Most of us who have owned an animal know the pain of watching our beloved pet suffer. This suffering may come from a freak accident, from a disease, or from the physical deterioration that old age causes. When we believe that curing our pet is a lost cause, we often turn to euthanasia in order to end his or her misery. However, is euthanasia the most moral option in these situations? Do we always euthanize our animals for the right reasons? Sometimes it is difficult to assess whether the right decision has been made. For eleven years, my mother and I have been fostering dogs of all shapes, sizes, breeds, ages, backgrounds, and health levels for a Milwaukee dog rescue. Over two hundred and sixty dogs have passed through our doors, and despite our best efforts to recuperate sick dogs, we have lost some along the way.
About two weeks ago, my mother made the difficult decision to euthanize one of the most recent members of our pack—a six-month old puppy named Duncan. We rescued Duncan when he was two months old from a shelter in Alabama, after a police officer found him trapped between a fence and a garage, nearly dead. His litter had been abandoned, and all of the puppies but Duncan and his brother Connor had died of starvation. In the beginning, Duncan could walk and play with the other dogs at our house. However, it soon became apparent that something was very wrong with him—as he grew older, Duncan began losing the ability to walk for more than a couple of steps; he could not support his own weight, making it impossible for him to stand long enough to walk over to the food and water bowls or even to use the bathroom anywhere but on himself. Being the saint that she is, my mother would clean him off two or three times per day, bring him food and water, carry him outside for fresh air, make sure that he was laying on soft, clean bedding, and sacrifice her own time and money to take him to vet appointments and water therapy. Ultimately, veterinarians determined that Duncan suffered from a degenerating neurological condition, and my mother and the director of the rescue agreed that it would be best to euthanize him.
At first, I struggled with this. How could my mother actually come to the conclusion that Duncan must be euthanized—killed—when maybe there was a family somewhere out there that would happily welcome him and give him the love that he deserved? Looking back, I suppose that the optimist in me was in denial that killing this poor, helpless, innocent puppy was the most moral course of action. Part of me still is. However, looking at the situation through the lenses of different moral theories has helped me suppress my immediate emotional responses and objections.
Consequentialism, which indicates that a particular action is optimific, and thus moral, if it maximizes total aggregate happiness points towards the verdict that euthanizing Duncan was the correct course of action. Duncan was ultimately saved from any further pain or discomfort, so he would not suffer any more in this life. Putting Duncan to sleep additionally ended up saving the rescue and my mother a great amount of money because there would be no more bills from Duncan’s future water therapy sessions and medical tests/procedures. This money that the rescue saved would be put towards saving other animals in need, thus increasing their overall happiness. The happiness of any family that would have potentially adopted Duncan was also preserved because the members of the family would be saved from feeling the pain of watching their dog deteriorate. Another positive implication is that my mother is now free from the commitment of spending so much time and energy caring for a special needs dog, and that energy can now be put towards caring for her own three dogs and numerous other foster dogs. The morality of this decision could be called into question, especially if the decrease in happiness that we perceived in Duncan due to his condition was incorrect. It is also possible that a wonderful family in search of a special needs dog would have adopted him and enjoyed every moment caring for him. It is difficult to consider this option, however, because finding such a family seems like a shot in the dark. Is keeping Duncan alive in hopes of finding him the perfect forever home worth the risk of causing a prolonged decrease in the happiness of my mother, the rescue, and other dogs that the rescue could have helped? It is impossible to correctly predict what the results of either course of action would be, but the most controllable action with a fairly certain optimific outcome is to euthanize Duncan.
Despite the fact that looking at this situation through the lens of Consequentialism indicates that euthanizing Duncan is the most moral action, I have difficulty accepting the fact that killing him was completely ethical. I have never believed that the means always justify the ends, so I think that it is important to consider other moral theories. Deontology places an emphasis on motives and intentions, stating that an action is moral if 1) the maxim is universalizable, and 2) if one treats humanity—whether oneself or others—as an end in themselves and never simply a means. Considering the first gloss, we can create the maxim that a chronically ill puppy is euthanized. When we universalize this maxim, then all people will euthanize their chronically ill puppies. Since no inconsistencies or contradictions arise from this statement, Kantian thought suggests that euthanizing Duncan was morally permissible. Even the second Gloss comes to this conclusion, since Duncan was an animal that was incapable of rationality or autonomy. In order for my mother to protect her own humanity and dignity by putting her emotions aside, she followed her duty to protect Duncan and decide what was best for him. On the other hand, could it be argued that euthanizing Duncan was immoral because the action was done with the intention of avoiding further responsibility to care for him and to save money? Was euthanasia simply a convenient way of dealing with the problem? While I would like to dismiss this notion, I find it difficult to disagree with it completely. I know for a fact that Duncan was becoming a burden to both my mother and the rescue. Does killing him for that reason make the act automatically immoral? It is obvious that this matter cannot be seen in black and white, because while Duncan may have been put down partially because he was a burden, he could also have been put down partially because it was the best way for my mother to fulfill her duty to herself by protecting him.
I would like to look at the situation from one final, more holistic perspective, since I personally have always relied on my innate feelings to gauge right versus wrong. Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics indicates that humans should simply be virtuous, and that will in turn yield moral behavior. In the case of Duncan, we can ask ourselves: How can I be kind? How can I be brave? How can I be wise? It seems that we must rely on our natural inclinations, and I believe that many people would agree by saying that putting Duncan out of his presumed misery through euthanasia would be a kind thing to do. As the person making that decision, we would need both the bravery and wisdom not to do what is easy, but what is right. Of course, this raises the very important question of what constitutes kindness in this situation. Is it kind to eradicate a creature’s pain (pain that we assume exists) by killing the creature? Or is it more kind to save a creature’s life and to do everything in our power to make sure that its life is as good as it can be? What if Duncan was not in pain—what if he was happy and simply needed us to be more patient towards him and his condition?
In class today, we addressed the common conception that different theories about morality cannot be used in concurrence because they contradict one another; for instance, some place an emphasis on consequences, while others emphasize intentions, while still others emphasize virtues. However…what about when the intention is to have good consequences? What about when these lines of thought about morality come to the same conclusion? Could we almost say that this is an objective moral truth? Does it increase the value of the final moral claim? In the case of euthanizing Duncan, Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics all seem to support the claim that euthanasia was the moral course of action. It is morally permissible to take the life of a “lower” creature when it is suffering. While Duncan’s fate is still difficult to swallow, I have to believe that it was the ethical, moral, kind thing to do.