Advanced Search

there has been talk about the use of dogs in medical detection of cancer and

there has been talk about the use of dogs in medical detection of cancer and also dogs are being used to monitor the sugar levels of people with diabetes 24 hours a day. i was wondering what ethical issues there are surrounding the use of dogs in such a way, ie should we be breeding dogs specifically for use in hospitals and other moral dilemas. also the uk will not accept the use of dogs to detect cancer because there has been little study on how it works i was thinking is this relivent when this could save lives?

Apart from fairly radical views that would prohibit any human use of any animal, I see nothing wrong with the basic idea of having dogs providing diagnostic assistance. We know that dogs can be really good at sniffing out explosives and bed bugs, for example, as we already use them for such tasks. If they turn out to be also especially good for medical diagnosis or troubleshooting, it seems like a reasonable thing to have dogs do for us. Obviously, the same rules about humane treatment for the dogs applies in these cases as for any others, and we would also want to have strong support from medical studies to confirm that the dogs really were helpful and reliable for these tasks.

Even if we have only some reason to think that dogs are good at this, then they could be regarded as potentially good indicators of some problem. So if a cancer-sniffing dog reacted in such a way as to indicate that I had cancer, I think I would be well advised to go and get a check-up, even if there was not yet the level of medical evidence we would want or need to adopt cancer-sniffing dogs as a regular part of diagnosis.

I fails to see any serious ethical problem here, again, as long as the dogs are well-treated. people and dogs have gotten along well together for a long time. A little shared working together doesn't strike me as anything wrong at all. But again, this is to set aside the objection that any human use of dogs is wrong. I don't agree (obviously), but this is not the place to take on that sort of objection.

Apart from fairly radical views that would prohibit any human use of any animal, I see nothing wrong with the basic idea of having dogs providing diagnostic assistance. We know that dogs can be really good at sniffing out explosives and bed bugs, for example, as we already use them for such tasks. If they turn out to be also especially good for medical diagnosis or troubleshooting, it seems like a reasonable thing to have dogs do for us. Obviously, the same rules about humane treatment for the dogs applies in these cases as for any others, and we would also want to have strong support from medical studies to confirm that the dogs really were helpful and reliable for these tasks. Even if we have only some reason to think that dogs are good at this, then they could be regarded as potentially good indicators of some problem. So if a cancer-sniffing dog reacted in such a way as to indicate that I had cancer, I think I would be well advised to go and get a check-up, even if there was not...

Is it ethical to have pets? Wouldn't a dog or cat be happier in the wild, where

Is it ethical to have pets? Wouldn't a dog or cat be happier in the wild, where it could procreate on its own, run freely, interact with its own kind etc.? As a pet, these animals do experience joy, but most are spayed or neutered, are bored or generally trapped inside while people are at work, have their nails clipped when they wouldn't like it (or declawed altogether), etc. I think the animals would have more happiness living in the wild. I know the animals would live shorter lives on average, but I am not convinced that a longer life necessitates a better life.

You are right that a longer life is not necessarily a happier life, but there are other things that go with longer life that are probably relevant to your question. I am not sure what the exact statistics are, but I see to recall that feral cats (felis domesticus) have an average life span of something like two years. The question is, what is the quality of those two years, relative to the very long average lives of cats that live as household pets? In addition to the factors that you mention, how should we think about the quality of life of an animal that has to be:

  • Constantly alert to the danger of predators (feral and domestic dogs, coyotes, etc., who will kill cats for amusement or food).
  • Depending on the environment, constant risk of accidents with automobiles.
  • Constantly in search of food, with starvation and malnutrition always serious risks--especially if the cat should suffer from some injury that prevents it from hunting or scavenging effectively.
  • Constantly plagued by fleas, worms, ticks, and other parasites, with no hope of relief.
  • Constant (often injurious, and sometimes deadly) fights with rivals for territory and or opportunities to breed, with the attendant risks of infections and subsequent disabilities.
  • The near-certainty of an early, violent, and painful death.

To be frank, the lives of feral cats look to me like exellent examples of Hobbes's old line about what human lives would be like in what he called a "state of nature": "nasty, poor, brutish, and short."

Moreover, I also seem to recall that, unlike dogs, which were bred for their qualities as pets, cats "domesticated themselves" because of the benefits to them that came through association with human beings.

At least in the case of cats (and I suspect that similar cases can be made for other companion animals, and even perhaps for some animals kept for human uses other than as pets) the quality of life issues do not at all support the idea that it would be better for the animal to live in the wild.

You are right that a longer life is not necessarily a happier life, but there are other things that go with longer life that are probably relevant to your question. I am not sure what the exact statistics are, but I see to recall that feral cats (felis domesticus) have an average life span of something like two years. The question is, what is the quality of those two years, relative to the very long average lives of cats that live as household pets? In addition to the factors that you mention, how should we think about the quality of life of an animal that has to be: Constantly alert to the danger of predators (feral and domestic dogs, coyotes, etc., who will kill cats for amusement or food). Depending on the environment, constant risk of accidents with automobiles. Constantly in search of food, with starvation and malnutrition always serious risks--especially if the cat should suffer from some injury that prevents it from hunting or scavenging effectively. Constantly...

Most people oppose cruelty to animals. But, I have often heard people say

Most people oppose cruelty to animals. But, I have often heard people say things like 'killing is a part of life', or that our methods of killing are generally less cruel than in nature. Some have even asked whether we are obliged to mitigate such naturally occurring cruelty, if we are obliged to reduce our own. I don't think these 'arguments' are well-reasoned. My sense is that our capacity to understand the suffering that our actions cause, and consider alternatives, confers greater responsibility, making our indifference to cruelty and suffering more troublesome. Is there a more elegant and thorough way of addressing all this?

Sometimes the argument you allude to is put like this: animals kill animals, so why can't we? I've heard many people say this to justify eating chickens, pigs, lambs and the like, and that's just strange, if you think about it. Somehow because a chicken and a tiger are both "animals"--that is, non-human--the chicken is supposed to be accountable for the tiger. If people would just restrict themselves to making this sort of argument in advance of going tiger hunting, it wouldn't be so bad. But then, I think in that case your answer is a good one. Because of our big brains and our capacity for morality, we should hold ourself to a higher standard. Unless under attack or just trying to survive, I can't think of any good reason to kill a tiger.

There is always a more elegant and thorough way to address any philosophical question--that's why we're all still at it here in the world's second-oldest profession! But granting this, it seems to me that your own assessment is precisely right--our epistemic advantages over (at least most) other animals also bring with them greater ethical responsibilities. The cat can't consider whether playing with the live mouse until it dies (and then some more afterwards) is something he or she should be doing, but for us to be cruel or cause needless and excessive suffering is blameworthy. A further point, however: Some of what constitutes our greater epistemic advantages can also yield a degree of epistemic dis advantage, which is why the exercise of epistemic modesty and an open-mindedness to relevant evidence is essential to good reasoning on questions like yours. Human beings, at their best, can indeed comprehend suffering and recognize it as having negative value. Part of the way in which we...

Can a non-human animal be cruel? Is it cruel of a hawk to kill a squirrel? Or of

Can a non-human animal be cruel? Is it cruel of a hawk to kill a squirrel? Or of a cat to bat around a mouse before killing it?

I think it is reasonable to suppose that in order to have the character defect of being cruel (and thus, in order to act not just as a cruel thing would act, but actually to act cruelly) the being in question has to be able to do something like deliberate about the moral or ethical value of different courses of action. A hawk might be able to do something like deciding whether to attack this squirrel, but I strongly doubt that hawks can consider whether or not attacking squirrels is for the best.

Now, if you tortured a mouse, I would fault you as cruel, because I regard you as capable of deliberating about whether torturing mice is for the best. But when your cat does it, the cat acts in the way a cruel thing acts--you, for example, if you did that--but the cat does not act cruelly and is not cruel, in my view.

I think it is reasonable to suppose that in order to have the character defect of being cruel (and thus, in order to act not just as a cruel thing would act, but actually to act cruelly) the being in question has to be able to do something like deliberate about the moral or ethical value of different courses of action. A hawk might be able to do something like deciding whether to attack this squirrel, but I strongly doubt that hawks can consider whether or not attacking squirrels is for the best. Now, if you tortured a mouse, I would fault you as cruel, because I regard you as capable of deliberating about whether torturing mice is for the best. But when your cat does it, the cat acts in the way a cruel thing acts--you, for example, if you did that--but the cat does not act cruelly and is not cruel, in my view.

Why shouldn't we test drugs and cosmetics on mentally challenged or severely

Why shouldn't we test drugs and cosmetics on mentally challenged or severely disabled human beings, rather than animals?

Other things being equal, perhaps we might. But of course they're not equal. Our social morality -- the morality we live by -- is 'speciesist' in the sense that human beings -- whatever their mental or physical capacities -- are considered to be due special protection. If we were to seek to remove that protection, chances are that it would probably degrade our ethical sensitivities to the point that things went overall worse for non-human animals than they do at present. What we should be asking, rather than your question, is: Why should we continue testing drugs and cosmetics on non-humans to the extent we do, when we wouldn't dream of carrying out such testing on human beings with similar capacities?

I just answered another question related to this one. Please see my answer to that one. In gist, (1) which animals did you have in mind--"animals" is too generic for me to get much traction on an ethical issue. And (2) why do you think it is more appropriate to run experiments on mentally challenged or disabled human beings? Are (some species of) animals somhow more deserving of our moral respect? Why? Are (some species of) animals more ethically important than (some) human beings? What makes you think that? I can think of a great variety of what seem to me to be ethically significant issues that need to be visited here. One is the question of consent, which I discussed in my answer to the other question. Others include: ability to experience pain, cognitive capacities (such as memory, self-awareness), normal life-expectancy of the creature, normal "quality of life" expectancy of the creature (and how much experimentation would lead to deviation from such expectancies). I tend...

Isn't it more morally acceptable that we use consenting, informed adults in

Isn't it more morally acceptable that we use consenting, informed adults in scientific tests rather than animals? The adults would at least know what they were being tested for and the possible benefits. Added to which the tests are likely to be safer as scientists would be more likely to value a human life rather than that of an animal. Plus this way would fulfil the moral criterion for both utilitarianism as it decreases suffering for the reasons aforementioned and Kantianism but using no one as a mere means, human or animal (although Kant himself argued that an animal cannot be used as a mere means I will ignore this as it is arguable and that if we can avoid using them as a mere means then we should). Could it also be argued that testing on animals is even worse when no consenting, informed adult volunteered? And that such tests shouldn't be done under any circumstances? Many thanks :)

I think the PETA people will think I have a very blind moral eye, but I am inclined to think that your question makes the issue far more simple than it is. For one thing, I think there are morally significant differences between different species of non-human animals. I wouldn't think of causing gratuitous suffering or death to a wild primate, for example, but gladly crush mosquitoes to death whenever given the chance. For another (and related to the first, in fact) I think the very idea of whether animals do or do not consent and how this notion may apply to them is hardly obvious, and perhaps simply otiose. If animals (or some species) do not and cannot give consent or refuse it, then it seems to me this is not a useful more indicator for them.

I think the PETA people will think I have a very blind moral eye, but I am inclined to think that your question makes the issue far more simple than it is. For one thing, I think there are morally significant differences between different species of non-human animals. I wouldn't think of causing gratuitous suffering or death to a wild primate, for example, but gladly crush mosquitoes to death whenever given the chance. For another (and related to the first, in fact) I think the very idea of whether animals do or do not consent and how this notion may apply to them is hardly obvious, and perhaps simply otiose. If animals (or some species) do not and cannot give consent or refuse it, then it seems to me this is not a useful more indicator for them.

Why don't humans think of all lives as equal, and instead that other creatures'

Why don't humans think of all lives as equal, and instead that other creatures' lives hold more importance than others? For example a human kills an animal such as cows or pigs and no one (except animal rights activists and the like) has a problem with that, but if that same person killed another human they would be charged and sent to prison. In both cases a life is taken but (one human) and that person's life for some reason holds more importance than the animal's.

It is crucial, I think, to recognize that the relevant question here is not: Are the lives of humans more valuable than the lives of (other) animals? The objection to killing animals need not presuppose that animals' lives and humans' lives are of equal value. Most defenders of animal rights would not, I think, hold such a view. Their claim, rather, is that animals' lives are of sufficiently great value that they ought not to be killed. Note that saying that animals ought not to be killed does not imply that it is never morally permissible to kill an animal. Humans ought not to be killed, but most people would hold that it is sometimes morally permissible to kill human beings, for example, in self-defense. If (say) cows lives are of less value than are the lives of humans, then there may be circumstances in which it is permissible to kill a cow but in which it would not be permissible to kill a human being. But it does not follow from that fact that it is permissible to kill a cow just because you feel like it, or because you would like a leather jacket, or because you would like some filet mignon. Maybe it is permissible to kill a cow for such reasons and maybe it is not, but it does not follow that it is if cows' lives and humans' lives are not of equal value.

My own view, though, is that talk of "value" is not really appropriate here. I think Nicholas is right to suggest that the real question here is: What kind of life does a creature have to have in order that it should be impermissible to kill it (or to harm it in certain other ways)? The question will then be whether there are animals other than human beings that meet the relevant conditions, whatever they might be.

Your question seems to presuppose that life itself has some value all on its own...or maybe it doesn't, because you don't mention ending the lives of plants that we eat, or bacteria that cause infections, or stinging or blood-sucking insects. I use these examples to make a point: Virtually no one believes that life of any kind should be protected. Vast resources are spent each year on exterminating certain forms of life (for example, those that cause malaria). So this leads to the more important (and more philosophically interesting) question: What lives should we value, and what is it about these forms of life that makes them valuable, whereas the others are not (or even have negative value)? Now, we often think that just because we asked the question, the burden of argument shifts to those asked. My point in this response, however, is to suggest that some reason needs to be given even for thinking that we should value lives we do not now value. Animal rights activists, as...

In your opinion, is it OK to kill a spider, or a fly?

In your opinion, is it OK to kill a spider, or a fly? I'm sure everyone has done so at some stage and felt no guilt, or only just a fleeting moment of sadness at the life just ended. But, should we go out of our way to avoid the killing of other living things, even seemingly insignificant insects? Can we allow ourselves this luxury on the basis that these are so much "lower" creatures as ourselves and therefore not worth bothering about? I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Environmental philosophers have done a lot of work exploring what sort of "moral consideration" we should accord non-human life. For some discussion of this, see my answer to this question.

There is more to your question than you might think. In the case of some living things, it looks as if it is not only OK to kill them, but actually good--disease organisms, for example. I raise this kind of case to try to show that "respect all life!" is not likely to serve us very well as a moral mandate. If not, then the questions become much more complex: Which lives? Why? On the one hand, your intuition (widely shared, I'm sure) that even insects' (and arachnids') lives have some worth seems to be counter-balanced somewhat by an intuition that these lives are not worth as much as human lives (or, perhaps, those of primates). As with so many other questions that seem to require straightforward "yes" or "no" answers, I am inclined to think that the expectation of clear decision principles in these and many other kinds of cases is unwarranted. In the approach to ethics that I favor (virtue theory), the real question will not be about whether all (or some) lives are intrinsically...

When someone accepts responsibility for a pet, what are the moral and ethical

When someone accepts responsibility for a pet, what are the moral and ethical imperatives they are (or should be) committing to? What is the appropriate context for making decisions about whether the pet is to be kept safely indoors (probably living longer) or let free to roam outdoors (with all the risks that carries)? Or whether to give an ailing pet expensive surgery or have them put them to sleep? Some people feel that their pet is deserving of or entitled to the same care as their own children. Others feel some lesser committment is sufficient. And so on. How does one make such decisions if not by analogy to ones obligations to other humans, which many of us fail to fulfill anyway?

The way you put this question seems to presuppose an approach to ethical reasoning that is driven by rules (imperatives). For those of us attracted to others approaches (in my case, virtue theory), it is difficult to respond to your inquiry in that form. Moreover, I think the context in which you plan to have the pet and what kind of pet you plan to have are extremely significant. Consider how differently one should answer questions like yours if the pets in question are goldfish or dogs. So let's assume you mean a very standard pet, such as a dog or a cat. Now, do you live in the country, where the dog is not going to foul sidewalks, potentially menace pedestrians or bicyclists, be at risk for being hit by a car (which could also put others at risk, from drivers swerving to avoid hitting your pet), or attack others' pets in the street? If the context is a city or similar, then it looks like you will be obliged to keep your dog leashed at all times when outside the home. In the case of a cat, it is difficult to think what a good ground could be for allowing the animal to go outside in a city environment. In the country, are their predators (or dogs!) around that might attack the cat? Are there livestock that a dog or cat might jeopardize?

In general, I think a rule of thumb would be to consider the morally significant elements of the environment in question (such as those I mention above), and then consider your animal's own needs and welfare as well as your readiness to deal with these in a humane and loving way. You might also consider whether adopting an animal likely to be euthanized at the local animal shelter wouldn't be a better idea than buying some fancy breed--and then be sure to neuter the animal. As for the resources you are prepared to spend on the animal, consider balancing these against other possible uses for those resources, if it looks like extraordinary care is going to be required--without neglecting the reasons you have a pet in the first place, which strict consequentialists might not find morally supportable, but which seem to me to be morally significant in themselves.

The way you put this question seems to presuppose an approach to ethical reasoning that is driven by rules (imperatives). For those of us attracted to others approaches (in my case, virtue theory), it is difficult to respond to your inquiry in that form. Moreover, I think the context in which you plan to have the pet and what kind of pet you plan to have are extremely significant. Consider how differently one should answer questions like yours if the pets in question are goldfish or dogs. So let's assume you mean a very standard pet, such as a dog or a cat. Now, do you live in the country, where the dog is not going to foul sidewalks, potentially menace pedestrians or bicyclists, be at risk for being hit by a car (which could also put others at risk, from drivers swerving to avoid hitting your pet), or attack others' pets in the street? If the context is a city or similar, then it looks like you will be obliged to keep your dog leashed at all times when outside the home. In the case of a cat, it...

I've noticed that when people show a lot of affection towards their pets, for

I've noticed that when people show a lot of affection towards their pets, for example claiming that the pet is their best friend or grieving for a very long period of time after the pet dies or paying for expensive veterinary care even for relatively minor injuries/illnesses, other people are quite scornful and say things like, 'It's only a dog' or think that the person is crazy. This seems unfair to me. If someone did that for another human it would be seen as honourable. Why is animal companionship seen as less valuable as human companionship, or the affection that a person can feel for a pet less important than what they can feel for a human friend? It's the same thing as that most people would often rather kill a goat than kill another person. Why do we value the lives of animals so much less than humans? Is it just natural to care more about what is like us (like an extended version of racism?) Or is it because we attribute most importance to a human degree of intelligence or emotion? Should it be...

You make several points here, and I may not respond to all of them. But first, there may be any number of reasons why people regard non-human animals as not meriting the same degree of moral regard as human beings. I think (given the format of this site) it is probably best here simply to provide some basic indication of how this might be appropriate, so think of it in terms of how we value reciprocal relationships. We value our pets, in this way of thinking, because they really do reciprocate our attentions and affections--at least, as far as they are able to do so. But the reciprocation that is possible between human beings and their pets is limited--far more limited than the reciprocation that is possible between human beings. So it may not simply be a matter of valuing certain traits (e.g. intelligence) in a prejudicial way, so much as the ways in which such traits allow for richer (and more reciprocal) relationships.

As for religion's regard for non-human animals, it will really depend upon the religion. The religions of South and East Asia (Buddhism and Hinduism, for examples) tend to value animals more greatly than those with their roots in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Recall that in Genesis, we are told that God gave human beings dominion over non-human animals, with the implication that the other animals came into existed for our use (e.g. as food, or as beast of burden).

You make several points here, and I may not respond to all of them. But first, there may be any number of reasons why people regard non-human animals as not meriting the same degree of moral regard as human beings. I think (given the format of this site) it is probably best here simply to provide some basic indication of how this might be appropriate, so think of it in terms of how we value reciprocal relationships. We value our pets, in this way of thinking, because they really do reciprocate our attentions and affections--at least, as far as they are able to do so. But the reciprocation that is possible between human beings and their pets is limited--far more limited than the reciprocation that is possible between human beings. So it may not simply be a matter of valuing certain traits (e.g. intelligence) in a prejudicial way, so much as the ways in which such traits allow for richer (and more reciprocal) relationships. As for religion's regard for non-human animals, it will really depend...

Pages