Recently, I was on a FaceTime call with a friend I met through social media who is in the same profession as I am. Through the pandemic, we’ve brainstormed and been there for each other. So I was shocked when — via FaceTime — I was informed that my friend’s dog had bitten a few people, and so my friend felt it was best to put the dog down. But they wanted to do it themselves. They thought that going to the vet and having the vet “hold the dog down” would be inhumane. Without even thinking what the answer might be, I said: “Wait! How do you put your own dog down?” Silence. And then they said, “A gun.”
They admitted to me that they shot their own dog and buried it in a grave they dug. I couldn’t believe this. Is this legal? Is this morally OK? To me, it’s murder! They’re asking for sympathy on social media saying their loving family dog had to be “put down,” and I hate that I’m carrying this knowledge that the dog was shot and buried by its “loving” owner. What do I do? Name Withheld
The purpose of a child, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen suggested in his 1849 dialogue-essay “Consolatio,” is to be a child — to play, to enjoy itself, to be itself. Because children, in time, do come of age, we are tempted to think that the final aim of a child is, precisely, to come of age, gaining an adult’s plans and projects, and this, he noted, is a confusion. We are spared such confusions when it comes to dogs, because they have no long-term plans or projects: In the familiar formula, the life in their days matters more than the days in their life.
A dog that repeatedly bites people — we’re not talking about a “soft mouth” nip but a bite that inflicts injury and, typically, scars — can be legally categorized as dangerous. (Dog bites are a main reason children end up in the E.R.) What this designation entails depends on the state or municipality. A so-called dangerous dog may be required to wear a muzzle when not confined; its owner may be required to purchase a large liability-insurance policy; or, depending on statutes and circumstances, a court may simply order the dog to be euthanized. An owner can enlist the services of a behaviorist for a dog with a history of biting, but with no guarantee of success. And an owner may be subject to criminal and civil liability for injuries inflicted by the dog — resulting in the sort of penalties and payment of damages that could interfere with whatever plans and projects an owner has for herself or her family.
You’re clearly outraged, however, not only by the fact that the dog was killed but also by the way it was killed. Your friend perhaps figured that a bullet to the head, through cavitation and direct tissue destruction, would result in instantaneous oblivion, and sought to spare the creature a possibly more traumatic experience. Here’s someone who, unlike you, knows this dog intimately — someone who may have pictured how the dog would have responded to being crated up, brought to a veterinary clinic (which might have had unpleasant associations for the animal) and restrained while a nitrile-gloved clinician pushed a needle into it. Was the choice so mad? Why do you view the family’s anguish as illegitimate simply because the creature was put down at home, as animals often used to be?
We should all be concerned about animal cruelty, and dogs, with their gift for bonding with humans, will elicit your (and my) tenderest feelings. I do hope your concern extends to the immense suffering caused by factory farming, not to mention the immense suffering we routinely impose on mammals of our own species. The situation you describe is painful and fraught. Before you condemn your friend, though, be sure that your own actions and attitudes would withstand judgment.
A final note. Grieving a dog’s death, we grieve, first, our loss: the absence of a companion. Grieving the death of a person — a friend, a lover, a sibling, a parent — we grieve, first, their loss: their absence from the unfurling discoveries, desires, commitments and experiences that make up our shared world. That shared world works better when we try hard to understand one another. Summarily judging others as unworthy of sympathy impedes what should be a common goal: a truly humane society.
My dear friend and I trained together for a highly specialized medical profession. She is currently looking to change jobs, and while my organization has an opening, it is not for her particular qualifications. She is planning to interview with a different medical group, of fewer than 10 people.
As it turns out, that group has someone planning to leave, who may be interviewing with us on the same day. He has not told his group he is leaving, however, and has asked us to keep it confidential. I cannot violate that request, but I feel my friend should be warned that the job she is hoping for may have some unexpected instability or drawbacks. I feel like a bad friend for not telling her what I know. Name Withheld
If there’s public information about the other practice group that might encourage her to think twice, you’re free to be a good friend and draw her attention to it. But you’re both medical professionals. So both of you know how important it is not to reveal confidential information learned on the job.
I have my own business in which I am the sole employee. When the pandemic hit, I could no longer meet with people in person, and my income took a hit. When it came time to apply for the P.P.P. loan, I did, because I thought my work would continue on a downward trajectory. I received a loan. I used it to pay rent for the office I vacated and other expenses.
Now, having reached the end of the year, I am looking at my income, and it has recovered. I am feeling uncomfortable about having taken the loan, since my income ended up slightly more than last year. The options I have thought of are a) return the whole thing; b) continue to pay a few vendors that I no longer work with because of the pandemic and help them cover some lost income and then return the rest; c) pay those vendors and then give the rest to hunger charities; d) keep the whole thing (though this last feels wrong). I want to do the ethical thing here. What do you think? Name Withheld
You applied for the loan in good faith; your business fared better than you expected. As long as your request for total loan forgiveness has been approved, you’re perfectly entitled to keep the loan. The program’s designers knew that some businesses would be in a position to repay the loan and that others wouldn’t, and they decided against repayment requirements for eligible recipients. The program was basically conceived to be more like Medicare than like Medicaid.
There’s always going to be dumb luck — and dumb bad luck.
Nor can you be blamed for your misplaced pessimism. Economic life is full of undeserved windfalls. Some online influencer happens to praise your product, and suddenly you’re selling out. Or the person’s in a sour mood and savages your product with some memorable put-down; sales dry up. With all the talent and tenacity in the world, you’re still subject to the vagaries of fortune. There’s always going to be dumb luck — and dumb bad luck.
So congratulations on your good fortune. You are in a position to act toward others with the sort of generosity your country displayed to you. In those circumstances, it’s an honorable reflex to try to “pass it on.” Helping those vendors would be in that spirit. But as you imply, there may be people you could help with greater need, like those who have lost their jobs and are now in need of food assistance.
If you want to make the greatest positive impact with the money you no longer need, though, there are people in extremis all around the world. Research by proponents of “effective altruism” has produced online charity evaluators like GiveWell and the Life You Can Save; they seek to target donations in a way that would save or ameliorate as many lives as possible. Your fine fortune in a year of terrible misfortune for others has put you in a position to display particular generosity this year. However you do so, your generosity will not only be commendable; it will also, I suspect, feel pretty good.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)