The Ethical Philosophy Of Trap-Neuter-Return
The philosophy of animal rights can be a great source of guidance in the world of animal advocacy, but sometimes people interpret philosophical teachings differently. Some philosophers argue that spaying/neutering an animal is morally wrong because it harms one animal to prevent harm to another. This violates the animal’s right to respect and is therefore not moral. However, in this study, the author offers a different perspective on animal rights philosophy, and shows us that spaying/neutering cats may actually be justified and even morally necessary. She uses trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs as her primary example.
According to philosophers, all animals (human and non-human) have inherent and equal value. They also define something called “the respect principle,” which says that all beings with inherent value must be respected. This means that, we have a moral duty to treat animals with respect, and there are two ways we can violate the respect principle and fail in our duty: one is if we treat an animal as a “mere receptacle” whose value is solely based on how we treat and use him/her. In other words, it’s morally wrong if we use many people’s enjoyment of an animal’s suffering as a reason to allow the suffering to continue (the author uses rodeos as an example). The second way we fail is by treating animals as resources, like farmed animals.
So, does spaying/neutering a cat violate the respect principle? What about TNR programs? The author says no. TNR programs are a popular alternative to mass euthanasia because its advocates acknowledge the fact that these cats’ lives have value. Yes, the act of spay/neuter could be seen as a form of harm but it doesn’t violate the respect principle because the cats are not being treated as receptacles or resources. Not every “harm” is a violation of an animal’s rights, and we can also look at the harmer’s attitude and reasoning to determine if he/she is morally right or wrong.
With this in mind, we can begin to think more critically about how the animal rights philosophy justifies TNR programs. The respect principle forbids trade-offs where one animal is greatly harmed in order to avoid other animals from lesser harm. But, it doesn’t forbid lesser harm to some animals in order to prevent greater harm to others. This is what TNR is: we spay/neuter (lesser harm) some cats so that we can seriously reduce overpopulation and its associated problems (greater harm) of famine, illness, homelessness, and death — which includes euthanasia of companion cats due to overfilled animal shelters. Based on this view, we can say with confidence that TNR programs don’t violate the respect principle. However, there are other considerations.
In animal rights philosophy, there are situations where a living being will be harmed no matter what we decide to do (including if we decide to do nothing). These are called prevention cases, and philosophers use the worse-off principle to figure out which choice is the most morally right. This principle says we should always choose to prevent greater suffering, even if that means others will lightly suffer. The problem of cat overpopulation and the ways homeless/feral cats contribute to it can definitely be considered a prevention case. If we do nothing, these cats will continue to reproduce and experience greater harm through the overpopulation problems mentioned earlier. If we intervene with TNR, we are preventing this greater harm through the lesser harm of spay/neuter. When we follow the worse-off principle, TNR is the morally right choice. This also acknowledges that the process of TNR can be scary and stressful for cats, since they are transported to an unknown environment and may feel discomfort while the procedure’s anesthesia wears off. Even with these serious harms in mind, it’s still better to submit these cats to TNR because it helps them avoid death, the ultimate harm.
Let’s introduce two more concepts of animal rights philosophy: basic rights and peripheral interests. Basic rights allow us to merely live and include the rights to life, body, and liberty. On the other hand, peripheral interests allow us to enjoy life. When we spay/neuter a cat, we aren’t violating any of its basic rights, and he/she will still be able to thrive through peripheral interests. It’s possible that cats enjoy reproducing and taking care of offspring, but this would fall under the peripheral interest category and be less important than preventing many other cats having their basic rights violated due to the consequences of overpopulation.
It’s clear that animal rights philosophy can support TNR programs, but some people might wonder if these philosophical concepts justify the use of animals in biomedical research. The respect principle tells us the answer is no because laboratory animals are treated as renewable resources, which is a violation of their rights to respect. The author concludes that only in very specific and limited circumstances can these concepts morally justify performing biomedical research on animals.
It’s reassuring to know that spaying/neutering cats and TNR programs are morally justifiable through philosophy. We already know that these actions have a positive effect on cat overpopulation, and that some advocates still debate about how ethical TNR programs are. As we all navigate the complex world of animal advocacy together, it’s helpful to have resources like philosophy to give us guidance and ideas. When we take the time to think critically about our advocacy and actions, we can then learn how to better serve animals.