Other writers have not shied away from considering non-human creatures as possible sites of experience that approaches the subjective in quality and kind, but the most responsible writer of them all may be Levinas and so I start with his name in order to approach a question of how a human subject can be so responsible for an animal other as to be able to decide--with any assurance of what would be “best”--whether the animal is to be put to death.
I am currently spending all my waking hours reading everything I can find on dealing with the loss of an animal companion and it seems to be a very common reaction to having had to make the decision to euthanize an animal to be beset by guilt. The jury in my head always having been an extremely prejudiced body is coming up with the usual well-argued and inescapable reasons as to why it was not the right time to have let Jackson go when I asked the vet to relieve him of life on Thursday evening and I say usual in reference to their generally hostile disposition to the suggestion that I may well be as innocent as anyone else and so they have had quite a good run this time but what they did not realize before they got started was that at least and at last in this one instance they are not unique to my poorly-wired neurology.
And but so I think that there is something going on like a demand for an impossible assumption of a responsibility that a human being or human event if you would rather simply cannot ever take on and so the overwhelming inadequacy we feel in the face of the task of deciding when an animal’s best interests are served by humanely ending their life is an inadequacy that is already absolute and incommensurable with that very responsibility. That very overwhelming responsibility that we in essence declared ourselves ready to assume when we started certain species of animals down the road toward domestication.
That is I do not think that we can be responsible for this decision even though we have the power to make it and that very inability even to assume such a responsibility as it seems necessary to take on must naturally turn into abject guilt. Which, by continuing along this line of reasoning, it seems that we do not actually deserve so much as get stuck with by virtue of our foreknowledge of animal mortality and what is at least an apparent power of decision over life and death and especially in cases where we have made an other dependent on us for its survival or at least very much entangled with our daily lives and actions in a way that most animals will never be.
What I am trying to say is something like our responsibility is overwhelming and we cannot assume it and yet we have, having discovered the power to do so. Thus the guilt that ensues from exercising that power is not necessarily deserved but is bound to ensue whether or not a decision was made in the best of faith and in the best knowledge possible of what might happen if we put the decision off. Which is to say that the best knowledge possible is itself impossible and inadequate to inform us as to whether or not now is the time. And thus an almost universal guilt that we ourselves bring upon ourselves by taking on this unassumable responsibility is also a guilt for which we cannot possibly be asked to answer if the universe is trying to be fair.
And yet I do think that the awesomeness of this sort of responsibility is such that we are bound by it even though we are bound to fail by it. And there we can find the wherewithal to forgive ourselves for that failure which is inevitable even though we are still bound by the responsibility that engenders its own impossibility of fulfillment.
And like so many times in my intellectual and spiritual life I find myself thrown back upon the more or less Buddhist imperative that asks only that we practice the relief of suffering and leave the rest to work itself out. Guilt is rarely useful in this regard and I think that it is interesting that Western thought has come to what seems to me a logical if paradoxical conclusion regarding the responsibility and guilt that our Judeo-Christian heritage has more or less tried to convince us need to be our guiding principles.
So what I am trying to add now is something like responsibility and guilt if unassumable may not be useful guideposts by themselves but still they seem to point beyond themselves to a less-encumbered concern for suffering or a less torturous practice of relieving suffering. Because we are only what we are and our only refuge is precisely that sort of compassion.
I may have skipped a step here or there but maybe you see something of what I am trying very hard--and failing--to take down in a coherent way.