An American Editor

May 27, 2010

Moral Dilemmas and Thoughts About Them

Filed under: Politics — americaneditor @ 7:52 am
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Once again I am sidestepping the core issues of this blog and moving outside the realm of publishing. This has occurred because we had to euthanize our Cocker Spaniel two days ago and that has caused me to think, yet again, about some of the moral conundrums we face in our lives.

Our children are all adults now, living their own lives with their own cares and worries. Consequently, the animals in our household (until 2 days ago, 2 Cocker Spaniels and 1 mixed breed cat) became our children. (Have you ever noticed how often you talk directly to your pet as if the pet could speak back?) The emotional ties are certainly no weaker than those to our children, especially when there has been a long-term relationship with the pet.

Jasmin, our now deceased 15-year-old Cocker, had been our joy and worry for all but the first few months of her life. She had a rough start, abused by her breeder, but she was a wonderful dog who grew comfortable with her life with us. Then she became ill and the decline that comes with old age began to set in until the past few months when the decline became so rapid that she no longer was the same dog we had known. She was still wonderful, just different as she tried to cope with her ailments.

As I related in a previous post, Jasmin’s condition became progressively worse and culminated in a seizure that appeared to us to be very painful for her. Now we had to face a decision that we had waffled around for months: Should we let her continue and die a natural death or should we have her euthanized?

This dilemma is not confined to our pets. It is a dilemma that we humans also need to face when we make end-of-life decisions for loved ones. Granted, not authorizing tube feeding is not the same as euthanasia, but the desired end result is the same. We humans have an infinite capacity, it seems, for denying to ourselves the options we would have for our “lessers” in nature’s hierarchy. We have decided that there is a one-size-fits-all morality that we need to impose to assuage our consciences.

We see this sense of moral superiority in many different battles. We saw it in the mischaracterization of the universal healthcare plan as including “death panels”; we see it in the debate over abortion; we see it in the debate over physician-assisted suicide. I do not mean to suggest that there is a single clear answer and that one side of the moral debate is clearly right and the other clearly wrong. Rather, I mean to suggest that neither side is right nor wrong, that on a universal level these questions can have no resolution because they all come from a position of belief and the one thing that is absolutely certain is that there are numerous beliefs to which we individually adhere, that we take as a matter of faith, none of which are universally accepted.

In Jasmin’s case, I began with the question: “Am I doing this for me or for her?” For me, I did not want to let her go. One more hour, one more day, one more week I wanted. But she was suffering. She was confused (she would walk into a corner and not know how to extricate herself); she wasn’t eating (she had lost one-third of her body weight in a few weeks and had lost 2.5 lbs in the previous 4 days); she wasn’t drinking water (she was dehydrated and had to be given saline intravenously twice a day); she couldn’t stand or walk (we had to hold her up for her to be able to urinate or defecate); she had kidney failure that was progressing at a rate that would have caused her to die in the not too distant future (whether 1 day or 1 week or 1 month, no one knew for certain) — Jasmin was dying and there was no preventing it. So for whom would I keep her alive?

Is this not the same question we need to ask ourselves when we make life-giving and life-ending decisions for ourselves and our family members? Yet, we lack the ability to make those decisions for ourselves. Our societal moral structure is set to stop us from considering any alternative other than extending our life — regardless of cost, consequences, or suffering. In the case of abortion, some members of society demand that it be wholly banned regardless of the consequences to either the child or the mother. But what adds to the tragedy of removing decision-making power is that once the child is born, we tend to abandon it, our role seems to simply be to bring the child into being; after that, we often walk away.

We deal similarly with end-of-life decision making. Our societal moral structure is set to stop us from considering early termination of life regardless of the means. We do not permit consideration of the costs — financial, emotional, and of the dying person’s suffering — to enter the equation except to say that we (broadly the taxpayers) should not have to bear the costs, only the dying person and that person’s family should bear it.

We have chosen to “do it for us”, to do it for our moral conscience even though we are at a distance from the situation; we choose not to “do it for them” because they can’t possibly disagree with our benevolence.

There is no easy solution to moral dilemmas — never has been, never will be. There always have been moral absolutists and always will be. There always has been a belief that “I” know better than “you” and there always will be. But what we really need is a way to say “what is good for you is not good for me and we need to accommodate both goods.” The likelihood of that occurring is slim because the arguments are invariably driven by the absolutists, the rigidists, the always right.

It strikes me as a shameful commentary on our society that we show more compassion for the suffering of animals than for our fellow humans, that we are willing to allow the question “Am I doing this for me or for her?” to be asked and answered fully only when we are not asking it in regards to our fellow humans, that we do not extend the same ability to decide to ourselves.

For Jasmin, may she forever rest in peace.

5 Comments »

  1. True compassion – whether for our beloved pets, or our beloved friends & family members – requires us to be self-less. It is the ability to put another’s best interests above our own that makes us HUMAN.

    Like

    Comment by Kris — May 27, 2010 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  2. You might find comfort in this poem by Daniel Anderson, from his book Drunk in Sunlight:

    Elegy for the Dying Dog
    By Daniel Anderson

    Tomorrow he will die.
    For now, though, see him drowsing in the shade.
    A cardinal cracks the red whip of its flight.
    Frail butterflies—the metalmark,
    The spicebush swallowtail—are lobbed
    Like painted tissue on the air.
    The wind, as it might carve on fields of wheat,
    Combs over his black coat. I’ve set him there
    As water irises prepare
    Their gold unfolding in the rain-fresh pond.
    Last meal: Steamed rice. Grilled strips of steak.
    Last lazy afternoon. Last hour
    To watch the clouds drift like meringues,
    To watch them blended into tones of peach
    Then deepen to the dusky tints of plums.
    One last command to heed or disobey,
    But it’s not me who’s calling Virgil now,
    It’s Death who’s calling, calling, calling,
    And he comes.

    Like

    Comment by David Sanders — May 27, 2010 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  3. I’m going through this dilemma now with two elderly cats. I’ve been through it several times before with other companion animals and expect to go through it again. So far, I’ve never been satisfied with my choice. It always seems to be the wrong one, whereas the right one never seems to be available.

    Part of the dilemma is the flexibility of the core moral question. In one context, from one viewpoint, a certain choice is correct; switch contexts and viewpoints, and another choice seems correct. Good arguments can be made for multiple viewpoints.

    Best we can do, I think, is at least try to make a good, moral choice.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — May 27, 2010 @ 8:04 pm | Reply

  4. Great piece. This is why I volunteered for the Washington Death with Dignity campaign. Have you seen The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1534853/ ?

    Like

    Comment by Benjamin Lukoff — May 27, 2010 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

  5. You hit the nail on the head. I’m for euthanasia for everybody — as they want it. I too can’t be cruel and make my pets suffer for my emotional needs. Nor can I stand to see the suffering humans bear because a close family member can’t let go. I’ve worked in healthcare for a long time and am appalled by the cruelty of our current system regarding end of life choices. Euthanasia should be a RIGHT! I’ve spoken with physicians caring for terminal patients. Often the physican wished he/she could help the patient pass peacefully. But our current laws prohibit choice. I’m lucky that I’m young enough the laws (hopefully) will be rewritten so I have end of life choice when my time comes.
    Laura

    Like

    Comment by Laura — May 29, 2010 @ 5:47 am | Reply


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