Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Get a Pet From a No-Kill Shelter?

April 30, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Get a Pet From a No-Kill Shelter?

I recently experienced the loss of a much-loved pet. I am looking into getting a new cat or cats. My dilemma is where: 1. A no-kill animal shelter; 2. A shelter that euthanizes animals if there are too many. Do I opt for the kill shelter — thereby saving lives? Or support the no-kill shelter? M. Watkin, Cobden, Ill.

My response: Why are you asking someone else? Are you a child? Haven’t you learned to decide and act for yourself?

Some people think one solution is best, others think the other. I’m sure others prefer other solutions entirely. They figured out what was right for them. They aren’t superhuman. You can figure out for yourself what’s right for you. You didn’t share your values. Is someone else supposed to guess at them?

Making decisions and acting on them may sound difficult, but I expect you’ll find that doing so improves your life more than relying on others to choose for you. If you’re a child, I can understand asking others, but I would recommend asking your parents, not a newspaper columnist.

You didn’t ask about writing style, but I would write “… of a pet I loved” instead of the vague and passive “… of a much-loved pet.” It’s a matter of taste, not right or wrong, but I found your way distracting enough to comment, even more than “… experienced the loss of … ” instead of “lost.” Why not: “A pet I loved recently died.”?

The New York Times response:

In your view, it’s wrong to kill a cat humanely (as we say, rather oddly) if no one wants to have it as a pet. This is a topic on which there are strong and conflicting beliefs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is highly critical of no-kill policies, given the realities of our animal shelters: Warehousing animals in cages for long periods is cruel, the group says, and the attempt to find homes for these creatures is “like bailing out a sinking ship with a teaspoon.” PETA wants us to head off the problem by sterilizing more animals, thereby reducing the number of homeless ones. Groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggest, more diplomatically, that “no kill” is a noble aspiration but often imperfect in practice, as it results in warehousing and overcrowding. I myself have concluded that it can be O.K. to kill creatures that don’t have projects as long as you don’t cause them suffering. (Human beings, unlike other creatures, have lives they’re making whose interruption deprives them of something significant.) That’s why I am not a vegetarian but favor strong animal-welfare legislation for livestock. My aim, however, isn’t to push you toward a particular position. On these issues, there is a range of arguments to reckon with. I’d simply urge you to take the time to do so.

Given your current assumptions, Options 1 and 2 each have something to be said for them. Option 1 supports an organization that won’t euthanize the animals it shelters. Option 2 means that you adopt an animal that could have been euthanized. (You might think you’d also lessen the chance that other animals will be killed, but PETA has a point about that teaspoon.) Because “adoption fees” are meant to help cover the cost of the rescue, you could give the “no-kill” shelter money and take your cat or cats from a “kill” shelter, thus achieving both goals. But do keep your eye on the larger questions of animal welfare. A “no-kill” shelter may use the money unwisely and still cause animal deaths when fatal illnesses result from overcrowding. Be sure your issues with PETA, the H.S.U.S. or the A.S.P.C.A. survive research and consideration.

My mother recently remarried, and her new husband has a young daughter. My stepsister spends most of her time with her mother, but she spends some weekends and holidays with her dad and my mom. My mother was a decent parent (I’m 22), but she has always been self-involved and insensitive. Whenever I spend time with her and my stepsister, I notice my mom acting in ways that were hurtful to me as a child. I feel I have some responsibility to protect this kid, but when I broach the topic, my mother gets very upset. Should I back off and commiserate with my stepsister when she’s old enough? Or is there a way to talk about this to my mom that will let me help the child in a more immediate way? Name Withheld

My response: Finally, a question about expanding views and skills! … and not just about judging or labeling as ethical or any other abstract philosophical concept. Sticking with that strategy of asking of there are ways to do things that you don’t know of will help you grow in ways you couldn’t otherwise, beyond all these other writers this column picks, stuck in gazing at their navels.

You are asking about how to influence someone you have no authority over. This challenge is a major reason I wrote my book, Leadership Step by Step, which leads you through a set of exercises to develop the skills to lead people without relying on authority, generally strengthening relationships in the process. Other resources that I know of tend just to describe principles intellectually without giving you experiences to develop them.

I consider the book the best resource to develop the skills that would help you in this situation. I’m not trying to sell the book because it’s mine. If there were a resource that would help you more, I wouldn’t have written the book.

There’s also the online course if you prefer more structure.

The New York Times response:

Have you made it clear that what you are saying is based in your own experience? If you’ve already done so and she hasn’t changed her behavior, I’m not sure it’s worth insisting. Take consolation in the fact that your stepsister spends less time with your mother than you did (and has her own mother as well), and that you’ll be around to talk it through with her later.

Our child goes to a private school that we cannot afford. A relative pays the tuition. The school offers financial aid, which we qualify for. However, our relative could, and would, pay the full fee if needed. It seems wrong to ask our relative to pay more than we are actually charged. But it also seems wrong to take aid when other families may not have this resource. The school does not ask about family resources; we are disclosing everything they ask for. What is the ethical thing to do? Name Withheld

My response: Sigh. Back to the abstract philosophical labels.

You’re an adult. The relatives and school administrators are all adults. You’re following the administrators’ rules on their matters.

If something seems wrong to you, why don’t you examine your values and beliefs to understand yourself better, then act in ways that you consider more right? If you want to tell them about your other resources, you can tell them.

You can figure this out on your own. You have the ability. Nobody else knows you or your situation as well anyway.

The New York Times response:

You’ve filled out the financial-aid forms correctly, you report, but you have a stream of income that the forms don’t reveal, namely the gift from your richer relative. So you’re not lying. (That’s good!) But if the school knew about this other stream, it would probably ask you for more. You’re taking advantage of what you see as a glitch in the system. (Not so good.) Given that you wouldn’t disadvantage your child if you pointed this out, the only reason not to do so is to spare your relative the extra burden. But if the financial-aid system were properly administered, you’d turn out to be undercharged. So you should tell the school that they ought to modify the forms to ask: How much assistance are you receiving from others toward school fees?

My mother is from Central America. She came to the United States for college and met my American father. I am, therefore, 50 percent Latino genetically, but I don’t identify as Latino. There were (to my regret) no Central American influences in my upbringing — no Spanish language, no Latino relatives, no foods from “the old country.” There was also no discrimination directed at me or my mother (we look “white”). Is it ethical to identify as Latino in social situations and on the census? Name Withheld

My response: I found my favorite response to a question like yours on a forum long enough ago that I don’t remember the source or exact wording, but it went something like, “I’m not up on my racial categorization. I’ll check with my neo-nazi friends to find out. They know this stuff best.” Look up online debates about if Charlize Theron or Steve Nash are African-American to see multiple views on a related perspective and, in many cases, the intensity of many people’s beliefs.

I’ll add my usual: there’s no absolute right or wrong dictated by some book in the sky. Some people will say yes, others no.

By the way, why do you (or the Times, if they edited it) write “Latino” capitalized, without quotation marks, but “white” in lower case with quotation marks?

The New York Times response:

Our ethnic and racial categories drape loosely around the realities of our complex lives. I am the son of an English woman and a Ghanaian man. I am an American citizen. Am I a black American? African-American? Anglo-American? Anglo-African? “Latino” is a word that hovers uneasily between a category defined by culture and one defined by descent. The latter conception makes you Latino. The former doesn’t quite. There’s also a notion that ethnicity should be defined by your own sense of identity — by whether you think of yourself as Latino. But whether you think of yourself as Latino is shaped by ideas about culture and descent. There isn’t a single correct view about that. Still, here’s a solution: In cases in which you don’t have the time or space to explain your situation, probably the least confusing thing to say to people in the United States is that your mother is Latina. (As far as forms go, if they permit you to check two boxes, I’d do that. If they don’t, I don’t believe it matters much what you do.)

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