Theories of Companion Animal Ethics

Chapter 5
Theories of Companion Animal Ethics

  1. 5.1 Introduction
  2. 5.2 Contractarian Approaches – Companion Animals Are Only Indirectly Ethically Important
  3. 5.3 Utilitarian Approaches – Welfare, and Only Welfare, Matters
  4. 5.4 Deontological and Rights Approaches – Not Only the Consequences Matter
  5. 5.5 Contextual Approaches
  6. 5.6 Dealing with Multiple Ethical Approaches

5.1 Introduction

In the previous chapter, we suggested that to ensure an animal’s best possible welfare, we need to do more than simply use animal welfare science to work out what would be positive and negative from the animal’s point of view. We also need to weigh these positives and negatives against one another; this weighing forms part of an ethical judgement. So, for example, whether it is best for a cat living in a quiet, safe neighbourhood to be allowed out to roam or to be kept indoors requires weighing the potential benefits of roaming, in terms of exercise and expression of behavioural needs, against the risks of being hit by a car or infected by disease.

By saying that ethical judgement is involved here, we mean that potentially conflicting values are at play. To make a decision, it is necessary to come to a view about the relative importance of these values. So far, we have only discussed values relating to the welfare of the affected animals. But ethical judgements often involve much more than this. Even if two people agree about what constitutes the best welfare for a particular animal, they may still reach different ethical conclusions, because they disagree about whether other values are relevant and important and how (or whether) to factor these in. Decisions about one animal companion, for example, may have consequences for other animals, or for human welfare, or for other human values, such as aesthetic value; or they may have implications for the environment. The way people view and weigh these other values will affect their all things considered ethical decision making.

This becomes clear if we return to the indoor/outdoor cat question. Someone who thinks that overall, cat welfare would be improved by letting cats roam outdoors, may still make an ‘all things considered’ ethical judgement that cats should nonetheless be confined. Outdoor cats can be a significant nuisance to human neighbours and even a threat to public health. Cats also hunt wildlife, raising questions not just about the welfare of individual birds and rodents, but also about broader environmental values, such as species protection. (We will consider these questions about companion animals’ negative impacts further in Chapter 14.) These concerns may outweigh those about the welfare of the cat(s) in question when deciding whether, ethically speaking, the cat(s) should be allowed to roam outdoors. When we make ‘all things considered’ ethical decisions, animal welfare may be only one relevant value among many. And different people may weigh these multiple values differently, leading to conflicts in ethical judgements about what we should do.

Not only are there different views as to which values matter when it comes to companion animals (many of which we will discuss in this book), there are also contrasting ways in which we apply those values. For instance, do we have an obligation to maximise what we think is valuable, such as an obligation to attempt to bring about the best possible total welfare across humans and animals? Or do our ethical commitments entail, instead, a requirement to absolutely protect what is valued – for instance, never to violate basic rights – rather than to maximise total value?

One way of enabling a structured discussion of such questions is by means of so-called ethical theories. These are theoretical constructs developed by philosophers to describe different approaches to understanding and weighing values, and to putting values into practice. In this chapter, we discuss four types of ethical theory, each of which outlines a distinctive approach to thinking about ethical issues involving animals. We have chosen these four approaches because we think that separately, and in combination, they provide a gateway to understanding most ethical discussions relevant to companion animal ethics.

Understanding these different theoretical approaches to ethics is important in two key ways. First, it should assist in developing, and perhaps challenging, our own ethical views about companion animals. Second, it may help in understanding why other people, who also regard themselves as behaving ethically, may support very different actions or policies from those we as individuals consider to be ethical. Such an understanding of other people’s approaches to ethics is an important prerequisite for a civilised social dialogue about companion animals.

5.2 Contractarian Approaches – Companion Animals Are Only Indirectly Ethically Important

One feature that distinguishes companion animals from other domesticated animals is that most people care more about their animal companions than they do about other animals, such as those used for food production. This may seem inconsistent from a perspective from which animals with similar capacities should be similarly valued. However, this is not inconsistent in the group of views to be discussed here, according to which animals are not directly of ethical relevance at all. On these views, animals’ values lie only in their importance to people, rather than in the good of the animal itself. As we saw in Chapter 3, many people have very close bonds with their companion animals, caring for them and seeing them as a source of affection and emotional support. From a perspective where animals matter only indirectly, harming beloved companions would be ethically problematic, not because it harms the animal, but because doing so would result in emotional or psychological harm to the animal’s human owner.

From positions like this, the feelings (and perhaps the property rights) of the owner and other affected humans are not simply a reason, but rather the only reason for protecting companion animals. By implication, then, to the extent that no one cares about a particular animal, or a group of animals, they do not matter ethically. Historically, the view that animals – including companion animals – can matter ethically because, and only because, they are important to people has been widely endorsed by philosophers.

One ethical approach that (in most forms) still defends this view is contractarianism. Contractarians argue that morality is a kind of contract, which we join, ultimately, for our own self-interest. By adhering to certain rules of respect and decency to others, we can create a tolerable society; moral rules are conventions that serve everyone’s interests. However, many forms of moral contractarianism only apply to individuals who are both able to understand and to follow the rules, and to gain from doing so. Since animals – companions or otherwise – cannot understand the rules of morality, they cannot join the contract. This means that they fall outside the sphere of beings to whom we have direct moral responsibilities. Of course, in the case of companion animals, owners care about what happens to their companions. If I steal, beat and starve your dog, I cause you considerable distress, and thereby show disrespect to you, as a member of the moral community. So I have a direct obligation to you not to do this. However, if I capture and beat a feral dog, and no one knows about it (or no one cares), then there is nothing wrong with my doing so.

However, even on contractarian views, neglect and cruelty are not normally acceptable because those who live with animal companions are usually strongly attached to them, and contractarian ethical views will provide significant protection to those particular animals. Where people extend this attachment to other members of the same species (so, someone who loves their cat may have a looser attachment to all cats), it may also provide some reason to protect all cats. However, there are important situations where this ethical approach might raise questions – as we will see in later chapters. Suppose, for instance, that an owner has a dog that is in severe pain from an incurable disease. The animal is suffering so much and has such poor welfare that we might reasonably say that it would be better off dead. But the owner, being strongly attached to her companion, wants to keep the animal alive ‘no matter what’, and does not take the animal to be euthanased. On this ethical theory, there is no direct reason for her to do so: only human desires matter; so what is best for the animal is ethically irrelevant.

It is for this reason that contractarianism is often regarded as inadequate in the context of animal ethics, as it implies that causing or allowing animals to suffer is morally unproblematic, so long as no human being is harmed. Indeed, this position, in a simple form, seems to take the same view of children, or people with certain mental disabilities, who are also unable to understand or keep moral rules.

However, many people consider that it is unethical as such to cause (or, sometimes, to allow) another to suffer for little or no reason, whether the individual concerned is a human being or an animal. An ethical theory that captures this view is utilitarianism.

5.3 Utilitarian Approaches – Welfare, and Only Welfare, Matters

According to utilitarianism, what we do to animals and humans alike matters ethically to the extent that we affect their welfare. On a utilitarian approach, to cause or to allow an animal to suffer always counts negatively in moral decision making, irrespective of whether humans care about it. So, one key feature of utilitarianism is that welfare matters, whoever’s welfare it is. In fact, the claim is even stronger than this: according to utilitarianism, welfare is all that matters, and from an ethical point of view, the higher the level of welfare, the better.

In the previous chapter, we saw that there are different accounts of welfare: hedonism (focusing on the balance of pleasure and pain); a preference theory; and perfectionism, with a focus on the expression of natural abilities. Depending on which theory of welfare is adopted, there will be different varieties of utilitarianism. These are called, respectively, hedonistic or classic utilitarianism; preference utilitarianism; and ideal utilitarianism. Rather than pursuing these distinctions here, we will discuss utilitarianism more broadly, with a focus on varieties of utilitarianism on which welfare is defined either in terms of hedonism or in terms of preference satisfaction.

Utilitarianism is one family in a group of ethical theories called consequentialist. All consequentialist theories agree that we should bring about the best outcomes, and that only the outcomes matter. Consequentialists require us to take the whole outcome into account in ethical decision making, including the outcomes resulting from omitting to do things we could have done. Utilitarians defend a version of this view where the best outcomes are brought about by maximizing the welfare of all the beings likely to be affected by any action (whether welfare is understood in terms of pleasure versus pain, or in terms of preference satisfaction).

The calculations involved in working out what maximises welfare in practice can be complex: as we have already seen, measuring welfare is by no means straightforward; nor is trading off different aspects of welfare, even for the same animal. What is key from a utilitarian perspective, however, is that animals matter directly, and should be considered in our moral decision making. It is not only the welfare of our companion animals that matters. Every being that can undergo pleasure or pain or has preferences should be taken into account; there is no consistent reason for picking out companion animals and excluding other beings whose welfare may be affected.

The indoor/outdoor cat case is a good example to think about here. On a utilitarian view, we should, of course, take into account the expected pleasure and pain or preference satisfaction and frustration of the cat, comparing a life confined indoors to one that allows outdoor roaming. But we should not stop there. We should also consider the pain (and loss of the positive welfare of a future life) the cat might cause to other animals that it hunts, and the way in which being kept indoors, or allowed outside, might affect the owner(s), neighbours, and so on. Also, not all cats are the same, nor in similar circumstances; therefore, no general calculation will suffice here. The key, though, is that the expected pain and pleasure, or preferences, of every human and animal affected by any decision we make should be taken equally into account – whatever the species, and whatever relation the beings concerned have to us (Figure 5.1).


Figure 5.1 The question of whether or not cats should be allowed to outdoors is contested. Many outdoor cats predate wildlife, raising ethical concerns about the welfare of individual birds and rodents and broader environmental issues such as species protection.

(Image used courtesy of Sandra Corr.)

One defender of this view is the philosopher Peter Singer (1989: pp. 152–153). Singer uses the language of interests in outlining his position: if a being can suffer, Singer argues that it has an interest in avoiding suffering, and, he maintains, its interests should be treated equally to the similar interests of other beings, whether they are human or not. Suppose we think back to the case of the owner who does not want to euthanase the incurably suffering dog. On Singer’s view, the owner’s interest in avoiding emotional distress should be weighed against the interests of the suffering dog. Since the dog’s suffering is severe, it cannot be relieved, and it is incurable, the dog’s interest in being euthanased is almost certainly stronger than the owner’s interest in keeping the dog alive – especially as this is only a temporary measure. So, the action that would be expected to minimise suffering overall in this case is euthanasia.

This conclusion illustrates something else about utilitarianism: utilitarianism does not, in principle, object to killing. Killing, for utilitarians, could generate two kinds of negative outcomes: the killing process itself may cause pain, distress or frustration; and an animal’s death brings an end to its possible future positive experiences, potentially reducing overall pleasure or preference satisfaction. In the case of a dog suffering intensely as a result of an incurable disease, however, no future positive experiences or satisfactions are possible, and euthanasia ends, rather than brings, suffering. For a utilitarian, in such a case, other things being equal, euthanasia is not just morally permitted, it is morally required.

However, this view has another implication that is troubling. It suggests that if animals are painlessly killed (so, no suffering is caused), and other animals that would not otherwise have lived are bred (so creating new possibilities for pleasant experience or preference satisfaction), then there is nothing wrong with killing them, provided the amount of new positive experience equals or exceeds whatever positive experience is lost. This seems to be the case even if the animal is healthy – and, in fact, this seems to be true of killing humans as well! So, in the case of pedigree dogs, for instance, there would be nothing wrong in principle with painlessly euthanasing a breed-imperfect but otherwise healthy litter and trying again to produce puppies that are closer to the breed ideal.

This issue has led many utilitarians to make a further distinction here, based on whether a being is thought to possess self-consciousness or not. What is meant by self-consciousness is difficult to define clearly, but the term is often taken to include a sense of oneself as persisting over time. In particular, some utilitarians have maintained, a self-conscious being is an individual who has a preference or a desire to go on living, and the frustration of such basic desires is morally relevant. This preference utilitarian view was adopted by Singer (1989) himself. Preference, or desire, utilitarians argue that we should minimise the frustration of desires in the world, especially the frustration of the most basic desire of a self-conscious creature (except in circumstances of extreme suffering) – the desire to go on living.

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Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Theories of Companion Animal Ethics
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