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Home arrow Environment arrow Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals


Michael Cholbi

Intense debates regarding the ethical justifiability and legal wisdom of human euthanasia (and its close cousin, assisted suicide) have occurred in many societies over the past half century, despite the fact the numbers involved are vanishingly small. In those jurisdictions that permit assisted dying, only 3 percent of all deaths result from such procedures (Statistics Netherlands 2012; Warnes 2014). In contrast, euthanasia of companion animals is almost commonplace. Exact numbers regarding how many companion animals are euthanized each year by their owners are hard to come by. But given that the Humane Society of the United States (2014) estimates that 2.7 million animals from companion species are euthanized each year in shelters, and Americans own about 164 million pets, one can only assume that the number of euthanasias of companion animals performed at guardians’ requests must number in the millions per year. In any case, it seems clear that euthanasia of pets is far more the norm than human euthanasia will ever be. Still, that euthanizing companion animals is not ethically controversial does not mean that it raises no complex ethical questions. My aim here is not to upend the popular conviction that this practice is morally permissible. Rather, my primary task is to clarify the underlying ethical issues and, to the extent possible, render more precise the conditions under which euthanizing companion animals is morally justified.

The euthanasia of companion animals and the assisted killing of humans share a superficial similarity: both involve the use of medical means to bring about the end of a creature’s life for beneficent reasons. But I first argue that modeling the ethics of euthanizing companion animals on the ethics of euthanizing human beings is implausible. The bromide that companion animal euthanasia should be “humane” or done “humanely” in fact obscures the very different ethical terrain of human and animal euthanasia. For very few of the ethical considerations that count in favor of (or against) euthanizing humans apply straightforwardly to nonhuman animals. Indeed, euthanizing companion animals might more accurately be seen as a species of (potentially) justifiable homicide, the justification of which turns almost entirely on our duties to protect or promote animal wellbeing. I then argue that the familiar comparative account of the value of death provides the best account of when prematurely ending a companion animal’s life through medical means is morally justified. Very roughly, this account implies that there is an approximate right time for an animal to die, namely, at that point at which additional life would be neither a benefit nor a harm to it. I augment this approach by proposing that knowingly failing to euthanize a companion animal at the optimal time fails to respect such an animal and can treat it merely as a means (though not in the usual Kantian sense of that phrase). I conclude by reflecting on why guardians of companion animals, as opposed to others, are both morally permitted and morally obligated to euthanize companion animals (with the assistance of veterinary professionals). These moral entitlements, I propose, rest on the guardians’ distinctive knowledge of an animal’s history and wellbeing.

Let us start with two caveats regarding nomenclature: First, I will use the term “companion animals” here, despite the allegation that doing so is “politically correct” (Varner 2002, 460). I intend the term in a literal sense, as designating any animals with whom human beings can be companionate. This will include most pets, but may also include service animals or domesticated animals from whom labor is sought. Companionship, in other words, is compatible with animals playing other roles in human affairs. This usage leaves open precisely which species of animals can serve as human companions (whether, for example, fish or insects might be human companions). Second, for reasons that become clear later on, I will refer to those human beings with whom animals are companionate and who bear special moral obligations toward those animals as those animals’ guardians rather than as their owners.

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