Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can I Put Down My Aging Pooch?

August 7, 2016 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, “Can I Put Down My Aging Pooch?


Our family dog, a 14-year-old terrier, is currently living with my wife and me in Paris. She has made the trans-Atlantic flight three times in the past year (crated in the belly of the plane) when we return home for various family events. The trip is stressful for her (and for me), but she has always rebounded quickly to her normal self, which is a pretty energetic and healthy dog. Recently, however, her health has declined a bit: less energy, hearing loss, brief moments of apparent confusion and an as-yet-unexplained brief seizure. But she is happy and devoted to my wife and me, enjoying meals and daily walks.

We are traveling back to the United States soon, and she has been checked out by a vet and cleared to fly. My bigger concern is the return to Paris two months later. Even if her health remains visibly stable, she has clearly started what may be a slow decline. So at what point do I not subject her to the stress and risk of the flight? At what point do I reflect on her long and happy life and consider ending it peacefully at our home in America, where she grew up with my daughters, who are now in college?

Giving her to someone else to care for is not an option; we do not know such a person, and emotionally it would be difficult for us. Nor is placing her in a “no kill” shelter. I want her to be guided safely and peacefully to the end of her life, in the comfort of her family’s presence. If she were in pain or rapidly declining health with a fatal illness, I would not hesitate to put her out of her misery. Short of that, at what point is euthanasia an ethically viable option for a fading yet beloved family pet? John S.

My response: Coincidence that you mention Paris and flying since I’ve changed my headline “Everybody cares about the environment until they want to fly somewhere” in regular speech to “Everyone cares about the environment until they want to see the Eiffel Tower.”

Our world sees flying and traveling as an unqualified good. Nobody challenges it. Though the post I linked to in the last paragraph documents how much flying contributes to global warming and other pollution, people who pretend to care about the environment lose all sense of reason when considering flying. They forget supply and demand, future generations, the value of money, and so on. Meanwhile they lie to themselves to blind themselves to the tons of carbon dioxide and other pollution they are responsible for pumping into the environment.

Never mind that for hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived without flying and somehow some found ways to be happy. Today our culture supports flying no matter what the externalized cost. What does the life of a dog you took responsibility for count when you can see the Eiffel Tower in two months?

You’ve sacrificed enough feeding and taking care of the dog so far. You deserve to do what you want. You can afford the flight. What does the life of a dog compare to the probably thousands of tons of CO2 you’ve paid to dump in the environment your kids will have to deal with. You won’t. Fly. If your dog gets in the way, kill it. Then tell yourself what you need to to sleep at night.

Oops, that was probably too harsh to you since I was really annoyed at all the people telling me “the plane was going to fly anyway” or “my part of the pollution isn’t that big” when they know they’re lying to themselves. You sound like you’re in that group since you don’t sound like you’d even consider flying less.

My suggestion: consider flying less. Love often involves willingness to sacrifice for someone or some dog you love, not that not flying seems such a huge sacrifice to me.

The New York Times response:

“Euthanasia” means a good death. Most people think, as you do, that it’s not just permitted but also required, ethically, to help a pet die a good death when she is in great suffering and has no prospect of recovery. This isn’t the situation here. I understand your reluctance to expose her to the stress of trans-Atlantic travel (and removing her from her family would be difficult for her, too). But unless your dog risks dying in the cargo hold, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to kill her in order to avoid an experience she has had a number of times already. Dogs (and most people) recover from that sort of trauma pretty well. She’ll be delighted to see you again at the other end. And, other things being equal, you clearly think it’s wrong to kill a dog who is still capable of enjoying life — not just for your sake, but for hers.

My cousin’s 1-year-old son has been dealing with a protracted illness, which she has been documenting extensively on social media. Recently, she confessed to her relatives that this mysterious condition was a complication from a disease that is mildly contagious among children, which she elected not to treat. Publicly, she continues to pretend that this condition has gone undiagnosed because of the incompetence of doctors. The risk to other children is minimal, but I feel bad keeping quiet for the sake of politeness at the risk of public health. Should I help my cousin save face, or should I warn the parents of potential playmates? Name Withheld

My response: You’re asking a newspaper columnist / philosopher for medical advice? Am I missing something that this sounds like a medical issue, not a philosophical or moral one.

I would talk to a doctor. Or several.

The New York Times response:

Often, dear readers, I wish you would tell me more. What, in your judgment, is a “minimal risk”? You speak of a “protracted illness”; could this happen to someone the boy came in contact with? Your cousin elected not to treat the disease. Why? And if she had treated it early, would the treatment have been straightforward? If that’s the case, the risk to other children might be small only if she lets their parents know the truth.

Right now, you’re deciding whether to let your cousin continue to seek sympathy by misrepresenting the consequences of her own bad judgment while exposing other children to some hard-to-specify medical risks. Here’s a third possibility: Tell her that she can’t let her kids play with others without making sure their parents know the truth. Ask her to take responsibility, as she should have done all along. If she won’t, go ahead and tell the other parents what you know.

I am 25 years old and down to nearly my last dime, but I come from a very wealthy family. I moved away, and I’m trying my hardest to make it on my own, but it isn’t easy. I’ve chosen a career path that pays very little (nonprofit work), and I live a simple lifestyle, very different from how I was raised. I’ve had to separate my parents’ wealth from my own. My parents helped me out financially when I first moved after college, but that money has been spent (not all of it wisely), and I’m struggling to make ends meet. Is it wrong for me to apply for food stamps? I’m definitely eligible, and I’ve started the process. It feels more wrong to me to ask my parents for help at this point, and I worry they would be disappointed, but I feel as if they would also be mortified if they learned that I was on food stamps. More important, is it wrong of me to utilize this government resource when I could go to the bank of Mom and Dad? Name Withheld

My response: Your question poses what we call a false dichotomy. You have more than two options. Thinking you have two inhibits you from solving problems. As a psychologist who studied intelligence once told me, flexibility with beliefs and mental models is a big part of intelligence. Being more flexible will help you solve more problems and more intelligence.

Create more options.

Can you think of other options than welfare and parents? You sound like you’re of sound mind and body. Could you get a job that could support you? Could you start a venture that could support you? Can you lower your costs? It’s hard not to sound patronizing here, especially since I consider social safety nets important and helpful, but it’s hard not to say “get a job.” My entrepreneurship course could help you a lot, since people who take it keep getting jobs through its exercises, but I don’t like people taking it who don’t finish it and you don’t sound like you’ll finish it.

Let me rephrase my questions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you graduated college you’re over 18, probably over 21. You can get a job that supports you. You can create new projects. What looks to me like a lack of vision and unsupported sense of entitlement (not to consider getting a job, not for entitlement programs) suggests you can lower your costs. Do you think that nonprofit work is somehow special or that you can’t help the world in other ways?

The New York Times response:

Your parents’ assets are theirs. Yours are few enough that you’re entitled to food stamps. In our country, rights to welfare are individual rights, and the system doesn’t (and shouldn’t) ask you to come begging to all other potential sources of support before applying. It doesn’t require that you take up a relationship you don’t want in order to save the taxpayers expense. Whether or not you are ashamed of what has brought you to this place, there’s no shame in claiming something to which you’re entitled. Your parents’ mortification is something they can worry about.

But I do hope you’re not avoiding your family because you have conflicting views about money. You don’t have to discuss your finances with them to keep in touch. Unless they or you have done something terrible to rupture your relationship, you have a connection with them that’s morally significant. I’d try to keep the two questions — money and relationship — separate, however hard that is in practice.

A business contact recently shared with my husband that he enrolled his children in kindergarten at a very desirable public school outside his district by using a false address. Unknown to him, our child is wait-listed at this same school, for which we are zoned, as a result of the random lottery admissions process.

Once private-school admissions and other alternative placements are completed, this public school’s wait list will most likely clear, and my child and the rest of the wait-listed zoned students will receive a seat. However, other types of priority applicants — like siblings of current students whose families no longer live in the zone — may not.

I’m very upset that this family was accepted to this school because of falsified residency. While it ultimately won’t impact my child directly, I’m troubled by the knowledge that this family is receiving admission over other students who technically have priority. I’m inclined to notify the school but am hesitant because there are surely other families who have also used false addresses; they just didn’t sit next to my husband at a dinner. Do I notify the school or not? Name Withheld

My response: This looked like such an intriguing situation until the wording of the question at the end, asking to be told what to do. You have a kid. You’re an adult. I could see you asking for advice, other perspectives, other options, and other things to help you decide. But you asked someone to tell you what to do. Don’t you prefer thinking and choosing for yourself? It’s more responsibility and accountability, but empowering so you don’t have to rely on others for important things in your life, like an adult, not a child.

Fine. You have the law on your side, at least as you presented it. On the other hand, even if you report anonymously, this person in your community will have reason to suspect your involvement. There are your issues: you will feel self-righteous but may also be found out if you act. You may regret not acting if you don’t. There are your issues. No one else is involved like you, nor knows the people or issues like you. There is no abstract or objective right or wrong for you to look up. Examine your values, create what options you can, do what you believe is best, and deal with the results as best you can.

The New York Times response:

Competing to get their kids the best education available, people do all kinds of things in this cutthroat world. They read to them, encourage them, reward them for successes, help them learn from failures, make sure they do their homework and teach them, through precept and example, the values that should guide a decent human life. And sometimes they lie about where they live.

There’s ample reason to want the best schooling you can swing for your kids. It can make them better able to enjoy and manage their lives and can help get them into a rewarding line of work. Many of these advantages are worth having in themselves. But some — the so-called positional goods — are valuable because they put you ahead of other people. Having great grades is usually a sign that you’re profiting from your education, but it’s also a help in getting the best further education and, in the end, the best jobs. So part of getting the best education for your kids really does mean getting them advantages over other kids. That excellent kindergarten is meant to set you up for success in all the schools that follow. Hence the cutthroat competition.

People disagree about what it is for a society to be just. I believe that it requires the government to secure a decent education for all children, guarantee everyone a basic level of security and welfare and make sure that our economy is one in which everyone has a real shot at the most rewarding occupations. Some people on the right think this is asking too much; some on the left think we should ask for more. But there are things most of us can agree on. And one of them is that if we have fair rules that govern how we allocate resources — resources, like public schools, that are paid for and supported by all of us — then breaking those rules is unfair.

We do a lousy job in our country of making sure that all kids get equal access to a good education. One reason is that we have wildly unequal schools — with easily identifiable differences in resources, teacher quality and the like. Given those differences, however, the sort of lottery you mention, among families who meet the residency requirement, is a reasonably fair way of allocating places. So it’s just not O.K. to enter the lottery under false pretenses and take a slot that’s rightfully someone else’s.

You might think it wasn’t your business. But, given that this is a public school, that’s not true. Nor is it unjust to pick on this indiscreet acquaintance, even if others are cheating this way. Otherwise we should never report anybody for any offense, because there’s always going to be someone else who has gotten away with it. It’s true that when the man told your husband what he’d done, he surely assumed the information wouldn’t be passed along. Not knowing anything about their relationship, I don’t know why he thought this. Perhaps it was a simple misjudgment. If so, you should feel free to let the district know the truth — anony­mously, if the business relationship with your husband matters. There’s enough unfairness around our educational system without people adding to it by deceit.

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