This week’s Philosophical Advice column takes the form of an edited down real conversation that I had over instant message with a friend. Though this was not an actual, formal, professional philosophical counseling session, it struck me as a perfect example of a kind of problem that philosophical practitioners are fit to help people with and a demonstration of my personal approach to philosophical practice. My friend gave me his enthusiastic permission to publish our conversation. I gave him full veto-power over the final edit. All edits were of tangents and irrelevant personal information. He suggested no changes to my final draft. His name and his cat’s name have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality. If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.
Vigo: Dan, I know you talk of philosophical counseling, I think perhaps I need some due to the loss of a pet.
Dan: Oh no, who died?
Vigo: My cat, Danger. He got sick and died. I took him to the vet and he was in the kitty hospital for two days and their treatment made him much worse. He somehow had feline leukemia and had a tumor pressing against his trachea. I went down to the vet’s on his last day and petted him for about 4 hours while he purred and stuff, thinking he was coming home. I had to have him euthanized in my arms and I am not sure at all about the ethics of that decision, seeing as how it wasn’t mine to make.
Dan: I see.
Vigo: He had had all his vaccines and tests for feline leukimia. It makes no sense that he got it.
Dan: What do you mean that the decision wasn’t yours to make? The doctors decided for you?
Vigo: No, it was the cat’s decision. Not mine. I don’t kill, Dan. Not at all.
Dan: I see
Vigo: I am a vegetarian and all that. I think animals like that are just like us in most ways. They think and love and dream and are self aware. Animals, at least higher animals, should have the same rights as people. But he couldn’t tell me what he wanted. But he only had maybe another day to live if nature took its course.
Dan: Okay. So had they waited a day they would have absolved you of this responsibility.
Vigo: Yes. But he would have choked to death cause of the tumor.
Vigo: I have asthma. I understand not being able to breathe.
Dan: Right. So there are a number of issues you’ve already raised. Do you mind if I draw them out for a moment?
Vigo: Of course not. I know it is complex and unlike math it has no clear answers.
Dan: Okay, so here are the various issues so far: 1. You feel like participating in any form of euthanasia violated your own opposition to killing in any form. At first it sounds like presumably this means that had you had a human friend who you knew wanted to be euthanized but couldn’t speak for himself, you wouldn’t sign the document that gave final authorization for the doctors to do it because this would interfere with your own conscience against killing.
Vigo: That is certainly an issue.
Dan: 2. But then the issue becomes different, because your concern seems to shift and become about the autonomy of Danger. Because it does matter to you what Danger would have wanted had only Danger been able to communicate. So, it is possible that you would have honored Danger’s wishes had you known Danger would want to die and were he fully informed of his alternatives.
Vigo: Had I known, I would have honored it, of course.
Dan: There are a couple of further issues to get to.
Dan: So the first thing here is that a core part of your identity is that you value other animal lives on a relative par with human lives.
Vigo: Right. I am 52 and that has been a core part since maybe 16. I probably value them more–people are an ecological problem.
Dan: So there are two ways you are adamant to express and reaffirm that right now.
Dan: So, it is important for you to be acting consistently with this identity and these values. And so it is important to you that you not see yourself as someone who said, “this is no big deal, it’s just a cat.”
Vigo: I fasted for 40 days in prison once over food so it is very important.
Dan: Wow. Right. That’s incredible.
Vigo: I would have died insted of eating animal flesh, even something small like gelatin in the ingredients.
Dan: Right, so, yeah. This is a deep part of your values that killing animals is wrong. Now, on the other hand, most likely for you the wrongness of the killing of animals consists of the following considerations (a) it does intrinsic harm to them, (b) it is exploitative of them for selfish, unnecessary purposes, (c) it disrespects their objective value, (d) it is cruel and uncompassionate towards creatures who are like us, and (e) it is wrong to incur pain because pain is an evil, as we know from our own experience of it.
Vigo: Yes on all that.
Vigo: It is also is destroying information in the mathematican definition of information.
Dan: Okay. So there’s an intrinsic good to the development of information complexity in nature, of function in nature.
Vigo: A friend of mine tries to base his theory of ethics on information theory.
Dan: I’m sympathetic insofar as I can imagine what that might mean. Now are there any other factors that go into why killing is usually wrong besides the ones we’ve just listed?
Vigo: It is selfish and self centered.
Vigo: And then you have issues with the meat industry, but that is off topic.
Dan: Okay. You can take a moment to think about it, I don’t want to rush you. Are there any things that really make killing wrong besides the things we’ve just listed?
Vigo: It is axiomatic to me, but those reason seem to cover the need for such an axiom.
Dan: Right. The problem is that two of your axioms are in conflict here. That’s why there’s an ethical dilemma
Vigo: Clarify some.
Dan: The moral axiom against killing is distinguishable from the one against causing pain and there’s also the axiom of respecting autonomous agents.
Vigo: Yes, I am aware of that.
Dan: So that’s where there’s the conflict. So you twice very quickly and strongly indicated a strong sense of duty to respect Danger’s hypothetical wishes, were they discernable.
Vigo: He was crying when i got the vets the day he died. He stopped when i showed up…
Vigo: …and rubbed all over my face and purred.
Dan: But he wasn’t only crying because he missed you.
Vigo: He wanted me is all i could really tell and thought maybe I could help with his illness. He was in terminal pain.
Dan: Yes, I know.
Vigo: But he cried no more after i was there.
Vigo: He did not appear that sick the day i took him. He had been coughing and eating about 1/3 normal is all.Dan: Do you think that’s evidence he could have lived a pleasurable life?
Vigo: No that is evidence that when they drained fluid from his lungs and gave him the medication they gave him it made things worse. I feel now like he would have lived a bit longer had I not taken him in. But his behavior was normal before I took him. He acted the same and did the same things. He had his daily rituals; you know?
Dan: Do you think it was (a) misdiagnosis or (b) he would have died within weeks but the medical interventions accelerated the death and the pain involved in the death?
Vigo: But regardless I saw the xray and whether I took him in or not he would have died.
Dan: So then it wasn’t misdiagnosis.
Vigo: There was no misdiagnosis.
Dan: Then do you think that medical interventions made his death faster and more painful than it had to be?
Vigo: Yes, the medical treatment accelerated the death and pain. Yes it did.
Dan: Okay. And it made the euthanasia more likely?
Vigo: If he was in pain prior he did not express it or show it.
Dan: Do you think he could have died naturally and without excruciating pain had he not had the treatment?
Vigo: He would have died from not being able to breathe well.
That is not really painful exactly…from my experinces with asthma, not pain like a tooth pain or a cut, etc.
Vigo: It is more like work takes great work to try to breathe.
Vigo: Eventaully you pass out.
Dan: But he still would have only lasted weeks?
Vigo: Yes, at best.
Dan: Now had medical intervention worked, was it plausible that he could have lived much longer?
Vigo: And he wasn’t eating well and losing weight. Yes at first they were talking maybe even years. The fluid in his lungs did not show the tumor. Then in x-rays…
Dan: So that sounds like a gamble that was in Danger’s best interest to me. Even if it cost him a couple weeks you could have been together right now had it worked.
Vigo: You see, they talked of killing him at first x-ray but I wanted to do all I could. Money did not matter.
Dan: Right, so you didn’t abandon Danger. So before you made the choice, did medical intervention seem to be, in terms of risk and reward, in Danger’s best interest?
Vigo: Yes, I know [it was].
Dan: Right. Now when we’re sad we need to be careful because we look for reasons for our sadness, lots of reasons.
Vigo: [The mourning] will last forever I still mourn the lose of other pets and people, though not with this intensity. Intensity fades.
Dan: We often register we’re sad and then the brain tries to figure out why. Yes, the pain will fade with time. The intensity right now is the worst, so you have to remind yourself frequently…
Vigo: It is overwhelming, I cry all the time.
Dan: …that the sadness is because you’re mourning and some of the reasons that are popping into your head, if we can clarify that they’re not rational, they’re not the cause of the mourning. The cause of the mourning is you have lost someone. And that can’t be undone.
Vigo: I understand that i am wanting to blame now blame myself, blame the vet, and so on.
Vigo: Not rational at all.
Dan: And also you want to feel powerful over the situation.
Vigo. I know, yes, I was helpless.
Dan: So you want to feel like there are things you could have done, right? Because feeling helpless is often feeling hopeless. So if you can feel like you had some power then you feel like you do have power.
Vigo: All I could do was pet him and give him those few hours of purring. I chanted my death song while I petted him.
Dan: But the truth is we are helpless to stop the inevitability of death in many cases.
Vigo: I know that.
Dan: And that’s a truth we have to accept without emotionally becoming afraid that we’re powerless overall. So you have to keep those things in mind and remind yourself of them constantly.
Vigo: I have been trying.
Dan: Good. Now, correct me if you do not agree with any of the following things that I think are true:
1. Danger’s only choice was to live a few more weeks or go for medical intervention that could have prolonged his life by years potentially, so you chose to go with the option that prolonged his life and that was consistent with your values and identity and in Danger’s best interest.
2. Danger wound up in more pain and dying faster, and in order to reduce his suffering, they euthanized him. Did they have your explicit permission?
Vigo: Yes, they did I had to give it and sign papers.
Vigo: I agree with those, by the way.
Vigo: At first the treatment helped by the way, for a day or so draining the fluids he could breathe better. Just the next day they filled up more and he was foaming at the mouth when I got there. He stopped foaming after I was there.
Dan: Okay, so sorry. 3. Do you believe that people should have the right to choose to die rather than die painful, unavoidable deaths? That this is most consistent with respecting autonomy and being compassionate in these extreme cases?
Vigo: Yes, I think we have an inborn right to both live and die, regardless of pain or not
Dan: 4. Danger had a right to die NOT because he was less than a human or exploitable or unimportant but because in your view he was a person and just like other people, deserved to be spared unbearable, unremitting, suffering that would have killed him anyway.
Vigo: Yes, I agree with that.
Dan: 5. It is possible Danger would not have wanted to exercise his right to die but there was no way to ask him and it is possible that he could not conceptualize his own death anyway, as this is difficult for even us humans to really conceive.
6. You chose to err on the side of reducing Danger’s agony, knowing that he would be dead within a couple of weeks in either case.
Vigo: Danger may have wanted to die at home where he felt safe.
Vigo: I think cats can understand death as well as humans.
Dan: So, not well?
Vigo: They kill and know what it means to kill. I agree with those two points too.
Dan: Okay. 7. Even though this was an act of killing it does not fit most of the usual sources of wrongness in killing. You did not kill in order to cause him pain but to spare him it, you did not kill to exploit him, you did not kill selfishly, you did not kill for someone’s good other than his own.
Vigo: Yes, that is true.
Dan: 8. There is still the intrinsic loss of a good for Danger, his life, and there is still the intrinsic loss of information. But these were inevitable losses, not ones you introduced into the equation by your actions. They were immanent losses.
Vigo: I know.
Dan: So, it was regrettable Danger didn’t die at home.
Vigo: Yes, it was. It would have been heartbreaking no matter what though.
Dan: But Danger would not remember in either case. And at least in his last moments, you believed he thought he might be going home. So he may have died unaware that he’d never get to go home again.
Vigo: Yes, I am fairly certain that is what he thought, I had come to get him.
Dan: So, as far as he was concerned, he was going home when he died.
Vigo: Yes, I think he passed out from the shot thinking that.
Dan: So you didn’t do anything wrong and the vets didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t betray your principles. You reconciled them in the most consistent way possible for Danger’s good.
Vigo: Yes rationally I know that. It was such a hard decision to make.
Dan: Okay, of course. It is a hard decision to live with, and mostly because you are in mourning and so everything is going to hurt.
Vigo: Yes, I know. It is hard to do things now, and I have so much work to do. And it is harder when i come home cause Danger was always so happy when i came home.
Dan: Yes, the emptiness is very hard. All I can recommend is to open your eyes to who is around you, and who can be around you.
The world is still full of good people and good things. You have to mourn. There’s no skipping that process. You’ll be worse off emotionally if you try to skip it. But I just encourage you to mourn, to remember logically all the distinctions we clarified and to open your eyes as much as you can to the good around you and available to you.
Vigo: I will.
To keep tabs on every installment of my “Philosophical Advice” column, bookmark the page entitled “Dan’s Advice for You”.
I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.
As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.
I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives. Send your questions to camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject heading “Philosophical Advice”. The identities of all inquiring for advice are kept confidential and published e-mails will always use pseudonyms instead of real names.