Life is Ruff: The Ethics of Companion Animals According to Donna Haraway
Dogs have fulfilled many roles for us. They’ve been our partners in hunting game and herding livestock, our team members in group sporting activities, our tools of global conquest and state violence, our biosocial and psychosocial aides, and members of our families. Our relationship to dogs, as Donna Haraway puts it, is both historical and “protean” (Haraway 12).
Sally, our beloved Parr Center administrator: “This is my beautifully silly dog, Bergen. He is the smiley-est, speediest, most affectionate dog you’ll ever meet!”
This relationship is also obligatory and constitutive, or in other words, ethical. So we must ask ourselves questions such as, “how might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously?” (Haraway 3). Haraway takes this project up exactly in her Companion Species Manifesto, with an additional focus on the significance of stories from “dogworld” — the culture of breeding, training, sporting, etc. that exists in the U.S. and abroad.
Matthew Hernandez, graduate student in Philosophy: “Pepper (right) enjoys spending her time eating carrots and contemplating the ontological priority of the social. Bear’s (left) favorite pastimes are barking at other doggos and a more literal consumption of philosophical ideas (he eats books).”
But surely, one might ask, dogs are not the only companion species? Companion animals, a more specific category than companion species for Haraway, fall within a wide range of “beings willing to make the leap to the biosociality of service dogs.” Once the dog, cat, etc. crosses this biosocial boundary, they become appreciated for reasons outside mere utility, and this explains why “one does not eat one’s companion animals (nor get eaten by them); and one has a hard time shaking colonialist, ethnocentric, ahistorical attitudes toward those who do (eat or get eaten)” (Haraway 14).
Markus Kohl, Assistant Professor of Philosophy: “This is Achilles. He loves belly rubs, long naps, and hunting lizards, bugs and roaches in the garage.”
Haraway, whose philosophy represents the coalescence of multiple (and at times opposing) critical discourses, insists that there are four major tones underlying the usage of the term “companion species.” The first of these is the Darwinian history of evolutionary biology, where ethics is concerned in a Foucauldian sense because “species is about biological kind, and scientific expertise is necessary to that kind of reality” (Haraway 15). In other words, power over bodies expresses itself through the construction of a scientific knowledge of species.
Christopher Blake-Turner, graduate student in Philosophy: “Anabelle is a hound mix rescued in 2017 from SPCA Wake County. She loves: humans, other dogs, walking, exploring, eating (especially peanut butter), snoozing, and cuddling (but only on her own terms). She does not love: loud noises, getting wet, surprises.”
The next of these tones is “species” as a general philosophical approach to the problems of difference, which we have inherited from philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition such as St. Thomas Aquinas. By conceiving of dogs as animals that are first of all not human and second of all not cats or horses, we recognize their specific needs and bestow them with otherness.
Thirdly, we must remember the “corporeal join of the material and the semiotic” in relationships with companion species, a feature that Haraway models after the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ in the Catholic Eucharist. Meaning is projected onto companion animals, and our physical relationships with them are transformed as a result. Similarly and finally, the companion species is about the “join of Marx and Freud in shit and gold,” or that precious meeting of the “natural” and the “civilized” exhibited especially by the coexistence of a developed commodity culture and raw animal desire in dogworld (Haraway 16).
Larisa Svirsky, graduate student in Philosophy: “Russell is very possessive of his copy of the Nicomachean Ethics. He won’t even share with his feline colleague, Philippa Foot (Pippa for short).”
For Haraway, the Companion Species Manifesto is about “the implosion of nature and culture in the relentlessly historically specific, joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in significant otherness” (Haraway 16). She takes up French post-structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “interpellation,” which explains the constitution of the subject out of the concrete individual by the individual being “hailed” through ideology. In the case of dogs and people, we are co-constituted, meaning our interpellated stories are inevitably bound together; through them, Haraway insists, we might finally understand what it means to be a “significant other” (Haraway 17).
Marina Greenfeld, Parr Center undergraduate fellow: “I didn’t plan on getting a kitten, but when Maude turned up in my parents’ garage a year and a half ago, I took her in. She was only a few days old, but since then she’s grown into an excellent roommate and a mediocre cat.”
One of the most pressing and relevant kinds of stories here are love stories. Most of the time, and unfortunately, these stories are accompanied by what Haraway calls the “fantasy of unconditional love” (Haraway 38). The belief that dogs must deliver love to pet owners without any further consideration of their own needs is harmful to dog relationships and human relationships alike. Often, as a result of this fantasy, Haraway writes that pet owners treat their dogs like “furry children,” but to create this association also “sets up children to be bitten and dogs to be killed” (Haraway 37).
A more honest relationship has existed for the working sheepdog, in a professional area where “respect and trust, not love, are the critical demands of a good working relationship between these dogs and humans” (Haraway 39). Of course, we shouldn’t stop trying to love our dogs in favor of purely professional relationships, but we have to start being honest about recognizing their needs and their capacities for recognizing ours.
Marc Lange, Philosophy department Chair: “Callie is an extremely loving and lovable dog — 7/8th American Staffordshire Terrier and 1/8th Bulldog, according to her genes (and confirmed by her snoring and snuffly sounds). She was the longest serving dog in the Alamance County dog shelter before she rescued us from our doglessness.”
There are many other stories we can tell, involving breeding, training, games, and so on. Common to all of these stories, though, are a few principles that Haraway wants to use to bring us back to the reality of our dog-human relationships. One of these is the “pedagogy of positive bondage,” wherein the trainer must teach the dog in training that the “clumsy biped [is] the source of all good things” (Haraway 44). To do so requires constantly restraining the animal’s desires (squirrel-chasing and couch-jumping among them) until the virtue of self-restraint is solidified. This makes a “serious, historically specific kind of freedom for dogs possible… the freedom to live safely in multispecies, urban and sub-urban environments with very little physical restraint and no corporal punishment” (Haraway 46).
On the left, a portrait of myself and Abby, my sister and childhood best friend until her death in 2015. On the right, my brother Dewey, who won’t stop eating my Poetry subscriptions.
Another principle, which might be called the “harsh beauty” of these relationships, exists in the obligation we have to empathize with dogs in their otherness. In other words, “the recognition that one cannot know the other or the self, but must ask in respect for all of time who and what are emerging in relationship, is key.” We must learn to recognize precisely what our dogs are saying, which sounds absurd only if we limit our listening abilities to verbal language. And although we share this kind of language with other humans, our attempts at an “ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” with other humans must certainly include more than simply verbal communication. Perhaps, as Haraway suggests, our relationships with dogs might provide us with just the proper set of tools to do so (Haraway 50).
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, Monthly Review Press, 1971, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, http://xenopraxis.net/readings/haraway_companion.pdf.