Gary Francione argues that it is, even under the most ideal scenario. I find myself disagreeing with Francione on this one—or at least am very resistant to his conclusion. On his view, even if we could “guarantee” that animals under our care will have loving homes and lead great lives, domestication would still be morally problematic: that’s because they are entirely dependent on us, and producing creatures for companionship who are in effect like human children—and who will remain so until they die—is inherently wrong. [And note: in Francione’s hypothetical scenario, pets would no longer be property, and thus not mere things under the law.]
Further down in the article, Francione observes that his “abstract argument” would not likely resonate with people who find it acceptable to kill and eat animals. Quite true. But I think his argument would not likely move many who reject, on moral grounds, the practice of killing and eating animals, because the two situations are vastly different: the numerous excellent reasons for opposing systematic brutality and torture simply do not apply in the case of pet animals (especially if they are not considered property) In other words, if the domestication of pet animals is unjustified, it would have to be unjustified for a very different reason than why eating meat is unjustified. Thus, contrary to Francione, I think his argument is unlikely to resonate not because most people are okay with using animals for food (although that may be part of it too), but because there is little (if any) similarity between his “abstract argument” and the arguments against using animals for food.
My main problem with Francione’s argument is that considerations of the positive consequences to animals are given virtually no weight. In particular, the fact that domesticated animals would lead great lives, and presumably far better lives than if they lived in the wild, does nothing to affect the moral status of domestication: it’s still wrong (even in his hypothetical) despite the overall good consequences for both humans and nonhumans. Achieving the non-existence of entire species of animals is thus morally required. To me, this argument pays little regard to the interests and well-being of animals, and any plausible moral argument against the use of animals (like arguments against factory farming) must take those considerations into account. Francione does not appear to do that here.
Instead, Francione finds the inherent dependency-relationship created by domestication wrong in itself, even though it parallels the dependency-relationship with human children. The key difference, he claims, is that in the case of children, the overwhelming number of them “mature to become autonomous, independent beings.” But suppose you could know in advance that, if you were to have children, they would not “mature to become autonomous, independent beings”—though there is every prospect of them having happy and fulfilling lives (however dependent they are). Would it be wrong to have children? I don’t see how, though on Francione’s view, it would be. (I suspect people’s intuitions may differ widely on this question.)
Underlying Francione’s view is the belief that using dependent animals, for whatever purpose, is inherently objectionable. [See here: “The theory that I explore in Animals as Persons is that we have no business exploiting sentient nonhumans irrespective of how we treat them.”] But surely, there is a world of difference between using animals for companionship purposes (and allowing them to use us), in which our relationship to them is sustained by loving care, respect, compassion, and mutual benefit (remember, in Francione’s hypothetical, pets aren’t property), and using animals for exploitative purposes, in which our relationship to them is sustained by ignoring their interests and well-being. The former use does not strike me as “exploitative,” or at least not in any objectionable way. Moreover, the fact of dependency isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the alternative of independence would likely result in disastrous consequences.
Ultimately, my disagreement with Francione comes down to how much the positive consequences matter—I think they make all the difference, whereas for Francione, if I understand him correctly, they carry virtually no weight. In an ideal universe where animals would prosper (albeit dependently), I think domestication is morally permissible; it’s hard to see how the opposite could be true.