Philosophy & My Old Husky IV: Moral Decisions

Isis LookingThe saga of Isis, my thirteen-year-old husky, continues. While she faced a crisis, good care and steroids have seen her through the storm of pain and she has returned to her usual self—ready for adventures and judging all lesser creatures.

Having a pet imposes morally accountability upon a person—the life of a pet is quite literally in one’s hands. When I took Isis in to the emergency vet she was in such rough shape that I thought that it might have been time for that hardest of pet decisions—to choose an end to the suffering of a beloved friend. It is my hope that I will not need to make this decision—I hope that when her time comes she will drift away in her sleep with no pain. I am hoping the same for myself. After all, no one wants to face that choice.

While some dismiss philosophy as valueless in real life, I have found my experience as a philosopher incredibly helpful in this matter. As noted above, I am morally responsible for my husky’s well-being. Having studied and taught ethics, I have learned a great deal that helps me frame the choices I have and will face.

When I brought Isis to the emergency vet, I knew that it would be expensive. There are, of course, higher fees for bringing a pet in outside of regular hours and Isis was in the sort of shape that usually indicates a large bill. So, when the vet showed me the proposed bill, I was not surprised that it was just under $600. I am lucky enough to have a decent job and fortunate enough to have made it through the financial folks driving the economy off a cliff a while back. While that was still a large sum of money for me, I could certainly afford it. While very worried about her, I did think about people who are less well off, yet love their pets as much as I love my husky—they could face a terrible choice between medical care for their pet and having the money for some essential bill or expense. Or they might simply not have enough money at all, thus being denied the choice. While there are those who do help out with the care of such pets, I am sure that there are daily tragedies involving those who lack the funds to care for sick or injured pets.

Since there are many systems of ethics, there are many ways to approach the moral decision of costly (in money or time) pet care. The most calculating is, of course, a utilitarian approach: weighing the costs and benefits in order to determine what would create the greatest utility. In my case, I can afford such care and the good for my husky vastly outweighed the cost to me. So, the utilitarian calculation was easy for me.

Others are not so lucky and they will face a difficult choice that requires weighing the well-being of their pet against the cost to them. While it is easy enough to say that a person should always take care of her pet, people can obviously have other moral obligations, such as to their children. In addition to the ethics of making the decision, there is also to moral matter of having a society in which people are forced to make such hard decisions because they simply lack the financial resources to address the challenges they face. While some might say that those who cannot afford pets should not have pets (something that is also often said about children), that also seems to be another evil. While I would not say that people have a right to pets as they have a right to life and liberty, I would accept that a system that generates such poverty would seem to be an unjust system. Naturally, some might still insist that pets are a luxury, like education and basic nutrition.

Another approach is to set aside the cold calculations of utility and make the decision based on an ethics of duty and obligation.  Having a pet is analogous to having a child: the choice creates a set of moral duties and obligations. Part of the foundation of these obligations is that the pet cannot make her own decisions and generally lacks the ability to care for itself. As such, taking an animal as a pet is to accept the role of a decision maker and a caretaker. An analogy can also be drawn to accepting a contract for a job: the job requires certain things and accepting the job entails accepting those requirements. In the case of a pet, there are many obligations and the main one is assuming responsibility for the well-being of the pet. This is why choosing to have a pet is such a serious decision and should not be entered into lightly.

One reason having a pet should not be taken lightly is that the duty to the pet imposes an obligation to make sacrifices for the well-being of the pet. This can include going without sleep, cleaning up messes and making a hard decision about the end of life. There are, of course, limits to all obligations and working out exactly what one owes a pet is a moral challenge. There are certainly some minimal obligations that a person must accept or she should not have a pet—these would include providing for the basic physical and emotional needs of the pet. The moral discussion becomes rather more complicated when the obligations impose greater burdens, such as burdens of time and money.

When Isis was at her low point, she could barely walk. I had to carry her outside and support her while she struggled to do her business. When I picked her up, I would say “up, up and away!” When carrying her, I would say “wooosh” so she would think she was flying. This made us both feel a little better.

She could not stand to eat or drink and had little appetite. So, I had to hold her water bowl up for her so she could drink and make special foods to hand feed her.  I found that she would eat chicken and rice processed into a paste—provided I slathered it with peanut butter and let her lick it from my palm. At night, she would cry with pain and I would be there to comfort her, getting by on a few hours of sleep. Sometimes she would not be able to make it outside, and there would be a mess to clean up.

I did all this for two reasons. The first is, of course, love. The second is duty—I accept that my moral obligation to my husky requires me to do all this for her because she is my dog. If I did not do all this for her, I would be a worse person and, while I can bear cleaning up diarrhea at 3:23 in the morning, I cannot bear being a worse person.

I am certainly no moral saint and I freely admit that this was a difficult (though it obviously pales in comparison with what other people have faced). It did not reach my limits, though I know I (like everyone) have them. Sorting out the ethics of these limits is a significant moral matter. First, there is the moral question of how far one’s obligations go. That is, determining how far you are morally obligated to go. Second, there is the moral question of how far you can go before your obligations are breaking you. After all, each person also has duties to herself that are as important as obligations to others.

In my case, I accepted that my obligations included all that I mentioned above. While doing all this was exhausting me (I was dumping instant coffee mix into protein shakes to get through teaching classes), Isis recovered before my obligations broke me. But, I did have to give serious thought to how long I would be able to sustain this level of care before I could not go on anymore—I am glad I did not have to find out.


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  1. Doris Wrench Eisler

    Isis is a beautiful being, BTW, and it is great to hear about a close human/animal tie. In the first place, no one should obtain any animal, but perhaps especially a dog, as a novelty or gift, unless it is truly wanted and there is a genuine sense of responsibility. For instance, a kind of god-parent – family member or friend – who would agree to take charge in case the owner is no longer capable. There are few things sadder than visiting a dog shelter and so many abandoned dogs that are victims of thoughtless or cruel owners. That being said, the cost of keeping a very sick animal alive would depend on many other factors, and yes, ludicrously unfair and disproportionate wages and salaries are at the root.
    I believe the right attitude is instinctual and doesn’t really need much philosophizing. You are either attached to an animal and will do everything within reason to help, or you are not. If you are not, don’t obtain a dog. And responsible ownership should be promoted on all fronts, as for instance this essay undertakes to do, and including dog breeders/sellers.

  2. It is heartwarming to know that such beautiful relationships exist. I do wish more people thought so thoroughly about the well-being of their pets.
    I would generally disagree with having a pet myself (in the urban environment), having been raised in a rural community where dogs would be free to roam the vastness of the open spaces, forming canine friends and packs, and generally having a different kind of relationship with humans. But once we do take it upon ourselves to construct a relationship with another soul, thus changing it profoundly from the natural default, and letting it change us, it becomes crucial to contemplate upon the moral responsibility we have towards that soul, and the obligation to follow up on it. I commend you for your strength of character and I wish you both the very best. Cheers!

  3. Kevin Henderson

    We should do what brings us happiness. I’ve seen many pets euthanized, but those same pets gave me exceptionally long and happy experiences. In that sense, I have been extremely lucky with animals.

    I worry now about any one of my cats escaping for longer than reasonable only to have a coyote meeting. I often wonder if I do the right thing. The cats seem happier if given a little bit of freedom. It is a risk but I consider them responsible enough to take that risk. In the end there are always more animals to share life.

  4. I envy you your relationship with Isis. (It’s a shame that her name has lately taken on a new meaning- p’haps just as well she’s unaware of that – LOL) I’ve always wanted a dog and my preference would be either for a lab, golden, or a husky, but I’ve never been able to get one. I don’t generally accept the arguments for animal rights, but in a few cases I think it is reasonable to assert that certain kinds of animals might be entitled to a limited set of rights. Like many others, I think that some primates and cetaceans probably belong in this category, and I think that there’s a decent argument for elephants too. However, I also think that that the domesticated dog probably deserves special status too. I’m not familiar with others taking that position, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some in the literature on animal ethics. I’m just not familiar enough with it. In any case, while the other animals mentioned display characteristics which indicate a level of intelligence that can be used as a basis for arguing that they deserve an ethical status elevated above that of other animals, I think that dogs have a similar desert based upon the unique nature of their evolution.

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