Intuitively, we have certain important moral obligations toward our animal companions, a.k.a. pets. To begin with, we ought to keep them safe from harm. We also ought to provide them with certain goods: food, recreation, social life, comfort, freedom to move around, and so on. And we don't kill them except in certain unusual cases (e.g., we might kill them in self-defense, or for their own good when they are very sick). Many of us believe that our moral relationship with our animal companions is similar to our moral relationship to our family members; indeed, many of us believe that our animal companions are family members. By contrast, we do not regard livestock as family members. For instance, we kill livestock in order to eat them. That's no way to treat a family member.
Is there any way to justify the intuitive idea that there is a moral gap between pets and livestock? I believe so. Elsewhere I have argued in favor of a view that I call the Extended Narrativity Hypothesis, and I believe that this hypothesis can explain why the moral status of pets differs from that of livestock. In this post, I'll present the Extended Narrativity Hypothesis, discuss some of its advantages, and then will discuss one problem for the view.
The Extended Narrativity Hypothesis is the conjunction of four claims:
(A) Humans do two morally significant things: (a) We have positive and negative experiences (i.e., we are sentient); and (b) by reflecting on our past experiences and anticipating our future experiences, we integrate our experiences into a self-told life-story. By contrast, livestock animals do only one morally significant thing: They have positive and negative experiences. Livestock animals lack the intellectual abilities necessary in order to integrate their experiences into self-told stories.
(B) A positive experience has positive hedonic value (and a negative experience has negative hedonic value). Human lives and livestock lives both possess hedonic value. However, when a human being integrates her experiences into a self-told life story, she imbues her life with an additional kind of value: narrative value. Livestock lives lack this sort of value.
(C) Hedonic value is morally fungible: it is morally permissible (pro tanto) to destroy (or prevent) a certain amount of hedonic value in order to produce (or salvage) a greater amount of value. By contrast, narrative value is not morally fungible: it is morally wrong (pro tanto) to destroy (or prevent) a certain amount of narrative value even if doing so would produce (or salvage) a greater amount of value.
(D) Pets (a.k.a. companion animals) cannot do the work of integrating their lives into stories; but human beings can do the necessary work for their pets. By living in a close relationship with an animal, as humans do with pets, a human being can imbue the pet's life with a certain kind of narrative value, which I call narrative value by proxy. And by-proxy narrative value, like ordinary narrative value, is not morally fungible.