The other day I saw a brief bit on CNN about Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls. As most people know, Vick got into considerable trouble for his horrible treatment of dogs. He and some associates trained and fought them. The dogs that lacked the desire to fight were killed, often in rather brutal ways.
When the dogs were rescued from Vick, PETA and the Human Society took the position that the dogs were beyond rehabilitation and that it would be a poor use of resources to try to do so. The bit I saw yesterday showed a PETA spokeswoman restating that view: although the rehabilitation worked in some cases, the dogs should have been euthanized and the money should have been spent to help other animals.
While this view struck me as heartless, a case can be made for her position. She is, of course, presenting a standard utilitarian approach: the action that should be taken is the one that generates the most good. So, if the resources spent to help Vick’s pit bulls could have helped many more animals, then the money should have been spent on the other animals.
This approach does match the commonly accepted principle of triage. Put a bit simply, it is the principle that medical resources are to be spent saving the most lives. This can mean allowing some people to die, but this is justified because saving more lives is better than saving fewer lives. The situation with the dogs can be looked at as a form a triage: while it would be best to help all animals, if all cannot be saved, then we should save more animals even if these means that some are not saved. On this view, PETA is correct.
Of course, there are ways to take issue with PETA in this matter.
First, there is the fact that the PETA view is that the dogs should have been euthanized. As such, it is not a case of letting the dogs die in order to save more dogs. It would be a situation in which the dogs would be killed. In this sort of case, our moral intuitions tend to change. For example, consider a (possibly) similar situation: suppose you have five patients who need organ transplants immediately or they will die. You could kill a sixth person to save them, but most people would regard that as morally wrong. Perhaps the same is true in the case of the dogs.
Of course, it could be replied that the dog situation is a bit unusual. Unlike the organ case, the dogs would not being killed to take their organs to save other dogs. They would be killed because that would be regarded as more merciful than keeping them locked away. But, it could be replied that the two cases are alike. The pit bulls would be killed to take something from them that others need: the money and resources. As such, the cases seem alike in the relevant way. Intuitively, such killing seems wrong.
Second, there is the concern that acting in this way (euthanizing the dogs to free up resources) would have serious negative consequences. For example, to do so would (as Kant argued) tend to harden people’s hearts and make them more inclined to cruelty. Then again, perhaps it would not.
Third, there is the moral concern that the dogs are owed restitution for the wrong done to them. While the resources could have been used to help more dogs, Vick and his fellows wronged those dogs. As such, there is a debt that must be paid to those dogs and the evil done to them should be countered.
To use an analogy, imagine that a defect in a product maims dozens of people and that a law suit awards a large sum of money in damages. The money could probably do more good if it were spent to help other people. It could, perhaps, be used to fund preventative medicine. After all, it is far cheaper to help people avoid illness than it is to treat people who have been seriously maimed. By PETA’s principle, the money should not be wasted on the maimed people but spent so as to do the most good. This, however, seems wrong.
As such, to kill the dogs would have been one last crime against them. It would be analogous to murdering rescued survivors simply because it would be expensive to help them. That would be monstrous.
It might be replied that dogs lack moral status and hence cannot be wronged and cannot be owed a moral debt. Of course, this view would undercut the whole notion of treating animals ethically by making them morally irrelevant. As such, it would not seem to be a viable option for PETA.
From a practical standpoint, it seemed unwise of PETA to issue a statement saying that the dogs should have been euthanized. When I heard the PETA spokeswoman, my intellectual reaction was to consider the ethics of the matter. But, when I saw the photos of the rescued dogs with their families, my emotional reaction was to think “what a horrible thing she said” and I thought much less of PETA at that moment. Naturally, the news segment was calculated to do just that. I am sure other people felt as I did and that certainly does not help PETA.
Yes, the money could have probably done more good if it had been spent elsewhere. But here is some practical advice for PETA: never tell dog owners that it would have been better to kill a good dog. That does not go over well. Not well at all.