A recent Guardian article asked the question ‘Should we stop keeping pets?’ Yet instead of a thorough examination of the moral arguments for and against pet ownership, it fell into a crude dichotomy: either pets are property, to be treated by humans however they wish, or they must be emancipated. For a clearer statement of the case against pets, it is better to go direct to Gary Francione (who is quoted in the Guardian piece) and Anna Charlton, who laid it out in Aeon last year.
Francione & Charlton acknowledge up front that their conclusion depends on a controversial moral premise. That premise is that animals have a fundamental moral right to self-ownership (my term). Or, as they put it, “if animals matter morally – if animals are not just things – they cannot be property. If they are property, they can only be things”. Francione & Charlton draw an analogy with slavery: just as slaves’ lives are dictated and directed by their owners, so pets are deprived of basic control of their lives.
I want to argue it is perfectly plausible to believe that animals matter morally and at the same time think that it is acceptable to keep them as pets. One alternative position, that Francione & Charlton attribute to Peter Singer, is that moral concern for animals should be directed to their welfare. This is a somewhat fuzzy concept, with different interpretations, but broadly, this means that if animals matter morally, then we have a duty to ensure they do not suffer and can be happy. On this view, self-ownership matters only because a) we are liable to resent being treated as property; and b) others are less capable and less motivated to run our lives well than we are. In the case of human slavery, it has sometimes been argued that a) and b) do not obtain – that slaves were better off under the care of their masters, but this is generally unconvincing. However, for pets it is more plausible – unlike slaves, they are not economically exploited, but many enjoy care, comfort and longevity that they could not expect in the wild. On the other hand, they may be worse off for being confined and restricted in their sociability. Whether pets or wild animals in fact enjoy a better quality of life is an empirical question that I can’t resolve here. We just need to note that even if pets are not currently better off than in the wild, practices could in principle be improved so that this is not the case – having a pet need not always be as it is now.
Yet the key point is that however good being a pet is, it will never be good enough for Francione & Charlton: the implication of their principle is that it is better for animals to live a short, wretched and miserable life in the wild than a happy and comfortable one as a pet. Why might they think this? One reason might be that they put overriding moral value on autonomy. However, many philosophers would argue that the value of autonomy depends on our ability to rationally reflect on and evaluate our options. Most people think that it is morally very serious to compel a mentally competent adult to do something they do not want to, yet we do not generally have such qualms about superseding children’s preferences. Because children lack the necessary faculties, many believe we do not need to respect their decisions. The same could be said of non-human animals.
To put it more simply, how come it’s morally legitimate to require children to obey their parents, but not pets to obey their ‘humans’? Francione & Charlton respond that the difference is that children will one day achieve autonomy, but pets never will. It’s not clear why this makes a difference. In any case, it isn’t true for all children – for example, some severely disabled people will never have full control of their own lives. Their deeper objection appears to be that pets are created to be dependent, that “We have bred them to be compliant and servile, and to have characteristics that are pleasing to us, even though many of those characteristics are harmful to the animals involved”. But this doesn’t help much either. If it’s an argument about welfare, then the implication is that we should breed pets in ways that improve their standard of living. If it’s argument about autonomy, it runs aground against the objection that animals lack the faculties for autonomy.
Fundamentally, then, the argument boils down to this: morally speaking, are pets more like our slaves or more like our children?
 The term ‘owner’ is obviously loaded here