Are Pets Slaves?

Are pets our slaves? Initially it may seem that this question demonstrates some kind of category error – perhaps a being can only be a slave if it meets some requisite level of intelligence. I will therefore divide the issue into two parts: first, what is a slave, and second, do pets fit the definition.

What is a slave? Initially it seems like a slave is someone who is bound against their will – a person forced to work for another. Slavery, in other words, is forced labor. However, on reflection, this seems like a problematic definition. For I think we would usually say that even a willing slave is still a slave. It doesn’t matter whether the slave consents because they enjoy their life – even if they are pampered and given a good life, they remain bound to service. I think my meaning can be clarified through analogy to the definition of a prisoner. I think that a prisoner is commonly understood as someone whose choices are restricted by circumstance: a prisoner is imprisoned by virtue of their limitations, not their subjective (i.e. personal) experience of their confinement. What is the difference between a prisoner and a slave, then? I propose the difference is the intention or reason that the
subject (prisoner or slave) has their movements restricted. Note that I use restricted here in a rather non-standard sense – I would include forced labor as a restriction because it is an imposition on the slaves liberty. A prisoner has his or her movements restricted as punishment or out of practicality (depending on whether the jailer is moved by forward or backward looking concerns. A slave has his or her movements restricted in order to benefit their owner. This does leave an ambiguity still hanging which I did not expect: how do we differentiate between the use of a slave and of forward looking imprisonment? Does not the utilitarian jailer use her prisoner in some sense? I’m unsure how satisfactory a distinction can be drawn, except to maybe suggest slaves are enslaved for positive projects whereas prisoners are imprisoned for negative ends (i.e. stopping future crime). The slave is a tool towards an end, whereas a prisoner is an obstacle towards the achievement of an end.

So, a slave is someone who has their possible actions restricted in order to complete positive projects or ends of the slaver. However, at the beginning I also noted that intelligence was an important feature of the issue. We obviously do not think that a shovel or a rake is a slave. Only beings can be enslaved. What is the essential mental apparatus that makes this the case? We have already determined that it is not mental suffering that makes one a slave or a prisoner, so what? I think the answer is simply that only beings have choices that can be limited. It is not that a slave or prisoner wishes to choose otherwise, but that their options are artificially limited at all.

So what of pets. Are pets slaves? We restrict their movements for our own ends (the enjoyment of having a pet). They seem to fit within the definition that I have set out. The only puzzle, it seems to me, is whether pets can have their option sets limited in the same way that we humans can. Here I will invoke an argument of Peter Singer in which he draws the comparison between lower functioning humans and animals, the question being whether we can draw a meaningful moral distinction between the two. I am inclined to agree with Singer’s conclusion that we cannot, meaning if one of them is a slave then it seems that the other is as well. In other words, if one of them can count as enslaved, so can the other.

So, our pets are our slaves. Let me know what you think!

Thanks for reading,


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