FAQs Index

From Barry Kent MacKay
Subject: Re: Death is better than suffering

I agree that this is a very good question...and i think the answer is very obvious.

"Dave": Humans, for example, will choose extreme hardship over death in most every circumstance.

Barry: Anyone can say anything if they ignore the facts. Suicide is, in fact, a major cause of death among young, even physically healthy, humans, particularly in certain cultures, and often in response to what I think most of us would call less than "extreme" hardship.

Prisoners, particularly those in solitary confinement, are often deprived as much as possible of the means to take their own lives because of the strong desire so many have to do so; and many must be put on what is called "suicide watch". Elderly men who live alone are very much given to suicide, according to current statistics.

So the basic premise is untrue, but I think to some degree also irrelevant. I do believe in keeping open the option of euthanasia for individuals of all animal species even while recognizing that only one, the human, can communicate whether he or she as an individual agrees.

But to me euthanasia means providing a "humane" death to end great suffering that will not otherwise end.

There are solid legalistic reasons why society is reluctant to legalize such euthanasia, but a form of it is practiced in every hospital on earth, when human patients are terminal, and suffering, and given drugs that rob them of the ability to suffer, but also the ability to think, and, in fact, the ability to live. They don't kill the patient outright so much as hasten the process of dying.

I think any other definition of euthanasia, than that of ending a life in torment where death is the only cure for that torment, is bogus, and I regret that it is often misapplied.

I think what you are talking about is the capacity to survive. The people and animals who will endure great hardships do so, I believe, in the expectation of survival and recovery at the end of it. With humans, certainly, and intelligent other species, most likely, in my opinion, it is when there is no such hope...when suffering is significant and will only end with death, that death, or euthanasia, is likely to be considered the more desirable option. I'd rather be shot to death than tortured to death, but I'd rather be tortured than killed if I knew that the torture would end, and that I would more or less survive the experience. I think most folks would.

"Dave": Take a look at the starvation and disease that occurs in many countries. Death (suicide) is always an option, yet is avoided at all cost, for whatever reasons....

Barry: The reasons are the ones I just gave, Dave. When you are starving, there IS a cure. It is called food. Since food CAN come at any time, the fact that you are starving does not preclude hope that before you die, you will be cured, thus euthanasia is not an option.

Same with disease. There are often cures that may arrive in time. I've known terminal cancer patients who, to the end, hold out for some last second miracle cure, or the kind of miraculous reversal that sometimes happens. Usually it does not, but there is always the hope.

When there isn't, I think death can be "better than suffering".

"Dave": If "death is better than suffering", why don't Human Rights organizations suggest bombing African villages where suffering is occurring?

Barry: See above. In fact, as a generality most of "us" do turn our backs on "African villages where suffering is occurring", thus guaranteeing deaths that are otherwise avoidable. Thus we can practice euthanasia without taking the responsibility that would come if we simply bombed or shot such people. But of course the cost of bombing them or shooting them would almost certainly be greater than the cost of feeding them and medicating them, so if relieving them of their suffering is the purpose, obviously even on a coldly economic bases, humanitarian aid is the way to go.

But, and it is a big but, there is no need to bomb and shoot IF we provide that aid; to the degree that we can, and fail to do so, surely we are as complicit in their deaths as if we fed them cyanide, just much further removed, thus able to pretend a lack of responsibility for them. And since we hypocritically argue that economics are not a factor in who lives or dies, we "should" provide the aid anyway, although all of us can think of reasons why we have not done so. But let's not then say we are not tacitly abiding the deaths of those savable people.

"Dave": The same is true with non-humans. There are countless stories of other animals enduring incredible (and terrible) hardships to live, and fighting to stay alive.

Barry: And countless fact it is the norm...of mortally injured animals crawling away to die. Non human animals don't have access to sleeping pills, gas ovens or loaded guns...probably don't have a well defined sense of life and death (I'm not sure human animals do, either). Of course they will fight when there is hope, but not when there isn't.

"Dave": I believe if we (the Animal Rights community) were to accept this statement, then it would make the lives of animal exploiters very easy...after all: "Death is better than Suffering".

Barry: Yes, that's exactly how religious dogmatists work. They, like you, set up a series of premises that are of questionable validity, at best, and then extrapolate from them. That's the problem I have with this absolutist approach.

Welfarists will have a different story....but they're coming from a flawed perspective in the first place. ;)

You're living in a glass house, my friend.

And speaking of your house, how many rescued animals live with you? 1? 12? 50? 500?

The reason I ask is this: while the focus has been on dogs and cats (and I've been seething over that, but I'll leave that for another discussion), the fact is that there are huge numbers of both wild and domestic, companion and livestock, species for which loving homes are required, so that they don't have to be "put down".

If you want the perfect no-kill shelter, it is best to focus on a species that relatively rarely is kept by humans. Other species still die in the same, or far greater, numbers, of course (look at the recently reported ocean dead-zones... billions of animals lost and few seem to care) but it is the familiar species, and the ones we, ourselves, most directly influence, that tend to get most of the attention (and especially dogs and cats). So if I were rich, and decided to create a no-kill haven for rescued...oh...domesticated corn snakes...I could quite possibly have a no kill shelter and provide a humane life for each animal.

But were I to choose to care for pigeons that can't be released either because they are domestic breeds that can't hack it in the wild, or because of injuries, I'd soon be overwhelmed. Same with crows, robins, squirrels, sparrows and starlings, rats and mice and raccoons.

Think dogs. If there is a dog to be put down in your local shelter, why not adopt it? And the next, and the next? Most of us do have as many rescued companion animals as we can care for adequately...perhaps a bit more...and yet we know that we could save just one more, just one more. But we also realize that the care and love we can give becomes compromised past a certain point. We know about "collectors" whose animals live (and die) in squalor. And we know that the attention required can take us away from other animal work, like, for example, trying to shut the tap off in the first place through time consuming political action.

So whether we talk of pigeons or pooches, we allow the "euthanasia" to occur by default. That's fine, but I don't think it gives us much of a moral platform from which to lecture the "welfarists".

Dave: My inflated two cents...and i'll admit it was very hard not throwing explitives or personal insults into this. What a horrible, ill-thought concept.

Barry: It's worth the effort. We are all on the same side, you know. Now I better review what I just wrote and take out all the expletives and at least some of the personal insults.

PS...In the part where I asked you how many animals you lived with, I had written "no fair counting head lice" but in my review of what I had written I took that out because while I meant it as a harmless joke, I feared it could be construed as a "personal insult". Just so you know...

Bob said: Now I have asked this list, and you in particular, if you had a child, yours or someone else's, and could not care for it (he/she is not used here either), would you turn that child over to be killed. You didn't answer that question. The foundation for the question is to establish the difference between the treatment of humans and nonhuman animals in this society." That is a discussion worth having.

Barry: In all fairness, I think your question is flawed. We're all agreed, I trust (not having read everything...where are you folks finding the time???) that a young healthy animal ought not to be euthanized, and at any rate, "euthanasia" is a misuse of the word (at least in my opinion) under those circumstances.

But if a human child were dying and in pain, in situations where the kind of vast infrastructure that exists to try to prevent that, was not available, then at least the question begins to become comparable. It still isn't, since there is the length of life lost, and the presence of back up institutions. A terminally ill human child, in great pain, still has options not open to every... most... animals... or indeed to many human children, who, while not outright euthanized, are allowed to die by those who, but for lack of intervention (that results from the way they prioritize spending their disposable income or the degree they support taxation for social causes), die anyway, often very slowly.

I don't suggest they be euthanized, any more than I would kill starving animals, because there is a more humane option...there is hope. Euthanasia when there is no hope is another matter, although psychological barriers make it harder relative to humans than animals for most people (not for me...I've mourned more deeply more animals than the humans I've lost with but a single exception.)

I've told before the story of my grandfather, who, as an old fashioned country doctor, often delivered babies in his office...this during the depression. And when an infant was born with most of the brain missing, he simply told the mom that it was stillborn...which was not the case. She was a farm wife with more kids than she could properly feed and clothe, and since the infant wouldn't last to maturity anyway, my grandfather killed it. Whether this was "right" or "wrong", if you talk to enough doctors you find it's not so rare even now, in the 21st century with far more options open, although illegal.

Of course we treat humans and non humans differently, and we treat humans differently within our own species, and for quite understandable reasons (as Priscilla has noted, there's the whole issue of war that could be discussed, where such differences become stark).

That does not mean that we "should" with regard any given particular, and I agree that it is valid to always ask tough questions, but yours is an apples and oranges question. If there were homeless shelters, medical aid and soup kitchens for dogs, cats, pigeons, starlings and the like, things would be more comparable to what there is for humans, at least in western society. So would they be more comparable if we forced sickly, impoverished, or starving people, or for that matter quite healthy people, to be spayed and neutered, as we do dogs and cats...while proclaiming to respect their "rights". After all, if you can't breed, you can't produce something that will suffer, and isn't that what spay/neuter does...sort of euthanasia before the fact. (And no, I'm not "pro-life", I'm just wondering at the inconsistencies.)


Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin, [email protected]