West London Humanists and Secularists

"Ethical Jury - Grandmother's Cat"     20/09/12

This Ethical Jury was "facilitated" by Richard Veryard. Fifteen people were present in total. This included Matt Power from AHS (the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies), who is evaluating the possibility of running ethical juries in student groups, and Matthew Engelke an anthropologist from LSE who attended as part of his research project into Humanists.

The procedure followed was to encourage all the audience to contribute their views and reasoning in their own way. These views were analysed & recorded by Richard on flip charts. At a final stage all were invited to identify the principles involved. This report presents the principles which are thought to have guided the jury's reasoning and the objectives deriving from them which should more precisely guide action in this case. It shows how these map to the suggested actions in the expressed viewpoints and also where certain skills may be relevant.

The Dilemma
Of five topics suggested by those present, one was chosen by a majority of 9 to 3. A lady (G) suffers from asthma, which her grandson (S) believes is significantly exacerbated by her pet cat. Should he try to persuade her to part with the cat?

Other background information of potential significance
G is an 84-year-old widow of sound mind, living alone. Asthma is common in the family and other members, notably S, have benefitted considerably from the departure of cats from their households. The current pet is quite young and very central to G's life - to a rather irrational extent in S's opinion. G has only recently and reluctantly accepted the diagnosis of asthma. She has also been suffering recently from a number of other illnesses such as arthritis which limit her previously active quality of life. An aunt would be willing to offer the cat a home, but nobody has raised the topic with G as it is thought that she would be distressed even by the suggestion.

Principles with possible relevance
P1: Acceptance of the autonomy of others (in the case of adults of sound mind). (Possibly related to Kant's "Categorical Imperative" to treat others as ends in themselves?)
P2: Kindness, least harm
P3: Integrity/appropriate honesty
P4: Courage
P5: Family obligation
P6: Avoid that which engenders feelings of guilt

Relevant skills
(Note: a previous Jury found that the choice of action can depend on skills as well as ethical principles)
S1: Psychological/medical judgement in recognizing the best interests of others
S2: Diplomacy in raising sensitive issues

Objectives - arising from the application of the principles & skills.
(Note: P5, P6 can apply in every case)
O1: Maximising G's physical quality of life (P2, S1)
O2: Maximising G's mental quality of life (P2, S1)
O3: Accepting G's autonomy (P1)
O4: Maintaining a good (honest, open) relationship with G (P3, P4, S2).

Actions - urged or at least hypothetically mooted by different members of the audience
These were recorded on the flip chart on two different axes: the degree of intervention and the role of S as against G's GP. (See Richard's second "Additional Comment" at the end.)
Degree of intervention:

  • Others should leave well alone in any event, it's a matter for G alone (O3).
  • Others should leave well alone because the mental harm from the loss of the pet is likely to outweigh the physical benefit (O2, S1).
  • S should tell G that he is worried about the effect of the cat without any suggestion as to what to do about it. (For the sake of frankness, O4, and to show S's concern, O2)
  • The family should talk about ways of reducing the impact of the cat, such as special vacuum cleaners (O1, O4) or perhaps living in less lonely circumstances where a cat might be parted from more easily (O1, O2, O4)
  • The family should explain the medical case for removing the cat and convey the offer of a home with S's aunt (O1, O4)
  • Somebody could remove the cat secretly without admitting to it (O1) - though this might result in her getting another cat
Role of S/family vs G's GP:
  • Involving G's GP is passing the buck (O4, P4)
  • Her GP should be asked to raise the subject as it would be less distressing coming from this source (O2, O1, S2)
  • Her GP is the best person to make an objective judgement of the balance of G's mental and physical welfare, so leave it to him/her (O1+O2, S1).
It is not clear whether the Secular Ethics project benefits from a "vote", and in any case it was not clear how to conduct it given the 2-dimensional nature of the suggested actions, so none was taken. S commented that nothing had been said that would persuade him to change his current policy of non-intervention. This reporter's assessment is that most in the room would agree with this conclusion as regards the course to follow, but for a number of different reasons - some because of the autonomy argument, some because they gave more weight given to mental welfare, some because they would place more trust in the GP's judgement .

Roger Haines September 2012

Additional Comments
Matthew Engelke
Matthew commented that the dilemma chosen revealed "a surprisingly rich vein of moral issues, with feelings as well as rationality."

Richard Veryard
Comment 1 Omissions from procedure
Ethical Jury reports should include a critical paragraph - what did we omit, what might we include next time. [For example] I think there needs to be an explicit step in the process for generalization and reflection. Having discussed granny's cat and extracted some principles and policies, what other situations would these principles and policies apply to? (This is not the same as reflecting on the group process.)
Comment 2 Intervention Scenario Analysis
My idea about the two axes of intervention were that they represented force (how much - nudge versus coercion) and locus (who intervenes where). In this particular example, the main choice of locus was between the family and the GP. This is of course linked to the different types of knowledge/skills that are available to the family and the GP respectively, as well as emotional proximity. There are of course various possibilities for collaboration between family and GP.
The general principle here is that the selection of an appropriate intervention includes consideration of force and locus. Collaboration sometimes means that one agent designs an intervention, but another agent carries it out. (The GP prescribes treatment, the nurse or the patient herself carries it out.) Obviously there are infinitely many permutations.
In the example we chose to explore, the primary choice was whether to do anything at all, and if so what. Elsewhere one is faced with a choice between two or more positive actions. For example, once one has been asked to stand bail, there are several possible responses: agree, persuade someone else, decline, or pretend not to have received the message - but these all involve a positive moral choice, none of them can be regarded as doing nothing.
Comment 3 Reliability of Dilemma's "Facts"
I might also note that we largely accepted Matt's description of the situation. In other situations. the facts themselves might be more uncertain or open to alternative interpretations, and this might require the ethical jury to follow a more elaborate procedure.