The Ethicist: Our Animal Companions

My cat recently died. Although his life was relatively long (for a cat, anyway) and, I would like to believe, very happy, his death was sudden and unexpected and has left me feeling deeply bereft. I keep expecting to hear his meow at the door or see his intelligent face peering up at me, and find myself waiting for him to snuggle up with me when I am sitting on the sofa reading a book.

His absence has left a hole in my life.

This has got me thinking about our companion animals – as distinguished from those we raise for meat and other products – and where we should place them within what I like to call “the moral universe.” The moral universe includes all those creatures and entities toward whom we have moral obligations. We can divide our thinking about reality and where we place its component parts in terms of our moral obligations in a number of ways.

First, we can claim that only human beings matter, morally speaking, and that all other living creatures are more akin to tables, chairs and rocks than they are to us.

Second, we can extend the moral boundaries (as many vegetarians and vegans do) to include all sentient creatures.

And, third, we might argue that all living things, including plants, have a moral status, as some environmental activists have argued. Each of these responses seems deeply unsatisfactory to me, for different reasons, especially when it comes to our companion animals, our “pets” – those living creatures with whom we develop bonds that can only be described in terms of love, loyalty and companionship.


The first response – the claim that only human beings inhabit the moral universe; that other living creatures are, morally speaking, more like pieces of furniture than they are like us – is a position argued by Emmanuel Kant, among others. For Kant, while it would be wrong to hurt someone else’s cat or dog, it was only wrong because this caused damage to someone else’s property, not wrong for the sake of the animal itself. While this position clearly seems deeply wrong, it is interesting to note that the concept of “rights” can be directly traced to Kant’s moral philosophy, and so anyone who argues that animals have rights owes an intellectual debt to a philosopher who saw them as little more than animate objects!

For me, the concept of “animal rights,” as it is often presented, is problematic, and not only because of its linkage to Kantian moral theory: the concept of a “right,” as many political philosophers have pointed out, is primarily a political or legal concept. A right exists, that is to say, not because it is asserted, but because it is recognized in the law. In addition, along with rights come obligations: for example, your right to free speech or freedom of religion obliges me to respect your right to say what you think and worship as you please, and vice-versa. It’s not at all clear, even if we were to legally extend the concept of rights to animals, what their reciprocal obligations might be.

But there is an even deeper problem here, I think, when it comes to those domestic animals we treat as pets. The concept of “rights” seems to be an inappropriate way to capture the kind of relationship we have with them – it is too formal, too legalistic. Consider the parallel with children: while we recognize that children have rights, we don’t normally describe the relationship between children and parents in terms of rights and obligations: what about affection, love and all of the other aspects of what, we hope, constitutes a mutually fulfilling relationship? I don’t think the kind of companionship Pepper offered me, nor the kind of care and love I offered to him, can adequately be described using the language of “rights” and “obligations.”


The second option, that of extending the boundaries of the moral universe to include other sentient creatures, seems, initially at least, more promising. This option has its origins in utilitarian moral thinking, and holds that animals in and of themselves – whether treated as pets, raised for food, or living wild – have to be taken morally into account when we act, because, like us, they are capable of feeling pleasures and pains. As Bentham, one of the founders of utilitarianism, beautifully and famously put it:

Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things…

For Bentham, this way of thinking was clearly wrong:

The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?

When it comes to thinking about the place of animals in the moral community, utilitarians clearly have an advantage over Kantians, for all their talk of “animal rights”: at least utilitarians recognize that animals, with their capacity to feel and to suffer, belong in the same part of the moral universe as we do, and must be treated accordingly.

But utilitarianism, I believe, is ultimately unsatisfactory as well, when it comes to describing what it is that makes our relationship with the particular companion animals in our lives special. For utilitarians, the morally right action to perform is the action which generates the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number – even if this means that the happiness of some must be ignored.

A common criticism of utilitarianism, consequently, is that it treats all of us, not as particular unique individuals, but as interchangeable units of pleasure and pain. According to this line of thinking, rather than lavishing time, attention and expensive cat food on Pepper, my time would have been better spent volunteering at the SPCA, and donating my money to that organization, so that more cats (and dogs) could benefit. Pepper’s particular pleasures, that is to say, would be outweighed by the pleasures of a larger number of cats (and other animals) who might have benefited had I spent my money and my time differently.


As for the third option, there is not much to be said: while I would like to save as many trees as I can, I do not believe that they have rights, or that they are morally comparable to sentient creatures capable of forming relationships with others, and of feeling pleasures and pains. While I enjoy looking at the trees in my garden, when one dies – or even if one starts growing where I don’t want it to – I cut it down without feeling much deep regret, sorrow or loss.

All I can say is that, for those of us who live with companion animals, who love them in their individuality and uniqueness and who know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we are in a mutually fulfilling relationship, our pets are neither property nor human persons. Instead, they are a valued presence in our lives, and our relationship with them is unlike those we have with our fellow human beings. They will never hurt our feelings with an unkind word nor betray us as a friend might.

Pepper, I will miss you, and if I can ever come up with a philosophically satisfying articulation of the companion animal-human relationship, I will name it in your honor.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.






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