Objection (4d): Relationships
“Animals are morally less important than humans because we don’t have meaningful relationships with them.”
Some argue against the reproach of speciesism that it is not simply species membership that grounds a fundamental moral difference between humans and animals but rather specific social, psychological or emotional relationships that exist only between humans. And it is often claimed that it is because of these relationships that we have stronger obligations to humans than to animals.
(4d.1) Relationships and Closeness Do Not Necessarily Coincide with Species Membership.
Humans can – and some of them do in fact – entertain close and meaningful relationships with animal individuals. Many people may have a closer relationship with their animal companions than with strangers. Others may even prefer animals over humans in general. So meaningful relationships and closeness don’t necessarily coincide with species membership.
And also the idea that all humans – and only they – form one big “family” appears to be mere empty talk, given the ways its members often treat each other. Obviously, this idea of the “human family” is mainly invoked to exclude animals.
(4d.2) Relationships Relevant for Special Obligations
Relationships and closeness are morally relevant – but they don’t imply a general moral difference. Instead, they figure prominently in determining special obligations on the part of moral agents.
There is a difference between general obligations, which all moral agents have to all moral patients, and special obligations, which only specific moral agents have to specific moral patients – mostly owing to the existence of certain relationships or forms of interaction. Parents have the special obligation to raise and care for their children just like animal owners have the special obligation to care for their animals.
However, this doesn’t imply a generally superior moral status of the beings at the receiving end of these obligations. All it implies is that certain moral agents (those who are involved in such relationships) have specific obligations that others do not; and that they have these obligations only to specific moral patients but not to others.
Therefore, all talk of stronger obligations that humans are supposed to have to other humans is misguided. These are special obligations, but they do not affect the general obligations and thus do not make all obligations stronger.
(4d.3) Relationships only Relevant in Certain Situations
The existence of relationships or closeness may also be morally relevant for a different reason. Even if relationships or closeness bestowed a superior moral status on certain beings, nothing could be inferred from this fact for the treatment of animals in general.
First, because relationships and closeness do not coincide with species membership (see 4d.1). Second, because any such difference would only seem to be relevant in situations of real conflict or dilemmas (see 2.3). So, if you have to choose between saving, say, your child and someone else’s dog, the special relationship between you and your child speak in favour of saving your child rather than the dog. Then, again, the same would seem to hold true if you had to choose between your own child and someone else’s child.
But even if close relationships existed only between humans, why should the existence of such relationships entitle humans to inflict suffering on, and kill, animals – even if there is no situation of real conflict? (And, of course, what we do to animals on a daily basis has nothing to do with such situations of conflict.)
Relationships might make sense as an additional criterion or emergency principle to reach a non-arbitrary decision in situations of real conflict; but it’s certainly no carte blanche to instrumentalise others who fail to qualify as close beings.