argue that animals’ capacities, while important, are not all that’s morally relevant. We need to take context and relation into account as well—just as we do in the human case.
It’s often argued in ethical theory that particular relations can underpin special moral obligations—relations such as creating a dependent child, or being causally implicated in harming others. If we create someone who needs us to thrive, or if we set back the interests of someone who would otherwise have flourished, we owe them something special that we don’t owe to people in general. I argue that some human-animal relations have a similar structure.
I think there’s something plausible about this. We often do ascribe moral weight to particular relations (of family, friendship, etc.), and it also makes sense that this would hold in animal-human relations (I have special obligations to my pets/companion animals, for instance). In fact, Mary Midgley’s Animals and Why They Matter explored some of this territory with her notion of the “mixed” human-animal community. Stephen R.L. Clark has made similar points.
What I’m less sure of is whether relationships can do as much ethical work as Palmer seems to be suggesting, at least based on her summary. Consider our dealings with our fellow human beings: just because I don’t have a prior relationship with someone, it doesn’t follow that they fall into the moral outer darkness where I have no obligations to assist them. I may well have an obligation to help people on the other side of the planet simply because their need is great, not because we share some special relationship. Might the same not be true, other things being equal, of our duties to animals? I certainly agree that as a general rule, we shouldn’t go mucking around in otherwise healthy ecosystems in order to protect the well-being of individual animals. But that may be because in the long run such interference would actually harm the well-being of a greater number of living creatures, not because we don’t have obligations to help those animals. In fact, it seems plausible that we have an obligation to foster the well-being of ecosystems because we have duties among other things, to foster the well-being of individual creatures.
This is somewhat speculative of course; I’d like to read the book to see where she goes with this.
EDIT: See also this post.