Monday, November 7, 2011

I Don't Hate Pets: A Polemic

I don't hate pets.  Not the animals themselves.  But I'm convinced that many of us who think we love animals - our pets especially - mainly love the way animals make us feel.

I don't hate pet owners.  But I think we too easily slip into treating other animals as means toward our own entertainment and emotional fulfillment.  And I hate the culture of pet ownership that encourages us to do this without thinking.

We pay lip service to the needs of pets (we walk them, take them to the vet, pay exorbitantly for their upkeep).  But not when it really matters.  When our needs come head to head with theirs, who inevitably wins?

Instead of engaging them on their terms, we force animals to fit of the gaps in our lives.  Like a bonsai kitty, pressed into a mold for heart-shaped sushi.  Collared and neutered and declawed and debarked.  In modern cities that are ill-suited for the expression of intrinsic dog-ness and cat-ness.

We can't seem to appreciate nature by simple acknowledgement.  We have to go there.  We have to own it.  We have to own it on our own terms so it's clean and convenient and lives and dies at our behest.

But we're not honoring nature by owning pets.  We're choosing one life at the expense of another.  We're choosing pets above fellow humans.  We spend more on pets in a year than the Gates Foundation has during its entire existence to eradicate poverty and disease.

Raising animals after our own image furthers their extinction in the wild.  The more grandiose among us poach parrots and lemurs.  More insidiously, we marvel when our children catch turtles and frogs.  Taking them home to slowly starve and desiccate.  Our cats and dogs make a sport of exterminating local fauna.

Pets are not animals.  They are our children who cannot speak and cannot grow up.  Upon whom we can freely project our prejudices and gripes and emotional needs without being questioned.  This is not what an animal should be.

People are cruel and neglectful and exploitative of other people too.  But we can walk away.  We can fight back.  Our real children will inevitably learn to speak and think for themselves, which compels us to shield them from the worst of ourselves.  Pets are children with no rights.

Do I believe that they should have all the rights of human beings?  Should Spot be able to sue Bobby for emotional damage?  I'm not that crazy.

I surely don't believe that we can or should put all pet owners under surveillance to make sure they treat their animals with respect and humanity.  And despite my lingering idealism, I can't envision any awareness campaign that could change our attitudes enough to make pet ownership feel ok to me in this lifetime.

We haven't gotten there with people yet.  Peter Singer's "circle of empathy" has a long way to go.

So in the absence of sufficient understanding, respect, and human kindness, and without resorting to outlandish Big Brotherhood, I'm left with only one choice.  I have to reject the idea of pet ownership as an ethically tenable, societywide activity.

Organizations like PETA feebly succor the symptom but feed the disease.   Instead of those horrible animal shelter commercials starring Sarah McLachlan and Youtube videos of cute cat tricks, I'd be willing to support any measure that makes pet ownership less appealing.

The best way we can love animals is to stay away from them.  Please.  Help me spread the word.


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of this, especially on balance. Little critters like hamster and fish can't be happy stuffed into containers (hamsters walk 7 miles a day in the wild). Pets are abused, neglected. But many are well-cared for and live much longer than they'd live in the wild (not that many of them could live in the wild considering centuries of breeding human-pleasing traits and personalities). Wild animals life rough lives, often far rougher than those of mistreated domestic ones; the comparison obviously isn't to an idyllic life, but simply to a natural one.

Jialan Wang said...

Thanks for your comment!

It gets into the idea that we express much of our love for animals by trying to rescue them and save them from suffering, as we imagine we would want for ourselves.

This really gets into a deeper question of whether a human-like existence is itself a moral virtue. Is it immoral of us to permit suffering in the natural world? I argue that it isn't.

Nature is neither moral nor immoral. Furthermore, it's not possible to rescue one species without starving another, because nature is interconnected. Prey wouldn't exist, and would quickly perish themselves without predators. Human sentimentality is simply incompatable with ecological balance, so I think our instincts to rescue are understandable but misguided.

By choosing one species over another, we're not reducing total suffering. We're just choosing which animals suffer to suit our own needs.

But it IS immoral for us to use animals as a means to our own end. So arguments that dogs and cats wouldn't exist without us, or that their lives are much better with us than in the wild, are no justification for pet ownership. The latter contention is also both debatable and unconfirmable since animals cannot speak and are unable to consent.

Thus, the only moral stance is to leave nature alone, which preserves the dignity of nonhuman species.

James said...

Yes, I still agree with your conclusion, and am surprised and heartened that people ponder these topics so.

If I may nit-pick one thing (b/c it seems like that's how you roll), it would be including pets in the "zero-sum ecosystem" -- yes, which I know was in response to my bringing up suffering domestically vs. in the wild (sorry) -- b/c we're not harvesting our pets from the woods. Nearly all pets are now propagated w/in the bounds of humanity, very much like plants you'd find at a nursery. That's an issue itself, of course.

So, yes, suffering is an essential part of nature, even if modern pets aren't.

Our relationship with and use of animals is bad, if not horrible, in most instances, and at best neutral in others. It's "positive" when we're lessening the degree of pre-existing human-caused suffering, perhaps such as saving a shelter animal or giving up factory-farmed meat.

That said, try playing fetch with a dog sometime... you really will brighten his day :)

Jialan Wang said...

Dear James,

I think we're generally agreed on all points. My point is that we should consider the entire world when considering whether we're benefiting animals overall when keeping pets, not that pets are taken directly from the wild.

In this tradeoff, I emphasize that we're biased toward focusing on what's in front of us (our happy and clean pets), and forget about what we can't see (the habitats destroyed to make way for Purina factories).

The fact is that a human-like lifestyle is incredibly destructive to nature. By making ourselves and our pets more comfortable, we're extinguishing wildlife. In order for Spot to have a yard to run in, a small piece of forest had to die. In order for Spot to be flea-free, chemical factories have to be built and pollutants leach into the water. Etc etc.

It's not an easy choice to face, but I think we have to confront these costs and not pretend that we're doing an unmitigated good by raising pets.

James said...

And please keep up the blog; this stuff is great. The topics and analyses alike are fun to ponder. I'm a shade less militant on some things :-), but appreciate what you do.

I think you've summed up humanity in your comment; we take here-and-now stimuli and run them through heuristics and emotional filters to make decisions. We can't change that, but by circulating more and better info about "stuff," we can improve the inputs (and, hence, the decisions). Maybe I'm jaded.

Thanks again.

donnacooks said...

I agree with you that owning domestic pets for no working reason is a terrible trend. There is, however, a need for working animals (dogs herding sheep, seeing-eye dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, etc). Unfortunately our idolization of dogs being man's best friend because of their amazing abilities perpetuates the trend and cause problems like animal overpopulation. Then comes that horrible dilemma: do you rescue those shelter animals and have them live a "modified" existence or exterminate them?

However, now that I have a dog, I have to say that it is amazing the psychological effect pet ownership has on people. There have been studies on the emotional benefits of having domestic animals (again, a human benefit, not an animal benefit).

Lastly, in an industrialized society where we don't have the need for manpower for pure labor, is having children (or at least more than 2 children) considered selfish? Particularly in densely populated places? It's hard to argue the need for a larger population. This is a much more emotional debate.

Jialan Wang said...

Hi Donna!

I think that if we're honest, using any other sentient animal instrumentally is wrong. That includes work animals, or having children as a means for personal fulfillment.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that we're not robots and we have emotional needs. What I struggle with is that technology magnifies our selfish impulses to such an extreme.

Because it costs so little to us, we can breed millions of puppies for brief moments of joy and then abandon them. We not only have to have kids, but burn unsustainable amounts of energy to give them the tiniest benefit.

Our emotional impulses never used to inflict so much damage. But now that we have the technology to give dogs chemotherapy and drive kids to soccer practice, of course we'll use it.

Ethics is more important than ever because we have the power to do so much more harm (and good), but our emotions (and hence actions) haven't caught up to our technology.

So I think we need to be extra conservative about our actions. When there's a dilemma, err on the side of fewer pets and fewer children.

Wibble said...

Frankly, I take issue with your first statement: "...many of us who think we love animals...mainly love the way animals make us feel." The same can be said of any manifestation of 'love'.

Do I 'love' my girlfriend, or do I 'love' the way she makes me feel when I look at her, spend time with her, care for her? Is there a difference? I don't believe this is nearly as separable as you seem to think it is; at the very least, it is more of a spectrum of attachment.

Our entire experience of reality is based on our feelings--the biological impulses that make me feel good around my mate, my children, my friends, my pets, it's all the same chemicals (see, e.g., oxytocin), and it's all connected to what we choose to call 'love'.

donnacooks said...

I can see the logic in most of your argument, but I can't agree with the broad statement that using a sentient animal for instrumental reasons is ethically wrong. Historically, animals have been an important part of transportation (horses), agricultural labor (mules), and other needs. In the modern world, having a working dog for guidance or simple retrieval tasks greatly improves the independence of the visually or physically disadvantaged. Maybe it's because my bus route is heavily used by those attending The Texas School for the Blind and I am exposed to this constantly, but I don't see this type of work as abuse for the dogs. As pack animals, dogs generally respond positively to having routine and companionship. Also, as this documentary on PBS about companion dogs for the disadvantaged points out (, dogs only exist because of humans, they are domesticated wolves bred for specific tasks. For this reason, they are very good at those tasks they are bred for and are able to form closer relationships to humans than gerbils, birds, or any other animal not "created" by man. I think the benefits of confidence and independence working dogs bring to the disadvantaged community greatly outweighs any issues of whether working is fair to the dog.

On the other hand, nonworking pet dogs are a simple indulgence for people. Much like eating meat, it's probably unnecessary.

Wibble said...

Also, I believe dogs are a special issue here, because the fact of the matter is that dogs would not exist without humans. They are not 'natural', and the vast majority of them cannot survive on their own, in 'nature'. We created them, and there is evidence that they simultaneously created us.

The dog-human relationship is thus either a purely utilitarian one (if one looks at dogs as a biological tool that we have shaped to our needs, both physical and psychological), or a symbiotic one (if you choose the more 'holistic' view that we shaped each other, in human/dog 'packs').

This is, of course, a separate issue from BS like puppy mills and the like. Whatever their relationship with their pets, many owners are ridiculously irresponsible (both wrt to their pets, and in their lives in general). I question some people's competence as far as riding a bicycle to the corner store, much less driving, owning pets, or having children.

James said...

Giving a pet a great life is harder than it seems. But it's possible for some types of cats and dogs (both species largely self-domesticated anyway).

The harder issue is the difficulty of all-in decision making.

a) Everybody *knows* that he/she is going to be the ideal, responsible pet owner, and definitely not like that abusive jerk across the street or the lady who's never home to walk her dog. But most people are worse than they think.

b) If you could quantify all the "magic moments" pets/owners enjoy, would they justify not the collateral suffering? Maybe. But what about the resources? I don't think it's a black-and-white answer... some pets in some places certainly do.. guide dogs do.. guard dogs do.

c) Speaking of resources, what about veterinary medicine specifically? It's a HUGE industry. Doggie MRIs, doggie chemo. But low-cost veterinary treatments are used in third-world countries to help kids, b/c the medicine is affordable (if subject to lower safety standards), presumably thanks to first-world consumers. Doomsday survivalist types also dig veterinary medicine, and they're pretty interesting.

James said...

On second thought, probably not guard dogs, based on my limited understanding of their profession. W/o saying "always," I agree that we should use creatures too liberally.

But it's less for utilitarian purposes and more for companionship/accessorizing/other purposes.

Still, the fact that our society has evolved (and prospered) to the point that we're having this discussion is a big positive.

James again said...

"shouldn't" .. and meant "increasingly less"... sorry

Long day.

Wibble said...

Don't know if you're still reading/responding to this, but I read your comments, and have more thoughts...

By choosing one species over another, we're not reducing total suffering. We're just choosing which animals suffer to suit our own needs.

...and? If nature is amoral, it does not care. If, as you say, it is a zero-sum game, and we can/do not reduce total suffering, what's the problem if I decide that my dog will be the one to come out on top, over some other Imaginary Conflicting Forest Creature (ICFC)?

But it IS immoral for us to use animals as a means to our own end.


...debatable and unconfirmable since animals cannot speak and are unable to consent.

...Your argument contains a conflict that I've seen in others. You claim it is 'immoral' for us to use animals, and yet posit that they cannot communicate nor consent. If animals are so 'dumb' as to be speechless and have no valid opinion as to their own place in the world, then why does morality even come into play?

If neither my dog, nor the ICFC that my dog takes resources from can communicate, consent, or hold any opinion on any of this ('amoral') then why is it immoral for me to use them as I please?

If, on the other hand, my dog does communicate, and has made it clear that she prefers her current life to the one where she was wandering through the woods of WV, 20 lbs underweight, then I have no problem with supporting her over ICFC. However, I can (and do) try to live responsibly, shaping our lives such that we conflict as little as possible with the life of ICFC. Just because I prefer the critter I know doesn't mean I want to curbstomp the critters I don't.

What gives me the right to make these choices? Well, I guess being human, and the fact that humans are currently in control of the high-level parts of the world. We may not like the idea of 'might makes right', but in this case it is the truth.

Thus, the only moral stance is to leave nature alone, which preserves the dignity of nonhuman species.

Your view on animals seems to be that they are mindless automatons, painted onto the scenic canvas of 'Nature'. Works of art that we should leave alone so as to not besmirch their pristine 'dignity'.

Humanity would not have come to power without using animals and shaping nature to its own ends. At this point in history, there is no such thing as pristine nature, our very presence on this world has by now touched everything in at least small ways, and usually enormous ways. I agree that nature is amoral, but then nature itself doesn't care about its 'dignity'. It just is. It also doesn't care if it is wiped out.

I agree with your general principle that 'less is good'. It's something we have to come to terms with if we're going to survive: consume less, have fewer children, etc. Nature may not care if it gets wiped out, but we do. Without it, we will probably die too, but beyond that, we can have an aesthetic, emotional, sentimental appreciation for Nature that it does not have for itself.

This does not mean that having pets is immoral, or goes against the greater good, it just means that, as with everything else, humanity as a whole and humans on an individual level need to learn to be more responsible. It is not pet ownership that is immoral, it is the 'pet industry', with its overpopulation, overproduction, abuse, and abandonment, and irresponsible people who support said industry and do not lead responsible lives in general.

Jialan Wang said...

Dear Wibble et al - Thanks for your comments!

I may not touch on every point you've raised, but here are some thoughts.

1) My moral views have been influenced a lot by Kant, who states that we should "So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end in itself, never as means only." In fact, I've just checked out several philsophy books to delve back into these ideas that have so shaped my life :-)

Contrary to treating animals as mindless automatons, it's my respect for their dignity as autonomous beings that makes me think it's wrong to use them *purely* as a means toward our own enjoyment. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy animals, we just should not use them ONLY for our own enjoyment.

We can love other people, but Kant says we shouldn't USE them only because of the pleasure they provide to us. Instead, in a relationship based on respect we feel pleasure only THROUGH their own expression of themselves. Treating another person - or as I argue, any other animal with emotional capacity - as a means to an end is tantamount to disregarding their selfhood and treating them as a thing. It's also a violation of the golden rule (treat others as one would like others to treat oneself), since WE wouldn't want to be used as a means to an end.

I agree that our modern understanding of emotion makes distinguishing means from ends tricky, but in principle I still agree with Kant.

2) I don't think the fact that domestic animals wouldn't exist without human intervention excuses our use of them as a means to an end. Our children also wouldn't exist without us, but it's wrong to use them for our own fulfillment. In the past, slaveowners also used the same argument. Past wrongs do not excuse their perpetuation.

3) Nature IS amoral. Which means that I don't think we can fault a lion for killing gazelle, etc. But humans ARE capable of moral choice. So by purposely choosing to bring an animal into the world, using it as a means to an end, all the while destroying the lives of even more animals, we are morally culpable. If we have any moral capacity at all, then clearly it can be immoral for us to do something that nature does all the time.

I can boil down my entire argument into the following: just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

I think it's extremely human to favor those who are emotionally close to us over those we can't see. This applies not only to pet favortism, but human favortism. Most of us believe that all human lives have equal worth, but we don't act like it. A larger problem weighing on my mind is that current technology gives us tremendous power to affect the lives of people (and animals) we will never see, in both glorious and terrifying ways.

And the problem is that it's not a one-to-one swap. If it's just your dog vs. one wild animal somewhere else, arguably that would be value neutral. But in reality, it's one dog versus hundreds or thousands of other animals.

There's a growing gap between our natural emotional impulses and our power to impact the world. So I think we have to learn to somehow sympathize with the abstract lives we impact but will never touch. We fail to do so only at our own peril (because after all, WE are also the abstract lives affect by OTHER people's actions!).

Jialan Wang said...

4) I might seem like I have an extremely absolutist view. That I couldn't tolerate the use of dogs being as companions for the disabled under the most humane possible conditions.

In the grand scheme of things, I'm not out to outlaw pet ownership or all uses of animals. But I want us to ask ourselves - are we treating animals as things, imposing our own needs on them and forcing them to suit our needs without respect for their animal-ness and autonomy? Is there a way to accomplish the same goal without using animals, or are we being lazy about doing whatever is easiest? Do we favor ourselves and our pets to the determinent of other animals?

Taking my arguments to their logical conclusion, there IS a conflict between morality and nature. We feel morally and emotionally driven to improve the lives around us, and to ease even the tiniest suffering. But I argue that we and our pets already have a great deal, and have taken more than our fair share from nature to get it. We cannot "save" all animals from death and suffering, and at a certain point the marginal benefit of helping one creature is vastly outweighted by the destruction of manyfold more others. I think we've long ago passed that point. Even the disabled and elderly in our society enjoy tremendous benefits, so I think it's wrong to morally violate another animal just to give humans even more than we already have. We should help them in any way we can, but first we must not harm.

I think society is becoming more sensitive and empathetic toward the environment and other animals. But sadly, our gradually growing sense of responsibility is overwhelmed by our exponentiating power for destruction. Our wealth and technology make it too easy to do things without thinking through their consequences. And in truth, it's hard for us even to grasp how to make a tradeoff between a fancier dog food that might take more energy and resources to produce, making our dog's coat imperceptibly shinier, versus the unseen costs its production might exact on nature.

Of course it's human and natural then, to be tempted to just do things that benefit us and our immediate animal companions, even if the benefit is tiny or nonexistent. This is exactly the logic that leads us to climate change and the stomach-turning, under-reported mass extinction that's going on right now.

I'm driven to write about these ideas because we can't help but take things too far. Because our actions now have extreme consequences, I feel compelled to counter with an extreme stance.

MarkB57 said...

I do so love your intent (i. e. building positive sustainability) in all your entries, Jialan. I fear your approach in most of them. That is: punishing yourself for complicit participation, pointing out the global negative consequences of status quo behaviors. To follow that point to its logical conclusion means anticipating not just a filthy environment, but also the extinction of life as we know it. Help find paradigm-changing extreme green solutions and promote the habits that will integrate green lifestyles into human culture. For your past and present and future actions to that end I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Jialan Wang said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for your comment and interest! This is a question I've been grappling with for a while now - how can I live by my principles while also engaging with those around me (who may feel less adamant about personal responsibility toward the greater good)?

What many philosophies teach us is that achieving satisfaction and peace in life is about seeing beauty and meaning in the small things that the world already offers us, instead of forever reaching for personal gain.

While these philosophies are supposed to lead us toward balance and happiness, humility can become dysfunctional in a society based on individualism, achievement, and market economics.

Based on ideas from philosophers like Kant, Singer, and Rawls, I seek to identify with the worst-off in society. To ask - if they can live with less, why can't I? If I can help someone by giving up some superfluous consumption, aren't I obliged to do so?

Objectively, I think it's altogether sane and reasonable to give up steaks and international travel for the sake of the greater good. It's the least I can do, and I'll still live a great life.

But identification with the worst-off puts me at odds with social norms. And as you say - prevents me from engaging with the greater society that sees these sacrifices as unreasonable and extreme.

I don't know how to square this circle, but I'm experimenting. What I can say is that we live in a time of gross inequality, that deranges the rich as much as it tyrannizes the poor.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see I'm not the only person who considers this. I guess the real question is how to get other people on board. Even on this page there are a couple people having knee-jerk emotional reactions to the idea because they're personally invested in the idea of pet ownership; they're getting angry because 'pet owner' is part of their identity, so they see this article as a personal attack. With so many people owning pets, what can we do to convince them to stop when even bringing the subject up causes them to recoil reflexively?

Anonymous said...

Jialan, I completely agree with you. I've felt this way for quite some time. I tried to talk to my boyfriend about this, but he thinks I'm crazy :(

might have an ex-boyfriend in the near future because I feel very strongly about this

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