The other day, I pulled into a parking spot next to a car that had one of those bone car magnets. “I [heart] My Rescue,” it said. (This was at Whole Foods, of course.) My own bone sticker, which says “I [heart] My Labradoodle,” seemed morally inferior, an admission of choosing flash and ease over The Right Thing To Do. “My husband has allergies!” I defensively wanted to assure the rescue owner, smug (I was sure) in her ethical superiority.
I am not alone in feeling defensive. In this article by Emily Yoffe, she describes how rescue groups alienate potential adopters of pets by ridiculous strictures and standards. Eventually, the adopters resort to the more easy-going process of adopting from a breeder. But many seem to worry about the moral implications. “We still really wanted a dog, so we did the wrong thing and went to a breeder,” says one adopter in the article.
But is adopting from a breeder really the wrong thing? Yes, no one wants to support puppy mills. But a reputable breeder?
Many, many millions of non-dog owners across the country have the resources necessary to adopt a rescue pet. Are each and every one of them obligated to do so? Are they all moral failures because they haven’t? That seems crazy. I think most people would agree that it is estimable for people to adopt a rescue dog. I certainly do. But that does not mean it is morally obligatory for everyone else. Going to Tanzania to help divert clean water to a village in need is also praiseworthy, but we would be hard-pressed to say that everyone who doesn’t do so is a louche cad. (It’s what we in the philosophy biz call supererogatory: an action that is praiseworthy to perform, but not obligatory – above and beyond the moral call.)
So if no one is obligated to get a rescue dog, why does the mere act of wanting a dog suddenly make it obligatory? Why should the people who want a dog with attributes that can’t be found in a rescue dog be obligated to get a rescue? Of course, adopting a rescue is a lovely thing to do. But many people are looking for something that a rescue dog can’t provide (some degree of behavior predictability, hypoallergenicity, aesthetic properties, not having to deal with rescue groups, etc.). I don’t see how wanting a dog of any kind makes it obligatory only to get a certain kind of dog, if we are all not already bound to get a rescue dog.
(For the record, if my husband were not allergic and I didn’t have three rugrats who reliably pull dog hair, I would totally get a rescue.)
As a parallel, there are plenty of older and disabled children available for adoption who need permanent homes. But does anyone think people who either give birth or adopt healthy infants are morally deficient? Of course not. Those who adopt disabled or older children are laudable, but those who prefer not to take on that burden are not doing anything wrong. They are simply not doing the absolute best thing that they could. And, with apologies to act-utilitarians, always only doing the morally best thing that we can is a rather onerous burden. Sometimes, we want to leave the soup kitchen and kick back and watch a little TV.
Off to be kissed by a labradoodle…