This is about ethical requirements/duties versus practical constraints of people who keep stray cats as pets. This question and its discussion may be extended to stray dogs kept as pets, but DEFINITELY NOT to exotic species or even pure-breed dogs, cats etc. which are physically unfit to live in the wild.

This question is to be understood and answered in the context of ones duties i.e. Kantian ethics.

EXPANDING THE QUESTION: A pet-owner who adopts and keeps stray cats in his house, lets them come and go from his house as they please. Some of his pets wander away forever, while new kittens take their place -- either being born in his house, or being found abandoned on the streets. He allows his cats to mate and breed (though not inbreed incestuously), and he does not neuter them.

Whenever the number of grownup cats exceeds what he can reasonably accommodate, then he releases some that seem able to take care of themselves (say one-year-old cats) in a decent place far from his house, so that they are not able to find their way back to his house, but can be reasonably expected to survive on their own wits.

He believes that as he takes in lost kittens when they are tiny and totally dependent on care for their survival, he is not remiss in releasing grown ones into the wild, when they can survive on their own.

Also, he feels that justified in allowing his grown cats to breed rather than restricting their breeding ability by neutering them, as he does not feel that he "owns" the cats enough to tamper with their bodies in any way.

His actions proceed from his sense of duty towards cats, and not towards humans (including animal control activists who feel that any stray cat should be trapped, neutered and released).

He reckons that some cats that he releases into the wild may fail to fend for themselves, and will eventually die. However, almost all kitten from any given brood born in the wild die within a year, he reasons; this is the natural order of things, because otherwise, it would lead to an unsustainable population explosion within a few years.

His main argument against neutering both male and female cats is that it would prevent them from having a "normal cat life", and turns them into placid cat-shaped shells of their natural selves. Neutering them makes them "pets" but not cats, whereas allowing them to stay uncut lets them be cats, even though they may not always remain his "pets", he argues.

How to assess his behavior from the viewpoint of his duty to the animals that trust him and depend on him?

2 Answers 2


In Kant's ethics, the primary concern is whether an agent's actions accord with reason (understood in a universal sense). Thus, he is not generally concerned with the outcomes of our actions, and he saw certain acts as right or wrong in themselves, regardless of results. For him, actions are always wrong if they cause harm to rational beings. But Kant did not consider cats rational beings, so it would not matter to him whether whether the kittens survive, have a better life, or whether cats are happier for being neutered. Ergo, he'd only ask about the morality of the act of neutering.

To stress how indifferent he was to consequences, he went on record saying it was wrong to lie to a murderer, even if lying would save a life. You can read his letter here.

On the other hand, one of his formulations of ethics stated that one should act in such a way that one would want the act to be a universal law.

Another formulation of his ethics was to treat persons as ends and not means to an end. This would seem to bear upon neutering except that he wouldn't have considered animals persons because they were not rational, which was the key criteria for person-hood for him.

With that said, he had an ethical stance towards animals, but for different reasons. Here's a quote from the SEP:

If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. (Kant, LE, 212 (27: 459)

So, what would he said of neutering? Not sure, but use these to help you judge..

  1. How would you feel if everyone did as you did?
  2. Do you think neutering is right or wrong purely in and of itself?
  3. Do you think neutering another animal damages your humanity?
  • Hey, thanks, Barzell. This helps. Going from my answers to the last three questions posed by you, I would say that NOT neutering is by far the most ethical action. Oct 20, 2015 at 13:13
  • One comment might be in order about your first paragraph, however, which is that the reason kittens surviving would not matter to Kant is that they are not rational beings on Kant's analysis. If switch in "babies" the result might be different (this isn't meant specifically to be a reference to abortion).
    – virmaior
    Oct 20, 2015 at 13:14
  • @virmaior Even babies surviving wouldn't be enough for Kant to allow something he considered immoral. See his reply to Benjamin Constant. Admittedly, at times, hypothetical reasoning seemed to creep into his logic, but for the most part, the guy was a hardcore deontologist.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 20, 2015 at 13:16
  • Rereading my comment, I can see why it would lead to misunderstanding. Based on the law of humanity formulation, Kant values rational beings as ends-in-themselves -- this is the reason we cannot in our actions treat them as means. It then follows that we cannot take rational life. Ergo, we can't do something that kills humans. / The question in regarding to "On the Supposed Right to Lie ... " is about whether we can calculate with reference to the actions of others as a basis for skirting our duty to tell the truth to all rational beings.
    – virmaior
    Oct 20, 2015 at 13:19
  • In other words, Kant does not seem a hierarchy of truth-telling and rationality-preserving since he sees these as fundamentally identical, but it follows we cannot take the lives of rational beings or lie to them. In MM, there's an interesting shift where lying is primarily an insult against our own rationality. Thus, I would say it matters to point out that say having excess kittens get put down means something very different than excess humans. (thus, the remark with reference to survival). I could have worded myself more clearly.
    – virmaior
    Oct 20, 2015 at 13:20

My initial response is... well, you'd have to ask the cats.

What I mean by that is: I do not see that Kantian rational ethics can apply to animals at all, not in any strict sense. However, Peter Singer's utilitarian ethics aims not at a rational and deontic validity, but at "reducing suffering" in all "sentient" creatures, not unlike Buddhism. Here we can certainly argue, against the Cartesians, say, that animal "suffering" is sympathetically evident. And thus enters into our moral thinking.

As to what is "natural" it is simply way, way too late for that. Kitty does not mind the "unnatural" processes behind cat food or, indeed, a little sport with the mice. Many domesticated cats, given some unnatural leisure, seem to "naturally" pursue gratitous destruction of smaller animals, and one might argue that they thus jeopardize their status in Singer's ethical circle.

I certainly oppose cruelty of any sort and any gratuitous harm to even smaller animals. But I do not agree with many of the "ethical" projections of human "personality" onto animals, the overly coy attributions of affection, unhappiness, loyalty, etc., that so often subsume the actual "animal" within the owner's psychology.

In the end, I would not really have any opinion about what makes cats "happier" or what we "owe to" cats morally. It is a matter we trust to circumstances and the instincts of kindness. I imagine cats don't want to be neutered; I also imagine they don't want to divide their food with all the resulting cats. For all I know they consider neutering a lesser tragedy than being ejected from the nice soft bed. We can't ask them.

That said, it might be interesting to discover if Kant anywhere discusses some indirect extension of ethical duty to animals. I don't see how that would work, but it might. I believe some rudimentary concept of "animal rights" was in place by his day.

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