Is It Unethical to Have Pets?

Sometimes people ask me about my stance on pets, so I’ll share that in this post.

My family had a pet when I was growing up – a rabbit named Cinnamon. Sometimes it roamed freely around the backyard, while other times they kept it in a large cage. I wasn’t the rabbit’s main caregiver.

At another time my first wife and I got a kitten. I don’t recall the exact year, but I think it was before we were married. We didn’t have the kitten long though. I found out that I was allergic to cats, so we gave it away to someone else, probably a few months after we got it.

We had the kitten in the 1990s in L.A. I might have been vegetarian at the time, or this may have been shortly after I went vegan. I think of my early vegan years as being mainly about the plant-based diet and not about the full vegan lifestyle. I hadn’t stopped using other animal products like leather shoes and belts at that point yet.

I also grew up in a neighborhood where neighbors on both sides had dogs, and I used to spend a lot of time at their houses, and I’d often play with their dogs. I also used to take care of a different neighbor’s cat when they were out of town.

So I have some experience with pets. I understand the value in having them. My views on pets have evolved a lot since I was younger though.

I know that animals can have interesting relationships with people, and I’m in favor of relating to them in ways that respect their freedom and dignity and provide mutual value. I’m also in favor of safety in these relationships when it’s necessary to consider it.

I’m opposed, however, to treating animals as property or to claiming ownership of them. I consider this unethical because it’s nonconsensual. Animals don’t grasp the human world of property and can’t consent to this aspect of a relationship.

I do feel that animals can consent to other aspects of relationships with humans. They can communicate in various ways, such as with movement, sound, and body language. This communication may not always be clear, but human-to-human communication isn’t perfectly clear at all times either.

I do feel that people can serve as caregivers for animals. Within human society, people can assume responsibility for the lives of certain animals. I’m okay with animals living with people too, with some caveats.

I don’t think it’s ethical to constrain animals in ways that disrespect their natural lifestyles and potential. Putting a fish in a fishbowl or aquarium seems very wrong. Same goes for putting a bird in a cage.

I don’t feel that humans are entitled to claim animals as property, whether for food, entertainment, companionship, or some form of service.

You are welcome to disagree with me. Obviously we live in a world where people do claim animals as property. Do you feel that humans are entitled to do so? What gives us this ability? I think the answer is pretty clear: Humans are stronger. We can use our bigger brains to dominate other species. And so we have done so. Does might make right?

I don’t grant humans any high ground of ethics to use this power. I don’t regard claiming ownership of animals as being substantially different from claiming ownership of other humans, which was also done based on dominance. People tried to justify this after the fact with various moral twists, and they don’t hold up.

I think if you’re going to claim ownership of an animal anyway, it’s best to be clear about that relationship. You can do that because you’re dominant. The animal doesn’t have much say in the matter. It cannot give informed consent. You can just take its life and do as you wish with it. Whatever you do after the fact to justify that is your own moral twisting to make yourself feel better about the decision.

You can still love the animal. You can take good care of it. You can mourn it when it dies. You can consider it part of your family. Just note that people have had similar relationships with other people they’ve regarded as property too.

You can do your best to convince yourself that it’s an equitable and consensual relationship, but the ownership aspect is still going to infect that relationship, which will corrupt the relationship to some extent.

That said, you can still have nice relationships with animals without the entitlement of ownership that comes from dominance. You don’t actually need to claim ownership of them.

You can still pretend to claim ownership of an animal for the sake of navigating the human world legally and socially. Pay lip service to that idea to the extent necessary for keeping animals that you care about safe from harm. You may have some tricky decisions to make there, but I think you could make this work.

Claiming ownership of animals damages our relationships with them. You can have better relationships with animals when you don’t try to own them as “my dog” or “my cat.” Bring more respect to your relationships with them instead.

Hummingbirds often fly around where I live. They’re the closest animals I have to pets right now – and lizards too I suppose. I don’t claim ownership of them, but I still enjoy their company. I’ve even pet one of them before. I would never want to cage one though. A hummingbird needs to live a hummingbird’s life – outdoors with the trees and flowers. It’s not my place to disrupt their lifestyles.

How would you feel if a more intelligent AI claimed ownership of you? What if the AI wasn’t even that smart… just smart enough to dominate you? Would it be okay for the AI to control more parts of your life without your consent? Should it constrain your movement to keep you safer? Should it prevent you from having sex to avoid potential problems that could cause?

Do you give animals the same risky freedoms that you’d want for yourself?

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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