Dogs Are Man’s Best Friends…Right?

Dogs. A canine delight to humankind. We treat our pooches well (I hope) and love them for their rambunctious natures (even if I am more of a cat person myself). They are also often kept as a pet. But has anybody really sat down with their pup and considered the philosophy behind keeping a pet?

There is a possible argument to be made for the idea that having a pet is actually immoral or wrong. People mostly treat their pets very well: they feed them nourishing foods, they give attention to them by spending time with them, and more that presumably gives the animal a more than passable life. There are those who unfortunately do not treat their pets well at all through neglect or even active abuse, but that is a far more obvious violation of the animal. Even if the pet is coddled to the heavens, the problem we come against is that we have absolutely no way of reliably knowing whether the pet wishes to be kept in thrall, and if they instead actually yearn to be free and wild. Many pet owners will mention casually to a friend, ‘I leave Coco the bunny at home alone when I’m out with you!’, and not think anything of it, returning home to an uncommunicative pet (because a bunny talking in English or Mandarin would be a shock indeed) and assuming the pet is completely none the worse. What if the same person were to say, ‘I left my four-year-old at home alone to go out for eight hours today’? The general reaction would likely not be a positive, encouraging one, and even if it is, it would likely be very different in nature to that of the former statement about the pet. While there are certainly key differences such as the fact a human being of age four is scientifically more helpless than a young rabbit, cat, or most other popular domestic pets, this distinction between attitudes is rarely considered at all.

While it is certainly true that we do not, as of current, have a common established and reliable mode of communication or language between a human and other animal, this does not change the fact that we just cannot know what our pets are thinking.

We arrive at the next tricky snag in the path: can we say we know exactly what another human is thinking, and even if we say we know for certain, is that the best course of action for all parties? Let us tackle the former problem. I believe that at this point, we are fighting issues that are very small in scale in that they affect our overall problem of keeping pets little. That is another question for the problem of other minds.

The latter, however, is interesting. Imagine to yourself a toddler who dearly wants one kilogram of chocolate to feast on before bed. They are very certain of that fact and are able to express this inordinate desire of theirs very clearly to their parent, who understands this expression of desire. Common sense, as well as health practitioners and dentists, would advise against fulfilling this wish because well, the child does not know what is ‘best’ for them. And indeed, it does not need to be solely restricted to children. All human beings, regardless of age, have moments when they wish for something that may not actually result in the most optimum outcome for them – we are not omniscient. So even if we knew what a pet’s thoughts are, surely that does not advance us much in what we ought to do?

Now, I believe that we are talking about different things here. What may be necessary for a pet owner to act on more hastily and urgently is a pet’s important need, such as that they are feeling extremely lonely or even that they need to go outside due to overheating, for example. In addition, even if the pet’s thought is a desire that is unsuitable for their wellbeing, the fact still remains that this thought is not even given a chance to escape the pet’s mind into a place where it is understood by their owner.

It is all very well to say that ‘cats are lazy, unsociable animals who do not mind being left alone for long periods of time’. There is absolutely scientific evidence and trends to contribute to this common perception, and that it is far easier to generalise among these animals than humans on account of brainpower a smaller scale, but imagine saying, ‘I have several friends who are introverted – I will assume the human species prefers extended time solo’.

Let me introduce another way I have considered the philosophy of a pet. It is famously known that many people who call themselves unemotional at heart will disintegrate utterly at the death or suffering of an animal on the big screen. Think Marley & Me, and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. I have recently come across a friend who professed indignantly to me that she cannot take a person who waxes on about their watery reaction to an animal’s death yet is stolid in the face of a human death. Is it so wrong to do exactly as she detests? I must confess that I would reply in the negative. To me, it depends on the nature and circumstances of the animal or human dying, in addition to the framework of the story as a whole and our dying friend’s place in it. Yet it is very interesting to consider if this is an ethical quandary.

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