Animal Rights and Domesticated Nonhumans

One aspect of my theory of animal rights, as articulated in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? and other places, that troubles some animal advocates, is that if we accept the rights position, we ought not to bring any more domesticated nonhumans into existence. I apply this not only to animals we use for food, experiments, clothing, etc., but also to our nonhuman companions.

I can certainly understand that if you embrace the welfarist approach, which says that the use of nonhumans is morally acceptable as long as you treat them “humanely” and which sees the goal as better regulating animal use, you would reject my view. But if you, as I, see the primary problem of animal exploitation to be our use of nonhumans irrespective of whether we are “humane,” and regard the goal as the abolition of animal exploitation, then it is not clear to me why this position would cause you any difficulty.

The logic is simple. We treat animals as our property, as resources that we can use for our purposes. We bring billions of them into existence for the sole purpose of using and killing them. We have bred these animals to be dependent on us for their survival.

The central position of my rights theory is that we have no justification for treating animals as our property just as we had no justification for treating other humans as slaves. We have abolished human chattel slavery in most parts of the world; similarly, we should abolish animal slavery.

But what does that mean in the context of nonhumans? Should we “liberate” animals and let them wander freely in the streets? No, of course not. That would be as irresponsible as allowing small children to wander around. We should certainly care for those nonhumans whom we have already brought into existence but we should stop causing any more to come into existence. We have no justification for using nonhumans—however “humanely” we treat them.

There are two objections that I have heard in connection with this view.

First, there is the concern 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 that we have created through selective breeding and confinement. 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.

Second, and more often, animal advocates express a difficulty with my view about domestication because they point to the fact that many of us live with nonhumans and treat them as members of our families. This arrangement, they argue, must certainly be morally acceptable.

As far as companion animals are concerned, some of us treat them as family members and 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 the law will protect 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 protect your decision. But if you wish to accord your property a lower value and, for instance, have a guard dog who you keep chained in your yard and 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.

It does not matter whether we characterize an owner as a “guardian,” as some advocates urge. Such a characterization is meaningless. 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, these advocates respond, we could, at least in theory, have a different and morally acceptable relationship with nonhumans. What if we abolished the property status of animals and required that we treat dogs and cats similar to the way we treat human children? What if humans who lived with dogs 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 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.

Domestic animals are dependent on us for when and whether they eat, whether they 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 have bred them to be compliant and servile, or to have characteristics that are actually harmful to them but are pleasing to us. 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.” We may be benevolent “masters,” but we really aren’t anything more than that. And that cannot be right.

My partner and I live with five rescued dogs. All five would be dead if we did not adopt them. We love them very much and try very hard to provide them 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 some advocates who think that “animal rights” 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?

In sum, I can understand that welfarists, for whom treatment and not use is the primary moral issue, think that domestication and continued animal use is acceptable as long as we treat animals “humanely.” But I cannot understand why anyone who regards herself as an abolitionist thinks that the continued domestication of any nonhumans could be justified provided that we treat those animals well—any more than I can understand how anyone who regards herself as an abolitionist can be anything other than a vegan.

The subtitle of my book—Your Child or the Dog?—the notion of the child and the dog in the burning house (or on the lifeboat, or wherever) is meant to focus our attention on the fact that we seek to resolve moral conflicts between humans and animals. But we create those conflicts by, as it were, dragging the animal into the burning house by bringing her into existence as a resource for our use. We then wonder about how to resolve the conflict that we have created! That makes no sense.

If we took animals seriously, we would stop treating them as our resources, as our property. But that would mean an end to bringing nonhumans into existence so that we can use them for food, clothing, vivisection, or any other purpose, including for companionship.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione