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A Guardian’s Right to Euthanize?

The previous section offered an account of when and why companion animals ought to be euthanized. This section addresses the question of who may determine if and when an animal companion is to be euthanized. Note that this is not the question of who may perform the euthanasia procedure. For reasons of safety, efficacy, and wellbeing, only veterinarians or those with comparable medical training should perform the procedure (though the extent to which repeatedly performing animal euthanasia is traumatic for animal care professionals is easy to overlook [Rollin 2011, 56-59]). Rather, the question at hand is to whom the decision to euthanize is delegated. It may seem natural to suppose that only a companion animal’s guardian may make such a decision. Yet the fact that guardians and veterinarians may reasonably disagree about when a companion animal should be euthanized underscores that some argument is necessary to defend the supposition that the choice to euthanize belongs to an animal’s guardian.

A guardian’s right to determine when a companion animal is to be euthanized rests on the guardian’s having a certain authority with respect to the animal. The relevant sense of “authority” is not rooted in the fact that guardians of companion animals are typically “in charge of” them or that many companion animals are trained to respond to their guardian’s commands. The authority in question is instead moral. To say that guardians may decide when a companion animal shall be euthanized because they have authority with respect to such animals is to posit an asymmetrical entitlement wherein guardians exercise discretion. In what might such authority be rooted? One possibility is to root it in a property relation wherein guardians own their companion animals (Rollin 1992, 308). This proposal is promising because property ownership confers exclusive authority on a property owner with regard to her property. It entitles her to determine its location, how it is to be treated, and so on. Thinking of companion animals as property also helps explain why guardians may be responsible for harms caused by such animals. If a pet dog bites its neighbor, attributing responsibility to its guardian can be justified by seeing the dog as property with respect to which the owner failed to exercise due care (as when a property owner permits a backyard fire to get out of control). Conversely, understanding companion animals as property can help to justify the thesis that others have obligations to respect a guardian’s animal qua property (Cooke 2011).

Nevertheless, that guardians have the right to decide on euthanasia for their companion animals because they own these animals should be rejected. For one, it would seem to prove too much: typically, property owners have no duties to their property. Rather, property ownership serves only to impose duties on other people (duties to refrain from interfering with, destroying, stealing, etc., property belonging to others). Hence, if our companion animals were our property, we would have no duties to them at all. Indeed, it would not be impermissible to torture them, destroy them at any time for any reason, and so forth. For these reasons, companion animal ownership cannot plausibly be modeled on “full liberal ownership” (Cooke 2011, 267).

In response, some have argued that animals are self-owners to whom their guardians have a form of legal title or authority, or that other nonstandard forms of ownership could allow for animals having moral standing that precludes various forms of mistreatment (Cooke 2011, 265-66). Perhaps so. But I doubt that most animal guardians conceptualize their moral responsibilities as flowing from their ownership of their animals. Rather, I imagine that while conscientious companion animal guardians think they have moral responsibilities concerning those animals akin to those of property ownership, they do not see ownership as the most fundamental moral relationship they have with those animals. Indeed, to call an animal one’s companion is to imply that whatever asymmetry of authority may exist between companion animals and their guardians, it coexists with a certain moral symmetry. The relationship is a partnership, wherein each partner has a distinct role to play. The guardian’s role is that of caretaker to the animal, imposing on the guardian various duties of care. To think of our authority with regard to companion animals as rooted in ownership is at odds with the understanding of the animal-guardian relationship as one in which each partner has something at stake. Whatever guardians’ authority consists in, it must be compatible with our sense that our relations with companion animals morally compel us to act on their behalf, that they are not objects to be manipulated for our interests.

We should therefore not be misled by our normal patterns of speech— wherein we refer to “my pet” and the like—into concluding that our authority with regard to companion animals is proprietary in nature. But a challenge remains: how is it that a companion animal guardian, a person who stands in a unique relationship to the animal, has the specific authority to decide on euthanasia, given that (as I argued earlier) the facts relevant to making this decision correctly are not themselves relational facts ? If all that matters morally to deciding whether to euthanize a companion animal is that doing so makes possible an optimum life span (or something close to it) for that animal, then it does not seem to follow, without additional argument at least, that the animal’s guardian is especially or uniquely entitled to make such a determination. The challenge is to show how companion animals’ own moral status (the moral relevance of which is independent of animals’ relationship to their guardians) can nevertheless be reconciled with the special entitlement of guardians (who do stand in a distinctive relationship to their animals) to determine the conditions of companion animals’ deaths.

A better route to justifying a guardian’s right to determine when a companion animal is to be euthanized is epistemic. On this model, guardians have a right to euthanize because of their intimate knowledge of their animal companions. Tony Milligan observes that it is tempting to suppose that the relationships guardians have with their companion animals are likely to introduce sentiments of attachment, sentiments that may serve as an obstacle to guardians acting in the best interests of their companion animals. The sentiments associated with guardianship, we might think, can only distort, rather than clarify, whether a companion animal ought to be euthanized. Milligan instead argues that having a companion animal is an educative process because of the “depth and continuity” of the relationship guardians establish with companion animals (2009, 404).

As I argued earlier, there are other factors beyond hedonic considerations that guardians must take into account in deciding when to euthanize. One I have already gestured at: an animal’s individual personality. Due to personality differences, one and the same physical debility can be devastating to one specimen of a given species but far less consequential for another member of that species. The “depth and continuity” of a guardian’s relationship with an animal provides her knowledge of the animal’s personality, which can in turn make her uniquely situated to judge the significance of a particular physical debility for that animal’s wellbeing.

Milligan further proposes that guardians are uniquely situated to understand what ethical significance to assign to an animal’s affective states, including pain. He argues that guardians have unique access to the unique narrative of a companion animal’s life, and only via knowledge of this narrative can pain (and other states) of an animal be assigned their proper significance. Milligan provides an example of two dogs with identical medical prognoses, levels of suffering, and so forth. It matters to whether the dogs should be euthanized that one of the dogs underwent years of cruelty and mistreatment prior to rescue by its guardian. It would be cruel to subject this dog to a reintroduction of pain, but less cruel to permit the other dog to be subject to such pain. Animal stories matter, Milligan argues, and inasmuch as decisions to euthanize are end-of-life decisions, they are also end-of-narrative choices requiring intimate understanding of the animal’s particularity. Guardians’ authority to euthanize companion animals is therefore epistemic in nature: “Animal guardians can (and often will) be epistemically privileged participants in end-of-life deliberations because they can (and often will) be the people who are best placed to bring the relevant narrative of a pet’s life into view” (Milligan 2009, 411).

Grounding guardians’ authority over their companion animal’s being euthanized answers the challenge I identified earlier. For on Milligan’s picture, guardians’ authority is rooted in a relational epistemic attitude (their knowledge of the animal’s life narrative) whose object is a non-relational ethical fact (the narrative itself). The duty to euthanize at the point of optimum life span thus rests on the nature of the animal itself. The guardians have authority with respect to such decisions but not because (as in the ownership account) they have authority over their companion animals.

In my estimation, Milligan’s proposal is best seen as an analogue of a familiar picture regarding end-of-life choices for human beings. When a human patient is no longer able to make such choices competently, an individual presumed to be knowledgeable about the patient’s life history and values steps in to serve as the patient’s proxy. So too for companion animals, except that they never were able to make such choices. The crucial difference is that in cases of human proxy judgment, a human proxy is supposed to make the judgment the human patient would have made were she able, whereas in cases of guardians choosing an end- of-life path for a companion animal, the guardian is not a proxy for what the animal patient would have wanted. Milligan does not make the claim that animals themselves fashion narratives regarding their conditions and, given the aforementioned episodic nature of much of animal consciousness, he is wise not to attribute such narrative self-awareness to animals. Moreover, it is unlikely that animals can make the kinds of judgments the comparative account of death’s value requires, that is, judgments comparing their lives up to a given moment in time with lives they might have by continuing to live. In this respect, guardians are not proxies but custodians, bringing to bear on decisions regarding euthanasia knowledge regarding their companion animals that the animals themselves lack.

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