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What is a pet worth?

by Russell Powell

Imagine that you leave your sprightly canine companion to the vet for a routine teeth cleaning, only to learn that due to spectacular negligence on the part of the veterinary staff, he was confused for another terminally ill dog and was accidentally ‘euthanized.’ Imagine another even more horrific scenario, in which a malevolent neighbor steals your feline friend and feeds her to his wood chipper, Fargo-style. For many owners who have extremely close relationships with their companion animals, these would be traumatic events of a life-altering nature. Unfortunately, in both scenarios there is little you could do about it, institutionally speaking.

The Fargo copy-cat (if you pardon the pun) may be criminally liable for animal cruelty in jurisdictions thoughtful enough to have such statutes, but there is effectively no civil recourse in either case, leaving such misdeeds without sufficient deterrent. The reason for this is that in nearly every legal jurisdiction, companion animals have the status of ordinary property. Consequently, the valuation in connection with the loss of a companion animal is (like all property) indexed to its ‘objective’ fair market value.* So what is the fair market value of a companion animal? Well, this depends on how much people are on average willing to cough up to purchase one in the first place. In the case of a mixed breed or older dog or cat, this is veritably nil (perhaps an adoption fee?)—meaning that recovery for intentional or negligent killing (or harming) is something on the order of a few dollars. So if one spends thousands of dollars on veterinary bills to try to save the life of his or her companion animal after it has been wrongfully ‘damaged’, these expenses are not typically recoverable.

The idea behind the fair market value rule is that the law will not require people to compensate others for the ‘subjective’, mawkish sentimentality that may be attached to certain personal property. While there is a defensible rationale for retaining this well-grounded principle of common law, it is deeply at odds with most people’s moral intuitions and manifested behaviors when it comes to the value of their companion animals. People do not think of their aging dog as they would an aging chair—that is, as something to simply be replaced when the cost of repair begins to exceed its paltry market value. Thinking of companion animals in this way will be found by many to be extremely alienating, as surveys show that high percentages of companion animal owners think of their pet as a member of their family. Ironically, much of the veterinary industry is premised on the sociological fact that people will spend orders of magnitude more on their pet than it is worth according to market valuation—and yet the vet industry is readily willing to hide beyond the fair market value obstacle to the full and fair recovery for the loss of a companion animal.

Like virtually everything else in moral philosophy, the philosophical foundation of the moral value of companion animals is controversial, appealing to a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic-final values, including the central role for special relationships in a meaningful life. Nevertheless, when it comes to the value of our pets, there is a severe dissonance between our considered moral judgments and the content of our legal statues and common law principles. Because I can think of no major countervailing interests, public policy-related or otherwise, the legal rules governing recovery in the case of harm to companion animals should be modified to better reflect our considered moral intuitions.

*Note that other theories of civil liability, such as the negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress, have rarely succeeded in the context of harm to companion animals, in part because their requirements are extremely difficult to meet, and because few jurisdictions allow individuals to recover for purely ‘mental’ harms especially when they are not incurred by the immediate members of one’s (human) family.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. The thing is that for a lot of people, their considered moral judgment is that pets are just property – this is a live controversy in a moral sense and we need an explanation of why we think that pets should be respected as being more important than property. It’s not enough to appeal to the emotional harm that someone does to me when he harms my pet, since nobody thinks it matters much if someone destroys a (much beloved) pet rock. And it’s not enough to appeal to the harm done to the animal, since most people think it doesn’t matter much if we eat a farmed animal.

    Thinking about this problem is one of the things that routinely pushes me toward some sort of contractualist position.

    Suppose the norm of altruism between two individuals is binding just because those individuals agree to help/not harm one another. And suppose that each agrees, perhaps in a weaker way, to honour the agreements the other has with third parties.

    On this kind of view, you could explain why it was wrong to murder pets, to cause pregnant women to miscarry, and why it was permissible to eat farmed meat.

  2. What about people who have an aging chair with special sentimental value? Are you saying that shouldn’t count for anything? If not, then why can’t pets be counted in that way (whatever it is)?

  3. In France (civil law system), litigants have been granted the acknowledgment of the sentimental value of a lost pet. See “Arrêt Lunus”, première chambre civile de la Cour de cassation (January 16, 1962): the court allowed for compensation for the “moral harm” (préjudice moral) subsequent to an animal’s death.

  4. Simon: the chair should count for something, but nowhere near as much as the dog. Pet animals have sentimental value, but that’s not the main reason why it’s wrong to kill them.

  5. It may be *one* of the reasons why it’s wrong to kill them — an agent-centered reason to be sure, but a reason nonetheless. But if you push the claim to the idea that domestic animals have value insofar as they are someone’s animal, namely that in a way or another, it’s a being someone of our kind cares about, then you may flesh out something like an agent-neutral reason not to kill those beings our kind has evolved caring about. The case of domestic animals might thus play as a prelude to a more general foundation of our duties to animals: it’s wrong to kill those animals we might care or have cared about because they live with us, under our dominion. That’s also why it’s “less” wrong, if not actually permissible, to let the predator devour its prey.

  6. Not so much (or not only) because we let it happen rather than intentionally cause it to happen, but because these are ‘wild’ animals. But why it would be wrong to kill the lion yourself of course lies in other reasons as well (such as the fact that it’s wrong to kill sentient animals for no reason). My point is that domestic animals may have an impartial value that far exceeds their commercial value and that may help us understand why we have reasons to care about animals, whether they have been recognized as domestic or not. It’s enough that you can imagine yourself caring about the tiger.

  7. There is a small number of decisions in a few of the United States allowing the award of “intrinsic value” of pets. I suppose there’s a great deal of weeping on the witness stand and counter argument about the relatively poor treatment the pet got.

    Compare the proof of the value of unique objects of art that are destroyed by negligence.

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