Tag Archives: philosophy
Over at Scientific American, Lawrence Krauss has written an apology for dismissing the importance of philosophy, as he seemed to do in his interview in The Atlantic. Apparently set aright by Dan Dennett, and reminded of confrères like Anthony Grayling and Peter Singer, Krauss admits that philosophy has some value after all, though not so much when it comes to guiding the progress of physics. He then clarifies what he meant by the “nothing” in “the universe from nothing”—a better explanation than, as I recall, he proffers in his book.
Krauss’s apology becomes a bit of a notapology in the last paragraph, though:
So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the…
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Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.
Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.
Shame and Necessity
by Bernard Williams
After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?
However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).
So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.
Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.
It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.
The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.
Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney
The Philosophy Book
by Will Buckingham
Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.
With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.
The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.
The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.
There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.
The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.
This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know
by Ben Dupré
Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.
Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.
The book’s blurb asks:
Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?
It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.
There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.
This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.
Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia
by Harry G Frankfurt
When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.
But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.
So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.
Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.
In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.
Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.
The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.
The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
Patrick Stokes, Deakin University
The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher
by William H F Altman
Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.
Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.
The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).
Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.
The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.
Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.
This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).
But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.
Matt Sharpe, Deakin
Philosophy as a Way of Life
by Pierre Hadot
This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.
It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.
The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.
Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.
I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:
Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.
Matt Sharpe, Deakin
Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University
One of the interesting questions we face as philosophers who are attempting to make philosophical ideas accessible for a general audience, is whether or not everyone can or should ‘do philosophy’.
Some philosophers wish to leave philosophy in the academy or university setting. Whereas others claim the downfall of modern philosophy came in the late 19th century when the subject was institutionalized within the research university setting. By condemning philosophy as only appropriate as a serious subject of study, philosophers have lost much widespread support and public recognition for its value.
Bertrand Russell’s ‘Philosophy for Laymen’
In 1946 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled Philosophy for Laymen, in which he defends the view that philosophy should be ‘a part of general education’. He proposes that,
even in the time that can easily be spared without injury to the learning of technical skills, philosophy can give certain things that will greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen.
Clare Carlisle refers to Russell when she writes,
Russell revives an ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life in insisting that questions of cosmic meaning and value have an existential, ethical and spiritual urgency. (Of course, what we might mean by such terms is another issue for philosophers to grapple with.)
We see here the idea of philosophy as a praxis; something that we do, and a way of thinking that is beneficial for every rational human being. As Russell puts it,
To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.
Russell believes that philosophy can be taught to ‘laymen’ readers which will assist them to think more objectively about emotive issues. Carlisle concedes that this is easier to do when one is not faced with a stressful moral dilemma or the burden of making a quick decision while in an emotional state.
Yet, the idea is that we practice the habit of philosophical thinking, and that we get better at it.
Philosophy with young people
I recently attended the 2016 Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) Conference in Wellington, New Zealand and was struck by the conversation surrounding the idea of what kind(s) of philosophy should be taught to everyone, and particularly to young people.
The presenters and attendees at this conference are all committed to offering philosophy as a subject to school aged children, from ages 3 to 17. I have previously written about Philosophy for Children (P4C) and the benefits of teaching philosophy to young people.
Namely, P4C offers students the chance to learn and practice not just critical thinking skills, but also caring, collaborative and creative thinking skills. It does this using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) pedagogy favoured by P4C practitioners. The CoI involves students engaging in dialogue with one another in an inclusive and democratic manner. Such dialogue is facilitated by their teachers using age appropriate philosophical texts and stimulus materials in the classroom.
But should every student study ‘all’ philosophy?
One of the papers given at the FAPSA Conference, presented by Michael Hand from the University of Birmingham argued that, well, perhaps not. Hand says,
Not only in philosophy, but in all branches of academic study there is a distinction between what has cultural value and what is only of professional interest.
It must be noted that Hand defends the teaching of philosophy to young people and also to offering it as an option for school aged students. He notes that it is ‘easy’ to defend the inclusion of Philosophy as an option on the curriculum because,
- like other academic subjects, it is an intrinsically worthwhile activity
- like other academic subjects, it is instrumentally valuable in cultivating intellectual virtues and improving the quality of thinking
Yet, when asked whether we can defend the inclusion of philosophy as a compulsory subject within the curriculum, we would need to prove that it offers every student a distinct benefit that they would not otherwise get.
The distinct benefit gained by studying philosophy
Note that Carrie Winstanley does defend such a claim. She, in a book co-edited with Hand, claims that even if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills, philosophy is the best subject to teach students critical thinking skills, precisely because critical thinking is the essence of philosophy.
Philosophy is the best possible subject for helping children to become effective critical thinkers. It is the subject that can teach them better than any other how to assess reasons, defend positions, define terms, evaluate sources of information, and judge the value of arguments and evidence.
Yet if other subjects also teach critical thinking skills to students, why should we make room in a crowded curriculum for philosophy?
Hand considers this point and suggests that what would be uniquely beneficial for students would be to study moral and political philosophy. He tells us that,
Moral and political philosophy do not, of course, tell us the best way to live. But they do enable us to think more deeply and rigorously about the choices we make and the goals we pursue. And they do justify certain moral and political constraints within which we must make our choices and pursue our goals.
Hand concludes that,
moral and political philosophy confers on those who study it the distinctive benefit of being able to think intelligently about how they will live and the moral and political constraints on their conduct… [and] everyone has a strong interest in this benefit because everyone faces the problem of how to live and the responsibility of complying with moral and political constraints.
This results in an argument in favour of teaching moral and political philosophy as a compulsory subject in schools, even if other areas of philosophy (aesthetics, formal logic, epistemology, and ontology) are additional or optional extras.
Philosophy for everyone
When it comes to who should be doing philosophy, I believe that everyone can ‘have a go’ as reasonable citizens who reflect on the meaning they make of their lives. Yes, philosophy is best suited to the university setting in which experts are trained. Yes, philosophy can be done with children in classrooms. And yes, surely philosophy is something everyone can and should do, albeit at differing levels of competence.
But I am also sympathetic to Hand’s focus on moral philosophy, and ethics in particular. When speaking about ethics, philosophers regain their foothold in the public arena in which they can demonstrate how careful thinking skills can be usefully applied to difficult and complex scenarios.
Sure, there is not ‘one perfect answer’ to these moral dilemmas, but, critical, caring, creative and collaborative thinking skills are valuable in ruling out the worst answers. Such philosophical thinking skills also help guide decision makers towards better policies, public understanding, and widespread engagement with issues that affect people’s lives.
To extend philosophical dialogue into schools and public spaces is to engage and encourage careful consideration of fundamentally important ‘big’ questions that have always occupied human thought. And centrally, these days, those questions are moral and political, as these effect our individual autonomy and our collective humanity.
[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]
Why is this happening?
We now need to explore the reasons for this bizarre internecine wars between the two disciplines if we wish to move on to more fertile pursuits. As it happens, there are, I think, a number of potentially good explanations for the sorry state of affairs of which the above was a sample. Moreover, these explanations immediately suggest actionable items that both scientists and philosophers should seriously consider.
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One of the characteristics of philosophy as a field of inquiry is that — unique among human endeavors — it also inquiries upon itself. This was true since the times of Socrates and Epictetus, of course. Here is how the latter puts it in his Discourses:
“Now if you are writing to a friend, grammar will tell you that you need particular letters; but it will not tell you whether or not you should write to your friend. The same holds in the case of music’s relation to song. It will not say whether at this moment you should sing or play the lyre, or whether you should not do so. Which faculty, then, will do so? The one that studies both itself and everything else. And what is that? The faculty of reason. Yes; for this is the only faculty we have inherited that can perceive itself — what…
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Here comes another of my occasional conversations with my colleague Dan Kaufman of Missouri State University. (Incidentally, he and two other former collaborators to my now archived Scientia Salon webzine have just started an excellent new project, The Electric Agora.)
This time we simply each picked one philosopher that was highly influential in our careers, or who has somehow shaped our way of thinking about philosophy, and chatted about it for a bit. I think the episode is worth checking out, it came out much better than the above somewhat lame description may suggest.
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Most of us would like to think scientific debate does not operate like the comments section of online news articles. These are frequently characterised by inflexibility, truculence and expostulation. Scientists are generally a little more civil, but sometimes not much so!
There is a more fundamental issue here than politeness, though. Science has a reputation as an arbiter of fact above and beyond just personal opinion or bias. The term “scientific method” suggests there exists an agreed upon procedure for processing evidence which, while not infallible, is at least impartial.
So when even the most respected scientists can arrive at different deeply held convictions when presented with the same evidence, it undermines the perceived impartiality of the scientific method. It demonstrates that science involves an element of subjective or personal judgement.
Yet personal judgements are not mere occasional intruders on science, they are a necessary part of almost every step of reasoning about evidence.
Among the judgements scientists make on a daily basis are: what evidence is relevant to a particular question; what answers are admissible a priori; which answer does the evidence support; what standard of evidence is required (since “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”); and is the evidence sufficient to justify belief?
Another judgement scientists make is whether the predictions of a model are sufficiently reliable to justify committing resources to a course of action.
We do not have universally agreed procedures for making any of these judgements. This should come as no surprise. Evidence is something experienced by persons, and a person is thus essential to relating evidence to the abstractions of a scientific theory.
This is true regardless of how directly the objects of a theory are experienced – whether we observe a bird in flight or its shadow on the ground – ultimately it is the unique neuronal configurations of an individual brain that determine how what we perceive influences what we believe.
Induction, falsification and probability
Nevertheless, we can ask: are there forms of reasoning about evidence that do not depend on personal judgement?
Induction is the act of generalising from particulars. It interprets a pattern observed in specific data in terms of a law governing a wider scope.
But induction, like any form of reasoning about evidence, demands personal judgement. Patterns observed in data invariably admit multiple alternative generalisations. And which generalisation is appropriate, if any, may come down to taste.
Many of the points of contention between Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould can be seen in this light. For example, Gould thought Dawkins too eager to attribute evolved traits to the action of natural selection in cases where contingent survival provides an alternative, and (to Gould) preferable, explanation.
One important statement of the problem of induction was made by 18th-century philosopher David Hume. He noted the only available justification for inductive reasoning is that it works well in practice. But this itself is an inductive argument, and thus “taking that for granted, which is the very point in question”.
Hume thought we had to accept this circularity, but philosopher of science Karl Popper rejected induction entirely. Popper argued that evidence can only falsify a theory, never verify it. Scientific theories are thus only ever working hypotheses that have withstood attempts at falsification.
No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature.
Scientists cherish their theories, having invested so much of their personal resources in them. So when a seemingly contradictory datum emerges, they are inclined to make minor adjustments rather than reject core tenets. As physicist Max Planck observed (before Popper or Kuhn):
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Falsification also ignores the relationship between science and engineering. Technology stakes human lives and personal resources on the reliability of scientific theories. We could not do this without strong belief in their adequacy. Engineers thus demand more from science than a working hypothesis.
Some philosophers of science look to probabilistic reasoning to place science above personal judgement. Prominent proponents of such approaches include Elliot Sober and Edwin Thompson Jaynes. By these accounts one can compare competing scientific theories in terms of the likelihood of observed evidence under each.
However, probabilistic reasoning does not remove personal judgement from science. Rather, it channels it into the design of models. A model, in this sense, is a mathematical representation of the probabilistic relationships between theory and evidence.
As someone who designs such models for a living, I can tell you the process relies heavily on personal judgement. There are no universally applicable procedures for model construction. Consequently, the point at issue in scientific controversies may be precisely how to model the relationship between theory and evidence.
What is (and isn’t) special about science
Does acknowledging the role played by personal judgement erode our confidence in science as a special means of acquiring knowledge? It does, if what we thought was special about science is that it removes the personal element from the search for truth.
As scientists – or as defenders of science – we must guard against the desire to dominate our interlocutors by ascribing to science a higher authority than it plausibly possesses. Many of us have experienced the frustration of seeing science ignored or distorted in arguments about climate change or vaccinations to name just two.
But we do science no favours by misrepresenting its claim to authority; instead we create a monster. A misplaced faith in science can and has been used as a political weapon to manipulate populations and impose ideologies.
Instead we need to explain science in terms that non-scientists can understand, so that factors that have influenced our judgements can influence theirs.
It is appropriate that non-scientists subordinate their judgements to that of experts, but this deference must be earned. The reputation of an individual scientist for integrity and quality of research is thus crucial in public discussions of science.
I believe science is special, and deserves the role of arbiter that society accords it. But its specialness does not derive from a unique mode of reasoning.
Rather it is the minutiae of science that make it special: the collection of lab protocols, recording practices, publication and peer review standards and many others. These have evolved over centuries under constant pressure to produce useful and reliable knowledge.
Thus, by a kind of natural selection, science has acquired a remarkable capacity to reveal truth. Science continues to evolve, so that what is special about science today might not be what will be special about it tomorrow.
So how much faith should you put in the conclusions of scientists? Judge for yourself!
In the 1960s, I knew people who, before going on vacation, would take their dogs to a shelter to be euthanized. They reasoned that it was cheaper to have a dog euthanized – and buy a new one upon returning – than pay a kennel fee.
Two decades later, I was working at Colorado State’s veterinary hospital when a group of distraught bikers on Harley-Davidsons pulled up carrying a sick chihuahua. The dog was intractably ill, and required euthanasia to prevent further suffering. Afterwards, the hospital’s counselors felt compelled to find the bikers a motel room: their level of grief was so profound that the staff didn’t think it was safe for them to be riding their motorcycles.
These two stories illustrate the drastic change in how animals have been perceived. For thousands of years, humans have kept animals as pets. But only during the past 40 years have they come to be viewed as family.
While it’s certainly a positive development that animals are being treated humanely, one of the downsides to better treatment mirrors some of the problems the (human) health care system faces with end-of-life care.
As with humans, in many cases the lives of pets are needlessly prolonged, which can cause undue suffering for the animals and an increased financial burden for families.
The growth of veterinary medicine and ethics
In 1979, I began teaching veterinary medical ethics at Colorado State University’s veterinary school, the first such course ever taught anywhere in the world.
A year later, the veterinary school hired an oncologist to head up a new program on animal oncology. Soon, our clinic was applying human therapeutic modalities to animal cancer. The visionary head of the veterinary program also hired a number of counselors to help pet owners manage their grief – another first in veterinary circles.
I’d been under the impression that people would be reluctant to spend much money on animal treatments, so I was genuinely shocked when the following April, the Wall Street Journal reported individuals spending upwards of six figures on cancer treatments for their pets.
As a strong advocate for strengthening concern for animal welfare in society, I was delighted with this unprecedented turn of events. I soon learned that concern for treating the diseases of pets besides cancer had also spiked precipitously, evidenced by a significant increase in veterinary specialty practices.
One of the family
So what’s behind the shift in how pets are perceived and treated?
For one, surveys conducted over the last two decades indicate an increasing number of pet owners who profess to view their animals as “members of the family.” In some surveys, the number is as high as 95% of respondents, but in nearly all surveys the number is higher than 80%.
In addition, the breakdown of nuclear families and the uptick of divorce rates have contributed to singles forming tighter bonds with companion animals.
Such attitudes and trends are likely to engender profound changes in societal views of euthanasia. Whereas before, many owners didn’t think twice about putting down a pet, now many are hesitant to euthanize, often going to great lengths to keep sick animals alive.
Vets caught in the middle
However, veterinarians continue to experience extensive stress as they experience two opposite – but equally trying – dilemmas: ending an animal’s life too soon, or waiting too long.
In a paper that I published entitled Euthanasia and Moral Stress, I described the significant stress experienced by veterinarians, veterinary technicians and humane society workers. Many chose their profession out of a desire to improve the lot of animals; instead, they invariably ended up euthanizing large numbers of them, often for unethical reasons.
These ranged from “I got the dog to jog with me, and now it’s too old to run,” to “If I die, I want you to euthanize the animal because I know it can’t bear to live without me.”
In other cases, the animal is experiencing considerable suffering, but the owner is unwilling to let the animal go. With owners increasingly viewing pets as family members, this has become increasingly common, and many owners fear the guilt associated with killing an animal too soon.
Ironically this, too, can cause veterinarians undue trauma: they know the animal is suffering, but there’s nothing they can do about it unless the owner gives them permission.
The consequences are manifest. One recent study showed that one in six veterinarians has considered suicide. Another found an elevated risk of suicide in the field of veterinary medicine. Being asked to kill healthy animals for owner convenience doubtless is a major contribution.
How to manage the decision to euthanize
Here is my suggestion to anyone who is thinking about getting a pet: when you first acquire it, create a list of everything you can find that makes the animal happy (eating a treat, chasing a ball, etc). Put the list away until the animal is undergoing treatment for a terminal disease, such as cancer. At that point, return to the list: is the animal able to chase a ball? Does the animal get excited about receiving a treat?
If the animal has lost the ability to have positive experiences, it’s often easier to let go.
This strategy can be augmented by pointing out the differences between human and animal consciousness. As philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, for humans much of life’s meaning is derived from balancing past experiences with future aspirations, such as wishing to see one’s children graduate or hoping to see Ireland again.
Animals, on the other hand, lack the linguistic tools to allow them to anticipate the future or create an internal narrative of the past. Instead, they live overwhelmingly in the present. So if a pet owner is reluctant to euthanize, I’ll often point out that the animal no longer experiences pleasant “nows.”
In the end, managing euthanasia represents a major complication of the augmented status of pets in society. Ideally, companion animal owners should maintain a good relationship with their general veterinary practitioner, who has often known the animal all of its life, and can serve as a partner in dialogue during the trying times when euthanasia emerges as a possible alternative to suffering.