Animals in our lives: Teaching the Philosophy of Companion Animals

This semester I’m teaching a university class on the Philosophy of Companion Animals called “Animals in our Lives.” Wow. I feel so lucky to do this! My students are hardworking, engaged, and good-natured, and together we are doing great work. Thanks gang!

Developing and teaching a new course takes up every spare moment. After getting my work done, going to the gym, and training and exercising Milo, I’m usually finished for the day. So, I’ve been posting here less frequently than usual.

Thank heavens I have my students’ permission to post about our class.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the syllabus that explains a little bit about what we are up to.

Animals in our Lives, Philosophy 271

Course Description
This class explores the science and ethics of human relationships with companion animals.

Course Outcomes
In this class you will:
1. Explore the social influences on, and impacts of, scientific research
2. Develop an understanding of the relationships between humans and companion animals from scientific, philosophical, and practical perspectives
3. Acquire the skills and confidence to learn, assess, and use scientific information

Discussion Topics
Unit 1: The science of emotion and the role of emotion in science
• The neurobiology of canine love
• The impact of human emotion on animal research
• The movement of scientific knowledge from the lab to the public

Unit 2: Anthropomorphism or anthropodenial
• The sense of smell and what it’s like to be a dog
• Consciousness and animal minds
• Folk psychology across species

Unit 3: Do good animal handlers and trainers need science?
• Is clicker training scientific?
• The media and celebrity dog trainers
• Different kinds of expertise and the public understanding of science
In each unit, we will explore readings from scientific, philosophical, and popular sources.

So far we’re just getting going on the unit on love.

I’ll update you as we move through the class.

What do we owe our dogs?

Understanding our moral obligations to another person is tough. Contemplating our obligations to a dog, a member of another species, can be overwhelming.

Sometimes, only occasionally these days, I give Milo a pretty harsh correction. He is big and strong, and we need rules. Bikes are NOT prey. I know some people think these corrections are wrong.

Sometimes I’ve seen people who I like and respect treat their companion animals in ways that strike me as just plain wrong too.

It can be useful to flip our focus from sorting out what might be wrong, to thinking more clearly about what is right.

Philosopher Jean Harvey’s view of our moral obligations to our companion animals resonates with me. Here is the gist of her position:

It is part of the nature of most dogs and cats (yes, cats) to give love and loyalty to the human companion. As with anyone who loves, it makes them vulnerable—to the hurt of not being loved at all, to being manipulated, exploited, or traumatically abused or abandoned. The nature of this relationship is central to the ethics of companion animals, or at least dogs and cats: the deep and abiding affection the animals give and seek, the profound emotional and physical vulnerability they face because of it, and the blunt fact that humans in general control the relationship and have the power either to treasure or betray their animal companions. … The primary moral obligation we have with respect to companion animals is to develop, nurture, respect, and protect this relationship.

Jean Harvey, “Companion and Assistance Animals: Benefits, Welfare Safeguards, and Relationships” 2017

This helps me think more clearly about my obligations, my moral obligations, to Milo. Am I protecting our relationship? Am I being responsible in the face of the power imbalance between us? Am I treating his love and vulnerability with respect?

More and more it seems to me that the project of developing a philosophy of dogs and people boils down to love.

Go forth good people, “develop, nurture, respect, and protect” the relationship between you and your dog!