Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: How Much Can We Spend to Keep Our Dog Alive?

November 8, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “How Much Can We Spend to Keep Our Dog Alive?


About 18 months ago, my husband and I adopted a dog who was seized as part of a cruelty/neglect investigation. He has serious skin issues and was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. Like most dogs, despite all he has been through, he has a sweet doggy spirit. He also has a team of specialists — a dermatologist, an oncologist and his regular vet. At the moment, he is comfortable and happy. When the time comes (most likely in the next year), we will see him through to a gentle death. We have the resources to take care of him, but he is expensive — think car payment, not mortgage payment. He doesn’t look like a regular dog, and people know he has a medical routine. There is a lot of unsolicited judgment, mostly in three camps: those who think we should devote the same amount of resources to charitable animal-related organizations and not an individual dog, people who think it is wrong to ‘‘put a dog through chemo’’ and people who think it’s morally wrong to exert so much effort on an animal. We mostly just love our dog. What do you think? C. S., Portland, Ore.

My response: There are no hidden angles here. You know all the issues. Everyone does. You have mixed thoughts. As does everyone. Some feel more strongly one way, others another way.

You’re asking for another opinion not because you believe some outside new perspective will settle the issue for you. You know that more facts or other people’s opinions aren’t the issue here.

Your decision feels difficult because it creates intense emotions you don’t know how to handle.

I recommend instead of continuing to look outside for guidance, you develop skills inside to handle these decisions. I consider developing skills to decide and handle ones emotions a part of maturity. I spoke about how I’ve learned to make decisions at my first Harvard talk a year and a half ago and wrote up my process for decisions I used to find difficult in my post “How to Choose,” which links to more posts on the topic. As for handling your emotions, I cover that all the time in this blog.

With these skills you’ll move from miring yourself in decisions, which hardly honors your relationship with your dog, and acting. If you want to honor your relationship you can do it other ways without creating misery for yourself. How does your misery help your dog?

The New York Times response:

What is a dog’s life worth? You’ve responded to unsolicited judgments by soliciting mine. And, because you ask, I happen to think that your letter raises some very challenging moral issues.

One has to do with how we allocate our limited resources. Some of the fault-finders care, as you do, about the welfare of animals but think your car-payment-size expenditures would be better spent on increasing the welfare of more than one animal. Then again, their own car payments would make a bigger contribution to our collective welfare if they were sent to Oxfam. Their argument has the premise that morality is about minimizing suffering in this world. But that would rule out almost all your expenditures; the 60 bucks you spent on a scarf could keep a starving family in Swaziland fed for quite a while.

Each of us, let’s stipulate, ought to do his or her fair share to make sure that this planet’s inhabitants have a shot at a decent life. Everything in this formulation requires lots of exploration. What’s your fair share? What’s a decent life for a person? Or a dog, or a lion in the wild … or the antelope that the lion might want to eat? But maybe you’re already doing your fair share, through your taxes and charitable contributions. And even if you aren’t, dumping a dying, dependent dog is unlikely to be the best way to increase your contribution.

Here’s a second issue: When will this dog’s life no longer be worth living? One reason people keep going despite substantial suffering is that they have projects and interests that, in the radiant future tense, continue to matter to them. Your dog doesn’t have these. There’s no wooden boat he wants to finish building, no yet-unborn grandchild he yearns to cradle. As for ‘‘putting him through chemo’’: Most dogs tolerate these regimens well, I understand, but alas, there are exceptions.

And it’s easier to deal with discomfort when you know why you’re undergoing it. In the case of human end-of-life decisions, you can ask what someone wants or would have wanted. This question makes no sense for a creature that doesn’t have the concept of death. You’re going to have to decide what to do without his help.

There is, finally, an issue about the role your dog plays in your own life. Does your devotion to this animal’s care — measured not in money but in your attention — involve giving it too much moral weight? In my experience, people who love their pets are perfectly capable of managing their other commitments. They’re not neglecting the fur- and feather-free bipeds in their lives. If your friends don’t care hugely about animals, so be it. You do. No shame whatsoever in that.

My husband is in the habit of returning items that we have owned and used for quite some time for a cash refund or store credit once we no longer need or want them. These are items that do not have a specified useful life and could continue to be used (if we wished) or be sold secondhand or donated. Recent examples are a four-year-old mattress that I found uncomfortable and a shirt that didn’t fit him correctly after he lost weight. In the past, he has also returned things that do have a window of efficacy after they have been fully used (for example, water filters), but I put my foot down and told him that was simply wrong, so he has stopped doing that.

He typically chooses to make large purchases from retailers with generous return policies that he can take advantage of. I am torn by this practice, because it seems to me that if something has served its purpose satisfactorily for a decent amount of time, asking the store to refund money for a used, nondefective product is unethical. However, the stores themselves set the return policies and are free to refuse to give him a refund. Should I continue to look the other way when he starts searching for receipts from several years ago, or do I need to ask him to stop? C. S., Hawaii

My response: Well, according to you, you’re right and he’s wrong and behaving unethically, you should act on your judgment.

Try to change him! Try to make him feel shame and guilt. Tell him how wrong he is. Tell him what to do. Remind people of how right you are.

Oh wait, you’re already doing all those things.

Maybe none of those things help build relationships and undermine them instead.

Maybe some humility might help, and some recognition that not everyone shares your values and that your values aren’t absolute. Maybe find some episodes of Saturday Night Live with the Church Lady in them.

Even if the whole world agrees with you except him, judgment, blame, and self-righteous talk about ethics isn’t that effective in influencing people’s behavior. Actually, it effectively influences their behavior, but not the way you want. It usually leads them to resist your influence.

The New York Times response:

You’re embarrassed by your husband’s behavior. I would be, too. But it’s not so easy to say why. These corporations have chosen to make these policies; he’s choosing to take advantage of them. There are, it seems, only consenting adults here.

Of course, we could apply the old test and ask, ‘‘What would happen if everybody did that?’’ Immanuel Kant famously made a philosophical theory out of this idea. But when we’re certain everybody won’t do it, it’s not clear how much the answer matters. What would happen if everybody whistled Dixie right now? Who cares?

Still, there is something a little unsavory here, isn’t there? The reason he is not doing much harm — and not drawing attention from the sellers — is that almost everybody else is rightly interpreting the return policies as intended for defective goods or occasional buyer’s remorse. In effect, he is exploiting the other customers’ good faith. Ethics can involve questions about duties and consequences. But it also involves questions about what kind of person you are. In the too-familiar formula: Do you really want to be that guy?

There are all sorts of ways in which someone can be a free-rider on a larger culture of trust. Breezing past the ‘‘recommended donation’’ booth at the museum door. Occupying a diner seat for hours with one cup of coffee, and then not tipping the waiter. Marrying for the wedding presents. These actions don’t entail a breach of duty or do much direct harm, but we think of them as antisocial for a reason. You’ve been looking the other way; there’s a good case for looking askance.

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