change the oil in your car every 1000 miles — the dog and the car are your property and if you wish to accord a higher value to your property, the law will allow you to do so. But if you wish to accord your property a lower value and, for instance, keep your dog on your property for use as a guard dog to whom you provide minimal food, water, and shelter, and no companionship or affection, the law will protect that decision as well.

The reality is that in the United States, most dogs and cats do not end up dying of old age in loving homes. Most have homes for a relatively short period of time before they are transferred to another owner, taken to a shelter, dumped, or taken to a veterinarian to be killed.

And it does not matter whether we characterize an owner as a “guardian,” as some advocates urge. Such a characterization is meaningless. If you have the legal right to take your dog to a kill shelter, or to a veterinarian to be killed, or to “humanely” kill your dog yourself, it does not matter what you call your dog. Your dog is your property. Those of us who live with companion animals are owners as far as the law is concerned and we have the legal right to treat our animals as we see fit with few limitations. Anticruelty laws do not even apply to the vast majority of instances in which humans inflict cruel treatment on nonhumans.

But we could, at least in theory, have a different and more acceptable relationship with nonhumans. What if we abolished the property status of animals and required that we treat dogs and cats similarly to the way we treat human children? What if humans who lived with animals could no longer treat them instrumentally (e.g., as guard dogs, “show” dogs or cats, etc.) but had to treat them as family members? What if humans could not kill nonhuman companions except in instances in which at least some of us regard it as acceptable to allow assisted suicide in the human context (e.g., when the human is incurably ill and in great pain, etc.). Would it be acceptable to continue to breed nonhumans to be our companions then?

The answer is no.

Putting aside that we would have to stop breeding animals with characteristics that are harmful to them — and that includes many domesticated animals — and ignoring that the development of general standards of what would constitute treating nonhumans as “family members,” and the resolution of all the related issues, would be impossible as a practical matter, this position neglects to recognize that domestication itself raises serious moral issues irrespective of how the nonhumans involved are treated.

Domestication represents the ultimate expression of anthropocentrism in that we have through selective breeding and other manipulation created animals who are completely and perpetually dependent on us and have no independence whatsoever. We have bred them to be servile and submissive resources and to have those qualities that facilitate their use as our resources. Domestic animals are dependent on us for when and whether they eat or have water, where and when they relieve themselves, when they sleep, whether they get any exercise, etc. Unlike human children who, except in unusual cases, will become independent and functioning members of human society, domestic animals are neither part of the nonhuman world nor fully part of our world. They remain forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them.

We may make some of them happy in one sense, but the relationship is made possible because of an institution that is inherently problematic. They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them and those who are treated well represent only a small fraction.

These observations are more or less true of all domesticated nonhumans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We have to control their lives because, as domesticated animals, they are beings whom we have selectively bred to require our control. Moreover, we often select for characteristics that are positively harmful to animals. For example, certain dogs and cats are bred to have an appearance that adversely affects their health and inbreeding generally results in inheritable diseases and disorders. Various animals exploited for food are bred to have certain characteristics that cause them to gain weight quickly, and they will continue to gain that weight if they are not killed.

My partner and I live with five rescued dogs. All five would be dead if we had not adopted them. Three of our dogs were in shelters as the result of cruel treatment. One was born the day after her mother came out of a puppy mill. One is blind and deaf — the result of breeding grey (or merle) shelties so that breeders can produce a predominantly white sheltie, which commands a high price. We love them very much and try very hard to provide them with the best of care and treatment. (And before anyone asks, all seven of us are vegans!) You would probably not find two people on the planet who enjoy living with dogs more than we do.

But if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end. We regard the dogs who live with us as refugees of sorts, and although we enjoy caring for them, it is clear that humans have no business continuing to bring these creatures into a world in which they simply do not fit.

There are those who think that recognizing animal rights necessarily means that nonhumans have some sort of right to reproduce, so that it is wrong to sterilize nonhumans. If that view is correct, then we would be morally committed to allowing all domesticated species to continue to reproduce indefinitely. We cannot limit this “right of reproduction” to dogs and cats alone. Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have acted immorally in domesticating nonhuman animals but we are now committed to allowing them to continue to breed. We made a moral mistake by domesticating nonhumans in the first place; what sense does it make to perpetuate it? Moreover, if some domesticated animals, such a dogs and cats, have a right to reproduce, then that is also true of the billions of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other domesticated animals. There is no limiting principle. So if we all became vegan, but recognized a right of reproduction, our vegan world would be overrun by animals.

If we want to say that domestication is morally acceptable, then, if we are to avoid a transparently speciesist position, we must be committed to the idea that there is nothing morally wrong with bringing into existence humans who are perpetually vulnerable in order to be “citizens” who serve us in various ways. This is not a hypothetical matter. We are on the brink of being able to do all sorts of things in the laboratory. It will be possible to bring into existence humans who have all sorts of cognitive and physical traits and who do not have families that care about them. If it is acceptable to bring perpetually dependent animals into existence so that they can provide companionship and products, why is it not acceptable to being into existence perpetually dependent humans who serve as companions or to do some tasks around the house? My guess that most of us would reject this absolutely.

There are some who claim that we will lose “diversity” if we no longer have these domesticated nonhumans. Even if continued domestication were necessary for biological diversity, that would not mean that it would be morally acceptable. We do not, however, have to address that issue. There is nothing “natural” about domesticated animals. They are creatures whom we have created through selective breeding and confinement and who cannot survive independently in the wild. To the extent that they have undomesticated relatives living in nature, we should certainly seek to protect those nonhumans first and foremost for their own sake and secondarily for the purposes of biological diversity. But our protection of presently existing domesticated nonhumans is not necessary for any sort of biological diversity.

Finally, some argue that animals consented to domestication. They point to wolves who stayed close to humans and got food in return for providing an alert in the event that the humans were threatened in some way. This is claimed to show that dogs consented to domestication. Putting aside that this explanation has no application to the many other animals we have domesticated, it also has no application even to dogs. To say that wolves, who had the freedom to come and go as they please and to otherwise live as wolves, stayed close to humans in some symbiotic relationship means that they consented to be domesticated as dogs who live as “pets” is nonsense. To respond that at least some dogs have lives that are easier and less perilous so that those dogs are better off than their non-domesticated wolf counterparts is not only to ignore the absurdity of the claim that wolves would have chosen to be pugs or teacup poodles, but to assume that wolves would have made a decision not be wolves and not to live as wolves in return for a mat near the fire and their daily serving of pet food.

Domestication, Dependence, and Disability, and Slavery

In Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, authors Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka reject my Abolitionist theory in favor of a theory that seeks to make animals “citizens” in our political community. This position is often referred to as the “political turn” in animal ethics. From what I can tell, the “political turn” is, despite its claims of being a radically different way of looking at the human-nonhuman relationship, just another theory that allows us to continue to exploit animals, albeit in a more limited way. Some “political turn” theorists reject killing animals for meat, but many also maintain that we can use animals for eggs and dairy. So, in other words, the “political turn” involves a rejection of veganism as a moral baseline. I have elsewhere argued that we cannot use animals for dairy and eggs without harming them; these uses necessarily involve harm to animals. But for present purposes, I want to explore what the “political turn” in animal ethics says as a general matter about my views on domestication.

In Zoopolis, Donaldson and Kymlicka present two arguments against my position on domestication.

Argument One: It is ableist to think that complete dependency is not inherently valuable

The first argument that there is nothing wrong with the dependency of domesticated animals on humans. Indeed, they call my view “morally perverse” and claim it “would have pernicious consequences” if we applied it to humans because it would be ableist to disregard the dignity of humans who are disabled and dependent on others.

It would certainly be ableist to disregard the dignity of disabled or dependent humans. But it is also certainly the case that we cannot analogize domesticated animals to humans who are disabled or dependent.

The view of “political turn” theorists — that all dependence is the same so that to reject domestication because of the dependence of animals is to marginalize dependent humans — is simply wrong. There can be significant differences in human dependence. A person may be dependent on their partner for emotional support. But that situation is very different from that of a severely disabled person who is dependent on their caretaker for survival, although when talking about humans, we may be talking about degrees of dependence in most instances.

However, any human dependence is qualitatively different from the dependence of beings of another species whom we have, in essence, created through selective breeding and other manipulation to have no independence whatsoever. That is precisely what we want from them: a complete lack of independence. We may make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be “natural” or “normal.” They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them.

This is more or less true of all domesticated nonhumans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We control their lives forever. They truly are “animal slaves.” They exist to serve us and satisfy our interests and they are bred to do just that. We may be benevolent “masters,” but we really aren’t anything more than that. And that cannot be right. The dependence of vulnerable humans on other humans occurs in a context that reflects social decisions to care for more vulnerable members of society who are bound together and protected by the complex aspects of a social contract. And the nature of human dependence does not strip the dependent human of core rights that can be vindicated if the dependence becomes harmful.

In any event, what we would allow or encourage in the context of disabled humans tells us nothing about a practice of continuing to produce domesticated nonhumans who are necessarily and invariably dependent on their human owners for every aspect of their lives, and where the normal safeguards to protect the vulnerable party are not present because they have no application in that context. The analogy fails. The dependency of a domesticated nonhuman is qualitatively different from the dependency of a disabled human. That dependence is deliberate and is intended to result in submission and to facilitate control

We put a great deal of resources into trying to prevent human dependency in most contexts. We put a great deal of resources into helping humans who are dependent to be as independent as possible or as independent as they wish. The fact that we seek to prevent this sort of complete dependency and to enable independence does not mean that we value dependent humans less; indeed, a central tenet of my Abolitionist theory is that all beings — human or nonhuman — who are sentient, or subjectively aware, should be treated equally in that none should be used exclusively as a resource for others. But it is absurd to ignore, as the “political turn” theorists do, that we do not see complete dependency as inherently valuable in the human context. It is speciesist to view it differently in a nonhuman context.

Argument Two: Domesticated animals are like human slaves

Donaldson and Kymlicka talk about domesticated animals as analogous to human slaves but not in the same way that I do. When I say that domesticated animals are like slaves, I mean to point out a factual similarity: nonhuman animals and human slaves are both chattel property that exist for the benefit of others and the regulation of animal use and the regulation of slavery are similarly problematic for jurisprudential and economic reasons.

Donaldson and Kymlicka use the analogy of domesticated animals and human slaves in a different way. They claim that just as we faced the challenge of making slaves “full and equal citizens,” we face the same challenge with nonhuman animals. They claim that to argue that we ought to stop producing domesticated animals is analogous to claiming that we ought “to seek the extinction of American-Americans, or to repatriate them to Africa.” They see domesticated animals as analogous to human slaves in race-based slavery. Yes, we have certainly changed the animality of animals we selectively breed to be compliant. servile, and submissive, but, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka, “the experience of slavery” also changed those who were enslaved: “It changed their cultures, their physical being, their sense of identity, their aspirations and options.”

Putting aside the irony of maintaining that my rejection of domestication is ableist while maintaining the arguably racist position that enslaved African-Americans were, in fact, analogous to domesticated animals, this argument misses an crucial point: slaves are human persons on whom we have imposed the legal status of property. If you remove that legal status, you still have a human person who can live an autonomous life. That human may have to adapt to a new social situation, but that human is the same as s/he was before, minus the legal disability of being someone’s property. Any changes that slavery imposed on humans are simply not analogous to the changes that domestication imposed on animals. The change from a wolf to a dog is not like the change from an African to an African-American, and it is breathtaking that “political turn” theorists would maintain this. Whatever challenge that we face in integrating formerly enslaved persons into the society of free persons — however difficult — is qualitatively different from the challenge we face in integrating nonhuman animals whom we have bred selectively to be submissive, servile, and dependent on us for every aspect of their existence to be “citizens” in our political community.

*****

Some of the material in this essay was taken from Gary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton. “The Case Against Pets,” published in Aeon at https://aeon.co/essays/why-keeping-a-pet-is-fundamentally-unethical.

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln.

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