“Pets or Meat”? Ethics and Domestic Animals
There is often a deep disconnect and great variation in how we treat farmed, companion, and wild animals. Using a particular scene from Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me as a starting point – a scene where backyard rabbits are sold as “pets or meat” – this article unpacks the ethics around our perceptions of the different categorizations of animals. The author approaches the subject by viewing these categories of animals through the lens of an “ethic of care,” and suggests ways of acting ethically towards all wild, companion, and farmed animals.
The classification of animals into categories such as “companion” or “farmed” is a complex and confusing process, often based upon history and cultural conditioning, rather than actual differences in the animals themselves. As one example, dogs and pigs are both domesticated animals with many similarities in terms of intelligence and behavior, however, they are treated very differently by most humans. “There is widespread agreement that companion animals should have their basic needs met, and many of us think we should go much farther than that, treating our dogs as valued members of the family,” states the author of this study about animal ethics. “On the other hand, pigs — and especially pigs used in factory farms — are treated as mere means to human ends.” This paradox is one that has gained a great deal of attention in recent times within animal advocacy circles.
The study shows that the way we approach the “pets or meat” paradox is very important. Specifically, the author makes a distinction between an “ethic of justice” and an “ethic of care.” While the justice perspective is centered around looking at the capacities or characteristics of different species and what they may require from us morally, the ethic of care takes a more nuanced, personal approach. “Our sympathetic responsiveness to animals is morally significant, and caring personal relationships are the paradigmatic moral relations.” In other words, our caring relationships with our companion animals (and where those relationships come from), can inform how we relate to other species. The author recognizes that “social distance certainly matters” in how we evaluate our human-animal relationships. The way that we think of wild or farmed animals springs from the basis of care that we are willing to show to our companion animals.
The study concludes by saying that having an ethic of justice is important, but “not sufficient to account for our moral responsibilities to domestic animals.” The ethical questions surrounding farmed animals should not just include their intelligence or aptitude, but also “the nature of the relationships between humans and these animals,” and what we owe them from a care perspective. “To say that we must take care of domestic animals does not mean that we must treat them as companion animals or as ‘members of the family.’ But it is not enough to refrain from violating the rights of domestic animals, either. We have a responsibility to care for them.” Depending on how it is read, this study could seen as an article supporting an animal rights approach, or one that encourages a more mainstream advocacy perspective. Either way, this is a particularly salient debate in animal advocacy and will likely continue to be so for quite some time.
We treat companion animals according to one set of guidelines and so-called “meat animals” according to an opposing set of guidelines, despite the apparently significant similarities between the animals in question. I consider moral justifications offered for this disparity of treatment and show that this paradox reveals a mistake in our moral thinking. Generally, we group animals used in farming and free-living animals together as subject to the ethic of justice and distinguish both from companion animals, who are subject to the ethic of care. I argue that animals used in farming, like companion animals, should be understood as within the sphere of care.
This summary is available in Spanish at the Union Vegetariana Del Peru.