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Animals and the Human-Assisted Dying Debate

Unsurprisingly, recent debates about human euthanasia have been dominated by discussions of voluntary euthanasia, euthanasia that takes place with the consent of the person killed. Involuntary euthanasia is ruled out by the widespread belief that the willful killing of another human being against her will (except in cases of self-defense) is among the most serious of moral wrongs. Furthermore, since voluntary euthanasia counts as suicide, that is, as intentional self-killing undertaken in this case with the assistance of others, the moral debate about human euthanasia has been couched in terms of whether human beings may permissibly end their own lives, and if so, whether others (particularly physicians) are permitted to facilitate such self-termination.

However, this framework simply cannot be repurposed to address the euthanasia of nonhuman creatures. Admittedly, humans euthanizing animals may be “helping” those animals to die (more on this shortly). But this does not make the euthanasia of companion animals “voluntary” in the sense deployed in debates about human euthanasia. Although the right to autonomy—that is, the right to make one’s own decisions, particularly regarding key life matters such as life and death—has played a central role in advocacy for human euthanasia, it has essentially no role to play in the morality of euthanizing animals. Animals do not consent to their own deaths, nor would it make sense to ask them to do so. Animal euthanasia thus does not count as suicide in the ordinary sense. Rather, it is better classified as non-voluntary euthanasia, the beneficent killing of a being neither in concert with, nor contrary to, its consent.

Nor are many other considerations commonly brought to bear on the human euthanasia debate applicable to the euthanasia of nonhumans. For example, most religious arguments intended to show the impermissibility of suicide appeal to premises that, within the relevant religious traditions at least, exclude nonhuman animals. That life is a gift from God; that humans are made in God’s image; that God entrusts our bodies to us but that they not belong to us; that life is sacred; that suicide amounts to our abandoning our assigned post in life: it is not clear how such premises could apply to the killing of nonhuman animals (Cholbi 2011, 39-53). Indeed, the dominant strain of thought within Western monotheism has sharply differentiated between human beings, who have rational souls, and animals, who do not. This difference is in turn alleged to be the putative moral basis for humans’ right to use animals for their own purposes. In any event, we cannot take our cues regarding the euthanasia of nonhuman animals from religious arguments concerning human euthanasia.

Likewise, other arguments aimed at establishing the moral impermissibility of suicide do not readily extrapolate to nonhuman euthanasia either. Kant’s argument, that suicide violates a duty to oneself resting on the moral demand to treat rational agency as having dignity rather than price, applies only to creatures with “humanity,” that is, with the capacity to rationally determine their ends and the best means to those ends. And while we cannot rule out nonhuman animals’ having such a capacity, Kant’s argument nevertheless sets a high bar for which creatures are morally forbidden to end their lives (Cholbi 2000). I am similarly skeptical that libertarian arguments for the moral permissibility of suicide (appealing to the notion of self-ownership) or communitarian arguments for suicide’s moral impermissibility apply to animals either.

Finally, many of the psychological facts that shape human attitudes toward death are probably not present in animals. All animals die, but human beings, it has been claimed, are the only animals with the conceptual sophistication and reflective capacity to grasp their own inherent mortality (Becker 1997, 27). This claim strikes me as plausible but not indisputable. Animals no doubt have a strong survival instinct, and many species of animals grieve (King 2013). Still, the moral significance of death for human beings is shaped by attitudes that presuppose some incipient awareness of death, attitudes that we likely do not share with animals. Other animals probably cannot conceptualize the finitude of their lives (Regan 1983, 111), and to the extent that animals are self-conscious, their self-consciousness is more episodic than narrative, a more punctate awareness of themselves in time than an awareness of having a life span organized into temporal or developmental stages (childhood, adulthood, etc.) (Strawson 2004). Animals’ fear of death is therefore far less mediated by their beliefs and attitudes than our fear of death is. Animals also lack the existential fear of death, the fear of nothingness or of the obliteration of one’s subjectivity (Behrendt 2010). To the degree, then, that the morality of euthanizing companion animals depends on whether death harms such animals, the harms in question are more direct than in the human case, rooted primarily in intrinsic facts about animals’ welfare rather than in facts constituted by whatever attitudes animals may have toward death.

My proposal is, therefore, that we will not learn much about the morality of euthanizing animals, companion or otherwise, by looking to the debate about euthanasia or suicide in humans. If euthanizing companion animals is to be morally justified, it will instead be on the basis of its being a form of justifiable zooicide.

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