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on the moral lives of pets
Symposium on Animals: Part III
Note to our readers: this is the third essay in our ongoing Symposium on Animals (read Part I on AI and Part II on irony), and our first by a guest-author and subscriber. Myles Werntz is associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author and editor of seven books, and writes at Christian Ethics in the Wild.
Though a wonderful dog, Elroi was difficult as far as pets go. A chihuahua and terrier mix, he easily fit into the household, was unfailingly underfoot, and was patently untrainable. There were early days of aspiration with Elroi, when we diligently watched Cesar Milan videos in the hope of having an owner-pet relation of a straightforward variety. But within six months, we realized that the dog which had come to live with us had a mind of his own. It was never a malicious mind—our children were played with, strangers were barked at diligently, and even after a stroke, his affection for us and our children did not waver. But he was always his own dog.
For a time, I took this to be simply what happens when two species live together: a failure of communication, which we bridge by affection. But I want to venture a different possibility: that of moral miscommunication. We know well that many animals have complex patterns of behavior and belonging. With this, the possibility opens up that animals, too, have a moral life, including both instinct and developed habits, in which shared patterns of living converge and diverge with those of other creatures. In using the language of a ‘moral life’, my intent is not to insist on precisely this characterization, but to signal its possibility—and to argue in favor of being open to it. Such an openness to that possibility would, in turn, change how we see the task of living well with other animals.
What would it mean to live with our pets, not just as animals, but as potentially moral creatures?
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One of the initial problems is that seeing our pets is not a neutral affair, and thus, it is freighted with the possibility of misperception: our pets are objects of affection, dependent upon their humans to one degree or another, but in this relation of dependency two very different creatures may begin to develop something like understanding. As Simone Weil framed it, love creates the conditions in which we pay attention, and in that act, begin to see more truthfully. On our side, we may learn to see things about our pets’ particular behavior that is rooted not just in rational analysis, but in being a part of this dependent relation—specifically, by paying attention to them as dependents whom we love.
This relation to them will frame everything else that we might see, or wish to see. For our relation to pets begins not out of natural obligation—no one makes us own pets—but out of desire. And thus, we can say that our way of naming their behavior is one rooted in love, the same source as our attention to them.
It's entirely possible that our shared life with an animal, then, is one of projection—we see only what we desire to see. But what we see with pets is not always what we wish. For our relation to them is not straightforward: it involves both natural aptitude, of instinct (for both humans and other animals), but also habits in which we learn one another's presence. Moreover, our relationship is one of both shared pictures of goodness—when my pet learns the rules of being a pet—but also one of deviation—since they have other versions of natural excellence that do not align with domestication. Their excellence is not only instinctual, but also depends on choosing certain goods rather than others, seeking to correspond to the shared rules of the house instead of always deferring to instinct.
Christine Korsgaard, in her essay “Getting Animals in View”, is not far from this view. In that essay, Korsgaard’s valuation of humans and non-human animals alike turns on the question of whether they can be taken as ends in themselves, and whether or not this is something that could even be known, given how little we know of the inner lives of animals. She writes that the “claim of the other animals to the standing of ends in themselves has the same ultimate foundation as our own—the essentially self-affirming nature of life itself.” It is this sheer fact of existence which provides the basis for a speculation into this affinity, though it does not mean parity in all things between humans and non-humans. The difference, she argues, is that human lives have a special importance for us that other creatures’ lives do not for them, because of our distinctive use of normative notions in assessing our lives and activities: non-human animals are incapable of being dissatisfied with their state of existence. And if this is the case—that non-human animals are satisfied with existence as such—then not only is any true relation between humans and non-humans ruled out, but the possibility of animals having a moral life is ruled out as well. My question is not whether this is true, but how one could know this.
I must confess that what I am pressing toward here contra Korsgaard is not a defined vision of non-human moral life, but rather simply its possibility. We do not know—nor do I know how we would ascertain it—whether animals desire more than to fulfill instincts, or if, as Korsgaard maintains, a dog is content with its existence as a dog. We do not know if animals have a sense of those actions which should not be undertaken in pursuit of basic necessities. We do not know if animals evaluate between potential goods and strive to choose better ones. What I mean is simply this: that if non-human animals are the more advanced creatures that we increasingly suspect they are, then we have fewer reasons not to engage with them as creatures with lives of purpose and value which lie beyond our ability to grasp in shared language.
Our own life with Elroi involved no mystical experiences, but rather, innumerable instances in which something like understanding occurred. When our oldest was born, Elroi—like many pets—took on a different space in the house, of lesser priority and attention. There was a small human now, one who had never seen a dog before and was delighted by him. Tails were pulled, and initially, Elroi would move away or turn his head to nip at the interloper. But over time, these overtures became received by Elroi not as a threat, but as an entrée to play, to a relationship. One could read this as an evolving instinct, as nothing more than an expanded sense of who was a friend. But if Elroi was, as I am suggesting, a being capable of setting aside or developing natural capacities toward something like excellence, then the embrace of a toddler’s offenses is better seen as something like the embrace of an excellence that I can see and name in part, but ultimately only gesture toward.
If our pets do in fact have this capacity for something beyond instinct in their relation to the world, to others, and to themselves, our relation to them will require (by analogy) what our relations to other human beings require: virtues of living together and a willingness to repair the relationship. Our relation to these creatures, with which we enter into relationships for no other reason than love, opens up a surprising possibility of obligations where we fail or fall short. The asymmetry of the relationship, in which the human provides care and shelter, may very well cause us to replace a relation of reciprocity and learning with one of pure power and provision, and thus miss whatever lies beyond their gaze, their lick, their wagging tail.
Because of this asymmetry, what relations we have to these creatures is one in which, at its best, human judgments and interpretations bind the way of other animals: if they are creatures capable of their own moral lives, the barriers of language leave us frequently taking our best guesses about how to honor them. When the end came for Elroi, when he could not longer see or find his food, when he could not find his way around the yard without becoming entangled and endangering himself, we faced an impossible decision. Years of loving him had led me to suspect that our divergences of purpose, his untrainable and independent selfhood, was something I would never fully understand, but that I could still respect. But for all that respect, the power of his life and death lay in my hands, the asymmetry of a dog living in a human world.
The virtues we must cultivate and exercise in relation to our pets—not merely because we are moral creatures, but because they may be—required that I offer Elroi not just provision, but forbearance and patience, the willingness to learn his behavior and to stay in the relation we had, despite the inevitable strangeness.
Though he could never articulate it, among these virtues was penitence: the proper response to the fact that this analogous relation we had entered into was one of both love and misunderstanding, of shared norms and differing natures. As my wife and I sat with Elroi at the end, in the veterinarian's office, with our friend unable to see where he was, the gap between us felt the most acute and penitence most needed: our worlds entangled soon to be disentangled by death, and me, hoping that love had led to some understanding over which penitence could walk.