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Pope vs. poodle sweaters

Owners Of Pampered Pets In The Doghouse

An authoritative magazine published by the Jesuits has lashed out at the culture of pampered pets, saying animals have no souls or rights.

The Roman Catholic magazine Civilta Cattolica, whose contents are approved by the Vatican, criticised the spending of "good money" on outlandish pet foods, calling the practice mad and "morally condemnatory".

Such money, it said, would be better spent on nobler causes, "such as the starving children of the Third World". "Animals don't have rights, because these belong to Man," it declared on Friday.

I'm a bit reluctant to comment on this since I don't know Italian and hence can't read the original article. But I'll presume that the Telegraph-via-Sydney Morning Herald version captures the essence of it.

Based on the summary, it looks like we're dealing with two separate propositions -- that money spent on pampering pets is better spent on needy humans, and that animals are not moral entities. The first proposition is framed as utilitarianism -- the philosophy that we should use our resources so as to maximize the benefits to all moral entities (typically including just humans). That's all we need so long as we're dealing with pampering. Pampering is care that goes beyond meeting needs. But an injunction to buy Meow Mix instead of Fancy Feast and give the savings to Oxfam could be produced by a hard-line animal rights view that makes animals moral entities on the same level as humans. The utilitarian consideration that not starving creates more happiness than wearing one of those little poodle sweaters is enough to do the work. At most, the soullessness of animals would direct where you spent the savings from not pampering anything -- the children of Kabul rather than the Kabul Zoo.

It would be helpful to know if the Jesuits would condemn, say, the Humane Society. Humane Society pets aren't pampered by any usual definition. Yet the Society does expend a great deal of money and time caring for them and finding homes for them. If animals are truly moral non-entities, the Humane Society's resources would be better spent feeding poor humans (and indeed some people will argue this). It's possible that if one denied all rights to animals, any care of an animal would seem to be a sort of pampering. The article does mention that humans are to care for nature and be good stewards, but it's not clear whether that simply means to abstain from wanton cruelty, or if it entails a positive duty to help suffering animals -- such as the strays the Humane Society takes in, or the denizens of the Kabul Zoo. If the latter, we once again get very close to the conclusions of an animal-rights utilitarianism.

It's interesting that the article saw animal rights as the underpinning for pampering of animals. Certainly, many people -- pamperers and non-pamperers -- tend to think of their pets as people (and are bemused by the fact that the pets seem to agree). But in my experience (admittedly anecdotal), people who articulate a strong animal rights view do not pamper their pets. Their concerns about animals are directed at those that are truly suffering (which the Jesuits may agree deserve our help, at least in cases of wanton cruelty or environmental destruction, though there's probably a divergence of feeling over the meat industry).

I suspect most people that pamper their pets do it for the owner's benefit. An analogy to spoiled children suggests that egregious pampering is probably not in the pet's long-term best interest. In this sense, pampering one's pet is little different from pampering oneself with fancy clothes and food, or being obsessive over the niceness of one's car or house. Thus, what the Jesuits ought to be aiming at is not animal rights, but selfishness.


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