NPF: RATIONAL CHOICE FAIL

Upon moving to Georgia my eldest rat developed some wheezing and shortness of breath. Respiratory problems are common in the species, especially in their golden years. Fortunately my current institution happens to have one of the nation's premier small animal veterinary programs complete with an impressive small animal teaching hospital staffed by Ph.D.s, veterinarians, and students. They actually have a rat cardiologist on staff. A rat cardiologist. To shorten the story, Bear received outstanding care (including rat x-rays!). The staff identified his enlarged right ventricle, treated it appropriately, and returned him to his bright-eyed and bushy ring-tailed state.

It cost $400.

This brought me to two moral dilemmas that every responsible and socially conscious pet owner deals with at some point. First, from a rational choice perspective it makes no sense to provide that level of treatment to a rat. Why spend $400 on a rat when one can stroll into a pet store and get a new one for $8? Second, how does one justify this kind of expense to give a rat better medical care than many people on this planet receive? Wouldn't $400 be better spent on a person who needs to see a doctor?

On the first point, only an economist (or their jug-band cousin, the MBA student) would apply such logic to a pet. Yes, it is "just a pet." Regardless they are not interchangeable. One does not simply toss a companion animal in the trash and replace it any more than having another child can replace a deceased one. The second point troubles me considerably more. I feel some guilt when I see a team of three people x-raying a rat and projecting the image onto a 60" plasma monitor so I can see Bear's aorta. Could such resources be re-directed to people in need? Yes. Could my $400 help a person who would not otherwise see a doctor do so? Yes. But to me it is a matter of principle rather than a practical one. When we purchase a pet we accept responsibility for its well-being. This does not stop at feeding it and giving it the occasional heartworm pill. And whether I have an $8 rat, a dog, an endangered Namibian antelope, or a child of my own, any living thing for which I am responsible is going to receive whatever level of medical care I have the means to obtain when necessary.

It's hard to justify the fact that this little guy goes to a better hospital than half of the Earth's population. Letting him die wouldn't change that, though. Besides, your parents were right when they lectured you about getting your first goldfish: being responsible for something's well-being is a big commitment, not one we can opt out of when the price goes up. We do what we do for our pets because we are not characters from an economics textbook. We do it because we love them and because it is the right thing to do.

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26 Responses to “NPF: RATIONAL CHOICE FAIL”

  1. daphne Says:

    What a coincidence: my bear's name is Rat.

  2. Joanna Says:

    Just to play devil's advocate: donating the $400 to a medical charity could help humans at the rat's expense.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Interesting. About ten or eleven years ago my family won a goldfish from a Shriner's booth at a county fair. The fish just died earlier this summer, but it lasted as long as it did partly because we cared for it so well and invested ourselves into this fish. My dad fed it the right amount consistently(not too much, not too little), we dropped it off at a friends' house to watch it when we left town for extended days, and late in its life we gave it a sort of fish medicine to help fight an infection near its eye. I doubt that if we won 50 more fish one of them would last a decade plus again, but you keep on doing what's working until it doesn't. I think that's a good model for pet care.

  4. ladiesbane Says:

    Did you get the employee discount? Why is it so much cheaper to do this for a small mammal than it is to do it for a human? (There may be a lot of good reasons, but I honestly don't know the answer.)

    I am happy to hear Bear is on the mend! I would have made the same choice…but you admit that your $400 would help a human get needed treatment, then scale up the argument to letting your rat die vs. getting treatment better most people do — a different choice, and not the choice you faced. Your pet's death would help nothing, but that $400 would go far at the Shriner's Hospital For Children. They have matching donation programs in a lot of areas. Just sayin'.

    It would be wrong (I think) to neglect your own responsibilities to take care of someone else's. Unfortunately, this argument is often used by Conservatives to rationalize not giving aid to other countries when we have people starving at home (whom they also do not help); likewise not asking the rich to pay extra taxes for universal health care.

    Are you your brother's keeper? Or only your rat's keeper? Is it irresponsible for minimum wage workers to adopt kittens if they can't afford CAT scans? (Sorry.)

  5. Shane Says:

    It is interesting that you should post this today. Just yesterday I was listening to an NPR program that was discussing the level of security at most university medical research labs, particularly those that do any type of experiments with animals. In the segment they interviewed people that talked about all the valuable research that is lost when someone like the ALF frees all of the animals (most of which die because they aren't capable of surviving in the environment immediately surrounding the lab). Learning of PhD students who had to start completely over because their entire experiment depended on genetically modified animals that were no longer available particularly hit close to home.
    Knowing your particular fondness for the little furry guys, it made me wonder about your feelings about rat testing.
    Should rats which you have not personally taken responsibility for be tested on, and sometimes suffer in extremely painful ways, so that we can develop knowledge/drugs/treatments etc for humans?

    The social utilitarian in me thinks the answer should obviously be, "Of course," but I will also admit that the idea of cages full of beagles instead of rats would really make me think twice about the value of the research, only because I happen to love a beagle. I think sentience and intelligence play a role in the decision (I am more concerned about the poor treatment of pigs than I am of chickens) but where do we draw these lines?

  6. jon Says:

    Somewhere between lab animals and humans, there's a middle stage where treatments are tried on pets. Chances are, the treatment your rat received will tell us more about what works on people.

    But yeah, it's still a rat. But if you think it was worth it, that's up to you. I doubt I would have done it, but I think you contributed to a much more meaningful part of the economy than you would have by buying the best Habitrail set up in your town. But what the hell, it's your money. I won't stand in a glass house and talk about someone else's spending.

  7. Desargues Says:

    That you have compunctions about spending 400 bucks on your rat than on medical care for others' children suggest to me you're a utilitarian, at the back of your mind. Overall, a greater amount of utility/good/happiness would be brought about if you spent the money unselfishly.

    Then why object to economists? After all, utilitarianism is their basic framework, too. In the paradigm of rational choice, the only objective meaning for 'right' and 'wrong' is 'that which brings about the greatest/lowest overall balance of utility/happiness/etc.'

    In contrast, if you subscribe to an ethics of duty, then your pet is not on a par with the critters of strangers. You do have an extra duty of care toward your pet, provided you have assumed that duty autonomously. You do not have a duty to provide medical care to strangers. (You can't, however, get rid of the duty of charity toward them, but it's rather diffuse. In other words, you'd be morally in the wrong if you spent serious money on your pet but never gave any real money to charitable causes.)

    The same balancing act between duties to your close ones and duties to strangers obtains if you're a virtue ethicist. As a recovering Catholic, you may be quite friendly to that view, I suspect. (Unless I wrongly inferred that you're a former Catholic from your attending a Catholic high school.)

  8. J. Dryden Says:

    If you set aside the obvious "it's a rat" prompt-to-contempt, there's nothing remotely wrong about spending $400 on what could be called–bear with me, this is going to sound cold–a hobby. A person who spends $400 finding a replacement part for his vintage car, or the same amount on a mint-condition rookie card, or a first edition of Catcher In The Rye wouldn't raise an eyebrow in anyone who wasn't already looking to be offended. (And such people will inevitably find something to be offended by, so fuck them preemptively.)

    The fact that unlike these material objects, Ben can actually love you back, makes it seem all the more sensible. The major difference between pets and kids is that we keep pets not for *their* good, but for *ours*, for how they make *us* feel. Looked at with a soulless eye of speciesist dispassion, pet care and human medicine are apples and oranges. You wouldn't anguish about paying a mechanic to fix a beloved car even though that $400 could be better spent on Metro passes for the unfortunate. You had discretionary funds that you spent on something (and to you, some*one*) that you love. What you *might* have spent the money on doesn't enter into it. It's not "a rat"–it's your happiness based on loving affection and conscience of the debt you owe to the creature who provides that feeling.

    No need to be conflicted at all, in short.

  9. Parrotlover77 Says:

    I've spent a lot more in one shot to get premium care for my flock of parrots. The vet they go to is absolutely top-notch. In my area we are lucky to have two excellent avian vets. One is more of a research vet (he publishes papers and so on), while the other (the one closer to me and the one I go to) is more your typical animal hospital where the focus is on patient care, not research. But I digress!

    As members of the human race (as I presume all of us blogging are), we tend to see other life forms on this planet as "lesser" in various forms. Some are food, some are pets, some need to be swatted, etc. Now I'm not going all PETA on you here, but it that general attitude really bothers me. No matter where in the chain of life we are, we all came from the same goo billions of years ago. We are all Earthlings. Caring for our own species is certainly evolutionarily advantagous, which is why altruism is considered a genetic trait, to a great degree. But caring for another species, that we take into our lives and put into our protection, shouldn't be any less legitimate. If you had a child under your care — let's extend the analogy by making it an adopted child — you would not feel a twinge of guilt for spending money on his or her medical care, no matter the cost, despite the fact that the majority of humans on this planet do not receive that care. The same should be true for our companion animals.

    All that said, It Is Good (TM) to donate what you can to charities that can help others receive medical care (and food and clean water), so… do it! But don't ever ever feel guilty because you spent money, even a lot of money, on your companion animal.

    An economic way of looking at it is, it's their "paycheck" for giving you love and companionship over the course of their lives. :-)

  10. Keith Says:

    Congrats on the good outcome for Bear. Expressing care for another being is an honorable trait–something this planet could use more of. The ethical dilemma I see with pet care is when our well-intended interventions create hardship, stress, and suffering for our pets. That is, we cannot assume that rats (or dogs, or cats, etc.) understand much about their illness, and understand (let alone consent to) extraordinary interventions on their behalf. Cancer is a great example. Are we justified to subject our beloved pets to excruciating surgeries and chemotherapies? Sure, we might feel better, but do they? When cancer befalls a person, that person is capable (usually) of consenting to and perhaps even directing their own care. Our pets cannot do that. Caring for a pet means also knowing when it's time to let them go, and euthanasia under these circumstances can be an expression of care.

  11. Drew Says:

    I hate rats. HATE THEM.

    That said, I am happy that the animal you love is on the mend!

  12. Nate Says:

    Is everyone too reasonable to make the "rat choice" pun? Just too obvious?

  13. jazzbumpa Says:

    The thing that strikes me is that the care your rat just received (and forgive me if this has already been mentioned, gotta run and don't have time to read the comments) would cost THOUSANDS id administered to a human.

    That said, I know somebody who paid $800 in medical bills for a Guinea pig, and onother who spent of $3000 trying to save a dog who dies anyway.

    I report, you decide.

    Cheers!
    JzB the non pet owning trombonist

  14. waldo Says:

    'Letting him die wouldn’t change that, though' ` mmm, debatable. I'm sure there's an org. somewhere who could put your $400 to very good use.

    http://www.hollows.org/

    Also, I think we've crossed a line over the last few decades. Anthropomorphism is a charming trait in many ways but I detest diamond studded collars for lap dogs.
    And there's lines where logic should be brought into play. $400 for a rat x-ray or 15 people having their sight restored to for the same cost? mmmm….

  15. Ed Says:

    You know what else that logic could be applied to? Everything. Everything you spend money on. So the next time you spend money on clothes or a restaurant meal or, you know, ANYTHING, be sure to lay a guilt trip on yourself for not giving the money to hollows.org.

    Let's inventory your possessions and see where the logic lines should be brought into play. How about this: I keep my rat. You keep your record player and shelves full of books and all the other shit you don't need that you bought instead of saving the vision of the poor.

    Unless you're living in an empty apartment making that comment on a borrowed laptop, I think I see a flaw in your argument,

  16. kiki Says:

    Who says a person deserves care more than a rat? Or any animal for that matter. I've made the argument before and I'll make it again: animals do not have the capacity for evil. That in itself makes them superior to humans. And that is not anthropomorphism, it's just a fact.

  17. Prudence Says:

    Meh, it's your rat and your money. It's not as if you're starving your kid to feed your rat, which is, essentially, what I think the GOP are doing by blocking any and all meaningful healthcare reform.

    I'm sorry the Republicans and their numpty followers can't see the benefit to themselves and society as a whole of universal healthcare, but that is not your fault. I think the greatest argument for universal healthcare is getting those loons back on, or on to begin with, their meds.

  18. Prudence Says:

    Also, Kiki, I think my mother's now-defunct cat's behaviour might proffer a decent ripost to the "animals can't be evil" theorum.

  19. Ecks Says:

    Animals might not be evil, but by that measure they're never good either. And as Prudence says, sometimes they're just out and out bastards.

    No meaningful scoring here folks, keep moving along.

    Anyway, in a civilized world, we don't have to make many of these hard choices because a healthy percent of our income is expropriated from us automatically by a government that solves the worst of the problems, leaving us to guilt free enjoy the rest (with extra charitable giving if we like for good causes we want to support). You're only facing this dilemma because other entities are failing their basic duties to our fellow people.

    Not that this makes anyone feel any better.

  20. Desargues Says:

    The ichneumon wasp paralyses its prey without killing it, then deposits eggs in the motionless body of the victim, so that its larvae will have fresh meet to feed on for the first few days. A real tree-hugger, that wasp. Unlike people, evil to the bone even when they found charities and go into public service, Nasty fuckers.

    Ed, you get to keep your rat, but at Christmas, instead of lavish presents for all and sundry, you should consider a charity or two. Besides, Hollows, there's also Operation Smile.

  21. Ed Says:

    Huh. I don't really see this as a dubious act requiring penance or a morally acceptable counter-expenditure in the future to balance out my karma. I think the fact that you'd let your pet die when the vet bill exceeds your arbitrary cutoff point says a lot more about you as a person than spending $400 on a rat says about me.

    If any of you expect me to believe that if the vet told you your pet needed a $500 operation, you'd go home and give the $500 to Operation Smile instead, you are unequivocally full of shit. Assuming you declined to pay for the procedure, that $500 would be spent on yourself in one form or another.

  22. Desargues Says:

    I didn't mean to imply anything about karma or such things. Maybe I was unclear. I just suggested you ought to give some money to some charitable enterprise (or simply to other people who really needed it) although you are morally permitted to spend 400 bucks on your pet. But you must accompany such major self-regarding gestures with some altruistic reaching out. Otherwise, you're taking the first steps on the path to Leona Helmsleyhood.

    As to the cutoff line — of course there is one. I sure hope you have one, too; you don't mean to say you'd beg, borrow or steal to heal your pet rat, no matter the cost. As to its being 'arbitrary,' we need better care with words here. It's not a cutoff line discoverable by some computer algorithm or other automated decision procedure. But then nothing is, in the sphere of human affairs. That being said, not all cutoff lines are equally justified by good arguments. 400 dollars on your present salary and family situation is quite justifiable. 14,000 bucks from an assistant professor with a wife and two kids is irresponsible; and to say that 400 is 'arbitrary' is no justification for spending 14 grand on an animal.

  23. Penny Says:

    I regularly spend utter boatloads of money on my animals, and I sleep very well at night. I do what I can to help the humans around me, and I chose to not have kids, so I have done a great service to the planet at large.

    And I pay my vet's electric bill every month. It's a win/win.

    Carry on with your furry friends. There are way worse ways to spend your money, and you're clearly a person of conscience. I find it hard to believe that the people in your sphere are worse off because of your presence, so don't beat yourself up.

  24. j Says:

    …I could have done some real nice experiments on that rat….
    j/k

  25. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Penny – I'm with you. No kids here either. More money for the animals and they, quite frankly, deserve it very much.

    Ed – Right on with your karma post. I really tire quickly with the 'don't spend money on animals and instead donate to charity bitchez' moral argument. It's a well that dries up very quickly because its never executed as such in practice. Afterall, those of us who were against the Iraq War from the get-go have a very strong argument for about a trillion dollars that could have gone to Operation Smile and the like. But the majority of the general public and our dearly serious foreign policy community and President Chimpy all decided killing brown people was more worthwile. (not that the trillion would have gone to anythin good without the war, but again, i'm just saying.)

    Keith – Are you sure? Because if you are wrong, the animal is dead and there is no CTRL+Z for dead. I tend to err on the side of "my animal probably would want to live, if he/she could understand the consequences and was given the choice." It might be easier to not have to deal with chronic illness, both emotionally and financially. And it can be good comfort to yourself if you keep telling yourself you "did the right thing," but there is no way to know what the animal would want because they lack the capacity for truly understanding the situation, which is why we act on their behalf as their health advocates in the first place. And I will always err on the side of life, because death is absolutely permanent.

  26. Penny Says:

    Parrotlover77 – amen on the childfree stance. My openly gay cousin was very surprised when I told him recently that I really appreciated his (and other gay relatives') help with getting MY lifestyle accepted by other family members. My Mom, especially, could not understand how on EARTH I could ever be happy without children. Choosing to not have kids was literally as foreign a concept to her as homosexuality. She eventually came to be a peace with it. Sort of. I was 46 when she passed away, and the Fertility Boat was just a dot on the horizon, but she still mentioned occasionally that it, "wasn't too late." ;-) It was "too late" when I was 12 and had my first babysitting job! ;-)

    I do agree with Keith on the matter of euthanasia. I think the big question is quality of life, and only the person/people who know the animal best can make that determination. My husband and I have a cat who has been in renal failure for almost 11 years. (That is VERY atypical…my vet stopped telling newly-diagnosed renal cat people about us years ago. He doesn't want to get their hopes up to an unrealistic level.) In addition to the benign tumors he has in his kidneys, he also is prone to developing stones in his bladder. About 10 years ago we spent an utter ton of money on surgery to clean out his bladder; we did not cross the line of torturing him in order to keep him with us, but we did skate right up to that bastard. He recovered and has done very well in the decade since. The surgery was very hard on him, but he recovered well. If there's a reasonable chance of a good quality of life after treatment, that's a huge consideration. In the case of something like cancer, where surgery and painful treatments aren't going to "cure" anything and might likely make the animal's last few weeks truly hellish…no. I can't get on board with that.

    The matter of giving our renal cat sub-cutaneous fluids twice a day is a great example of the "quality of life" issue: He tolerates it beautifully. (It acts as an extremely low-tech version of kidney dialysis, basically.) He is perfectly calm when I stick him with huge needles twice a day, and frankly doesn't seem to even mind it. We have another cat who is in renal failure who Will. Not. Tolerate. It. So, fine. We don't make her do it. She's going to die way, WAY faster because of it, but…her remaining months will be happy and content.

    It's a call that only the people who know the animal best can make, but yes…I am huge proponent of euthanasia. It's wrong to let an animal suffer.